Jack Byer | September, 2011 | ICON
One of the greatest delights to be discovered in the wonderfully funky town of Jim Thorpe is to be found in an old wire factory, circa 1850, that braided steel cable for the Brooklyn Bridge. There, in this 15,000 square-foot historic stone building that moldered through years of decay, Victor Stabin, and his muse and wife, Joan Morykin, are creating a dynamic cultural center that promises to become a major East Coast art destination.
Recently, The Washington Post, referred to it as a “completely contemporary center [which] feels urban enough to be in New York or London.” It includes several galleries, workshops, conference room, shop and a restaurant with a creek running through it. There is farm-to-table, organic cuisine. And in the near future there will be a flexible theater that can be used for performances, cabaret, juried art shows, and so forth. Apparently, the great building can even talk. “Sometimes,” the couple told me when I met them for this interview, “we feel as if our building talks to us, telling us to do this, then to do that.”
Victor Stabin is an artist, author, illustrator and master doodler. His wife is a restaurateur. Before turning to painting exclusively, Stabin was a celebrated illustrator, whose work includes a number of magnificent commemorative stamps for the United States Postal Service, an enormous mural for RCA/BMG’s corporate headquarters in New York, illustrations for the New York Times, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and Time magazines, and dozens of book and record covers, including the collectible Kiss "Unmasked" album.
Joan, the former Director of Internet Systems Development for Reuters in New York City, supervises the restaurant Flow.
Jack Byer: You’re both New Yorkers. I can’t imagine you ever thought you’d be making a life here in Jim Thorpe.
Victor Stabin: [Laughing] You know that Woody Allen quote: “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,”
Joan Morykin: I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and the very last thing I ever thought I would do after graduating from college was live in a small town in Pennsylvania-I spent time abroad, lived in Washington, D.C. and then moved to New York City. A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that my high school yearbook even says, “Joan dislikes small lunch portions and small town attitudes.”
JB: You grew up very close to here in the Lehigh Valley in the Penn Argyl School District.
JM: And I have to admit that I never visited Jim Thorpe until after I was living and working in New York City. There was always a big line of demarcation between the Valley and Carbon County and as a kid in high school I always tended to be drawn south or east. We used to spend a lot of time at Lehigh University, which interestingly enough was founded by Asa Packer, Jim Thorpe’s millionaire industrialist who built the stone row house I first bought here as a weekend retreat from New York City.
JB: Victor, your move to Jim Thorpe was one of the major life changes you made after beating a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
VS: Eight months after I married my first wife, I got cancer. My oncologist told me he had never seen this kind of cancer in adults. I was treated for two years with Leukemia drugs that were normally used for children. After I got my last shot of chemo, the doctor gave me a 99 percent chance of survival. I got home and my wife said, “Oh, you’re cured. I’m leaving.” I realized that life is short, and I wasn’t going to mourn. I was going to make the most of my time. I decided to give up illustration and concentrate on my own art. I said I can’t afford not to take this chance anymore. If not now, when.
JB: And then you and Joan met.
JM: On a very hot day in June of 2001 in New York City. I had been invited to a barbecue, but I had just come back from an Uncle’s funeral and I didn’t feel like dealing with people. But my girl friend, who was also going to the party, was insistent. When I first saw Victor he was standing in the street telling terrible jokes and wearing pink socks, long red shorts, and wearing a shirt with the words “Russian baths” written in Cyrillic script.
Interesting enough, five days before, I had ended a long term relationship and five days before that, Victor’s wife had left him. So we wound up almost joking about this coincidence.
VS: Four months after I met Joan, while I was still in the process of being divorced, I proposed to her. We found out she was pregnant with Skyler one month later. Folklore has it that Skyler was conceived on the day I proposed. So Skyler came to our wedding at the Brooklyn Court house.
JM: And sixteen months later, Arielle was born.
VS: I had been told that because of the chemo I was completely sterile and might be for ten years and maybe forever. So before my treatment for cancer, I put sperm in a sperm bank in case I wanted children one day. But I never had to use it.
JB: You have portraits of Joan and Christy, your first wife, hanging side by side in the gallery.
VS: Like the other fifteen paintings in my Turtle Series, they’re very personal paintings. What drives my painting is what is happening in my life. Get rid of my paintings and you get rid of my life. I see Christy’s portrait as the divorce painting. I got married in my forties to Christy, who was twenty years younger than I. For the last few months of our relationship, she would come home every day and pick up the little red slider turtle I had as a pet, say, “Hi, Tom,” give the turtle a kiss, put it back in the cage, and walk by me. I just thought, “Boy, she really loves that turtle.” I didn’t realize how much she didn’t love me. So I did a painting of her holding this pillow, which became the turtle, which I made much larger. I titled it, “Christy and Tom.”
JB: Quite a contrast to Joan’s portrait.
VS: I wanted to do a painting of Joan when she was pregnant. We went to a friend’s pool, and I tied a ten-pound weight to myself with a belt so I could float down, and I got a ten-dollar camera from a pharmacy for taking underwater pictures, and I took these pictures of her in the pool. Three days later she gave birth. It was perfect timing.
JB: Joan, how do you feel about the portraits displayed side by side?
JM: I actually appreciate the contrast. There’s great sadness in Christy as she embraces the turtle. Something is definitely at the end. Her eyes are closed and she looks downward. The background is dark. The few plants are wilting. And then next to it is the painting of me that Victor calls “My Madonna.” There’s just the shadow of the little turtle cast on my pregnant belly. I see the turtle as an emblem of longevity, femininity, water and the future child.
VS: [Laughing] And your eyes are wide open. Whenever we have an argument, I can say to Joan, “Well, your eyes were open at the time.”
