Pearl Paint on Canal Street in NYC was the artists’ Mecca for eighty years, with its assemblage of tumbledown warehouses and 1820s townhouses, selling every sort of paint and brush and picture album and canvas-stretching doodad in the Known World.
When it closed in 2014, people were left bereft. Where now to buy your non-repro blue pencils and comic-strip boards and Prat portfolio books?
It’s a good bet you won’t find them at the Art Students League’s dinky shop, which is just past their main entrance hall on West 57th Street. That place is about as big as a suburban bathroom, and it satisfies that immortal precept of Paul Fussell in Class: If everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it!
This wasn’t much of a worry when Pearl closed, way downtown. For we still had, right there, across the street, the sumptuous and eternal emporium called Lee’s.
Lee’s Art Shop lived in a late-1800s building with Art Nouveau ornamentation, a structure that was originally designed as a companion piece to the Art Students League across the street. When it went up, West 57th Street was artist-land, full of new blocks of luxury flats designed with high windows for painters’ and sculptors’ needs. You can still see some of these, in the older buildings, on 57th between Sixth Avenue and Broadway.
Lee’s Art Shop was a veritable Empire of Creativity. If you didn’t have any idea of what you wanted to do, a stroll through Lee’s might give you a dozen. Eddie Salveri would tell you about lightboxes and airbrushes and hi-fashion lighting, and Hector the Chilean Board-Master in the back of the store would advise you on the finer points of FomCor and basswood and cold-press vs. hot-press illustration board.
Then there was the tall guy in the frame section out in front. He looked like Christopher Walken. I once saw him in an animated conversation with seated comedian Al Franken, who was getting something framed (I guess), and suddenly asked, as in a non sequitur, “Anyone ever tell you, uh, you look like Christopher Walken?”
And the frame man went, “Naaooo!”
For a while Lee’s spread out to other buildings in the neighborhoods, with retail shops dedicated to lighting and furniture. Then the chill came, the extremities dropped off, only the main store was left, and it had fewer and fewer and fewer seasoned experts. I’d show my 20% off discount card, the one I’d been carrying about for 30 years, and the wench at the cash register would be totally baffled, having never seen such a thing before. Well, she’d been there less than a year, what do you expect?
I’d go visit Hector in the back, and he was curt and glum, implying I was trying to butter him up to get some freebies. I think the word had just come down that Lee’s was going to close.
As Lee’s did, sometime in 2016. As with Pearl, I stocked up heartily on discounted drawing pads, inks, paints, brushes and other supplies that mainly remain unopened in the drawers of my armoire.
As of today, the Lee’s building is still untenanted. To which I say: Karma is a bitch.
Author: Ian Stuart Dowdy
Ian Ambrose Stuart Dowdy is a retired portrait painter and knows quite a bit about art. Today he can be found giving art advice on the steps of the Art Students League, or shopping for new brushes across the street at Lee’s.