JB: And yet you’ve connected the paintings in this series to your concern for the environment.
VS: We’re so disconnected from nature and animals. It’s like being disconnected from an important part of ourselves. Anyway, I was at the Assateague National Seashore in Virginia and came across the Endangered Species Chocolate Bar, which is intended to spread awareness of all the plant and animal species disappearing from the earth.
JB: “Savor chocolate. Save our planet.”
VS: That’s the one. It has a turtle on it, and I just thought this is how I’ll connect my work to the environment. So I’m giving a percentage of the profits from the sale of prints of the Turtle paintings to environmentally-conscious organizations. My goal is to connect with all the different Sierra Club type places and have them show my work and fund them through the sale of my work.
JB: Victor, you’re now forty-seven and your daughters Arielle and Skyler are eight and nine respectively. How do you feel about having children late in life?
VS: Having children has opened up my life in ways that were impossible for me to imagine. I love their delight with everything. When the kids were four and five, they’d run into our rom after they bathed, all clean and shiny, and jump up and down on the bed. Nobody could have been happier than those two kids. I’ve turned that memory into a painting which I think in my magnum opus.
JB: The kids appear in much of your art. I’m especially taken with the painting of eighteen-month-old Skyler looking at an ABC art book. The pages are flipped to the letters “P”, “R” and “S” and you’ve copied paintings by Picasso, Rosseau and Sargent. There’s an abstract painting of a turtle shell behind her. And the floor she sits on seems like a Jackson Pollack painting.
VS: The hardest thing in that painting was copying Pollack. The section took me two weeks. Joan walked into my studio crying. She said, “How are you going to earn a living if you keep on repainting the same thing.” Pollack threw it down; I actually rendered it.
JB: Her foot seems to be touching a puddle of red paint.
VS: It’s touching a print of my Chuck Taylor sneaker print, which I left when my shoe stepped in a puddle of red paint. Her foot to my toe. It’s an art reference to Michelangelo connecting Adam to God and maybe a father’s hope that one of his kids might become a painter.
JM: We’ve given the kids their own Dynasty Gallery where they hang and sell their own work. Interestingly, the girls are left-handed like Victor. They have a two-sided easel in Victor’s studio. They both paint on either side at the same time.
JB: So how are their sales?
VS: [Laughter] The girls sell more prints than most seven and eight-year-olds. The prints they sell remain on he wall and the ones that don’t sell are replaced with new ones. They are very possessive of the space and will not allow other artists to show in their gallery. [Laughter]
JB: Tell me about the Daedal Doodle book, your ABC book for kids and adults, which they inspired. What is a “daedal doodle” anyway?
VS: “Daedal” is defined as something that is “ingeniously formed, skillful and artistic.” It comes from the mythic Greek artist and inventor, Daedalus, builder of the Labyrinth. So a daedal doodle is a cleverly and skillfully wrought drawing.
JB: Which you’ve drawn to match some inscrutable and hilarious combination of words. Like “K” is for “Kaonic Karakul,” and “W” is for “Woubit’s Whigmaleerie.”
VS: Inscrutable to adults, but not to children, they’re simply new words to absorb. Kids will sponge up anything. Just give them a chance.
JM: When Skyler was two years old, Victor taught her how to say, “My daddy is a megalomaniac.” I was horrified. But Victor thought it was funny coming out of a two-year-old’s mouth.
VS: But to this day she knows what the word means and at three years old, she knew what a lepidopterist was and she knew how to spell it.
JB: You must have poured over the OED for months. [Weighing 137 pounds, the Oxford English Dictionary is the dictionary to end all dictionaries because it includes the derivations of words.]
VS: I read the OED the Chambers English Dictionary, and a Webster’s that my Dad bought me when I was four. I read every page of those dictionaries, one letter at a time and came up with adjectives and nouns that lent themselves to narratives and making these pictures. I got depressed when I finished. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
JM: The National Endowment for the Arts gave Victor a grant to go into one of the local schools and talk to 8th graders about the process of putting the Daedal Doodle book together and the connection of words and ideas.
VS: The kids came up with alliterations as good as mine. Society is trimming art educations budgets, so the curriculum I came up with directly blended language skills with drawing conceptually. I felt I was putting art and conceptual thinking back in play via English, besides encouraging a curiosity for the dictionary.
JB: The Oxford English Dictionary added a new word a few years ago: locavores. It means those committed to food grown in home gardens or produced locally by groups interested in keeping the environment as clean as possible. Ties in with the values of our restaurant, Joan.
JM: Absolutely. My father was one of ten children. His parents, who came from the Ukraine, wound up buying this big farm and raising all of their ten children through the Depression on the farm. What eventually happened is that some of the children subdivided the land and built homes on the farmland. So I grew up in this massive extended family. Everybody had a garden. We didn’t have to farm for a living, but it was something my father always did from the time he was a little five-year-old behind the horses plowing the fields. He actually wound up working for the railroads for over forty years. We were never a family that would go away for two weeks to the beach for vacation. When my dad had vacations, he was just farming the land. It was just ingrained in him. So we always had amazing vegetables in the summer. We had heirloom tomatoes that were heirlooms in our family before the term really meant anything. My family still saves the sees of the tomato every year.
JB: And years ago, Victor was bartering art for free restaurant meals.
VS: Where did you ever hear about that?
JB: You were mentioned in a 1986 piece in New York magazine called “Eat Your Art Out” about artists in New York who bartered their art for free restaurant meals.
VS: [Laughter] I was doing that for a while when I was a kid. There was a Japanese restaurant in the village that was happy to get art on their walls. I could show up with a date and get a meal. It was a sort of fun thing to do.