“Notes from Western Ave” by Maxine Farkas

John Greenwald by Ashlee Welz Xmith

Maxine Farkas shares some thoughts from Western Ave in Lowell:

For some reason I have been thinking of John Greenwald a lot lately. Perhaps it is because we have grown so much in the past year and a half; there are more artists here now who never knew John than those who did and they don’t know what we lost when we lost John. So I am writing not only for this blog, but for all of those who never had the opportunity to know him.

At one time John was the Sunday editor of the Lowell Sun, then he headed down to DC to what had to have been a dream job . . . but it was in DC that he was hit with the first of a series of physical set backs that would eventually take him from us. Meningitis felled him first, and he woke from a three week coma physically devastated . . . that is when John and his wife Rita Lipman came back to Lowell. Kidney failure led to dialysis and during the last 12 years of his life leukemia was a constant companion. Through out it all he never let illness interfere with his passion for art, for film, for the artists of Lowell or his love for his wife.

John was a big guy, with a presence that could not be ignored. I first met him when he was a volunteer at the Brush, he would plant himself at the desk with his lunch and a stack of New York newspapers, happy to chat with whomever came through the door . . . and around 3 pm one of us would go and gently prod him awake from his sub induced snooze. During figure drawing sessions he loved to do quick gestural drawings demanding fast poses that were the despair of those who couldn’t work with quite the speed that was his regular pace.

His studio was across the hall from mine the first year we were at Western Ave. I wish now that someone had recorded the conversations he had with his models during drawing sessions . . . they were wide ranging and often fascinating to eavesdrop on . . . art, music, film, politics . . . his curiosity was voracious, his reading wide and deep.

One year I got to curate an artist book exhibit at the 119 Gallery. John used to order these small accordion fold books, I think a place in Montreal would send them down for him. They would open 6 to 10 feet and John would gradually fill them, doing a sketch here and one there until when opened the drawings danced along the pages in a continuous reel.

John was a tireless, if less than tactful, advocate for the artists of Lowell. For a while he wrote art criticism for the Lowell Sun. He was a founding member of the Arts League of Lowell and one of the first artists to rent studio space at Western Ave. His support made the creation of the Loading Dock Gallery at Western Ave. possible and he was the anonymous donor that made First Saturday Open Studios advertising a regular feature in the Lowell Sun.

The year before he died I got to curate a solo exhibit of his work, he called the show Nudes of the World, a private joke shared by many. It was wonderful to be able to watch John interact with everyone at the opening, to see him surprised by positive commentary and to enjoy the pleasure he took in the evening.

John lost his battle with leukemia in July of 2010. When the call came that he was gone, no one quite believed it. It seemed incomprehensible that we would never hear his laugh again, never get sucked into an argument or listen to him expound on the state of the world.

Anne Cavanaugh and I spent a chunk of time that year helping Rita close his studio by documenting and packing all of the artwork, hundreds of drawings on paper, dozens of paintings on panel, new accordion books I had never seen . . . much of which had been done at Western Ave.

When John’s studio was still up on the 5th floor he painted his door with a larger than life rather abstract nude and when he negotiated for a larger studio space on the soon to be built out 2nd floor he brought the door with him. After he died we moved the door to a room on the 2nd floor of the A Mill, it is there now, with a portrait of John by Ashlee Welz Smith and a self portrait that he did.

If you come to Western Ave., do walk the 2nd floor hallway in the A Mill and pay your regards to John!

10 Responses to “Notes from Western Ave” by Maxine Farkas

  1. Jack Moynihan says:

    Very nicely written Maxine. I never really knew John personally, but got to know of him primarily through my friend Anne Cavanaugh. She and other artists raved about his positive influences. Thank you for remembering him in this way,

  2. Maxine says:

    A minor correction from Nancye Tuttle, John went to Waterbury CT from Lowell, not to DC. No idea why DC got lodged in my memory like that.

  3. PaulM says:

    Maxine, These posts about the life and legend of Western Avenue Studios are just what the history doctor ordered for recording the history going on right now. Thanks for contributing to the narrative. John Greenwald was a force. Good to remember him. There are a thousand stories at WAS. Keep ‘em coming. As a rule, the activists in the city should be more self-conscious about telling their stories and chronicling their experiences. Lowell has a lot more to tell, and the more rich the narrative becomes, the more attention will be paid to this special community.

  4. PaulM says:

    When I write “self conscious,” I mean it in a positive way, a pro-active way . . . . conscious of what we are doing and conscious enough to make a record of it . . .

  5. Sharon Sawyer says:

    What a great piece you’ve written about John, Maxine! Abby and I talk about John often. When I was teaching drawing to teenagers in the studio during the evenings, John would often come over and chat with the kids, critique their work (kindly but honestly) and talk to them about life and art. The best thing was, he always took them seriously and talked to them as equals, not as kids. He always stopped in and invited them in to look at his work and talk about what he was doing. John was a really special guy, a central figure in Lowell’s arts community, and we really miss him still.

  6. Maxine says:

    Thanks Paul! I’ve been stashing WAS stories on my computer for a long time . . . really happy that I finally have an opportunity to share!

  7. Frank says:

    I really enjoyed reading this Max. Thank you :) I often think of John and his days at WAS. I can certainly say conversations with him helped my with my work and how I look at what I create. I appreciate seeing at Ashlee’s painting of him outside the LDG. I miss speaking with him and his presence at the studios.

  8. Chrissy Theo Hungate says:

    It is nice to be reminded of John by his picture near Loading Dock and through your writing here. It is so amazing when someone truly finds a way to foster their passion and keep it a priority in spite of the other garbage life can throws their way. He was a great roll model, and giver. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Martha says:

    I first met John Greenwald shortly after he began working at the Lowell Sun as the Sunday Editor. He wondered into the Center for Lowell History one mid-morning, he left hours later, after a long conversation on Lowell history, cultural, art, and online public access to Lowell history, cultural, and art. After that initial visit, until he became sick, once every couple of weeks John would drop in – I felt we became collaborators and friends.

    Of the many conversations we had about ideas for Lowell Sun stories – the most memorable was John’s discussion of Lowell’s unusual, somewhat affectionate, nomenclature and hierarchy for those living in Lowell: Lowellians and Blow-Ins.

    He suggested a new category which would embrace himself and other like him – Cultural Immigrants.

    Shortly, thereafter on WCAP John McDonough added another category – Blow-Throughs, maybe not as affectionate.

    The List and its hierarchy:

    1. Lowellians
    2. Immigrants
    3. Cultural Immigrants
    4. Blow-Ins
    5. Blow-Throughs

  10. Rita Lipman says:

    Maxine,

    What a lovely piece on my dear sweet husband, who I am very fortunate to have had in my life on a daily basis. My conversations are not nearly as exciting as when I was with John. I was blessed.

    I remember when John came home to Lowell, the first meeting we went to was at the Lowell City Hall. The discussion there was on having artists in Lowell. The discussion among the politicians was – ARTISTS ARE DIRTY, ARTISTS ARE LOUD AND NOISY – THE CITY WOULD BE DIRTY AND NOISY – IT WILL NEVER BE A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE! Well you got to remember, John just got out of a five week coma, and three months of rehab. No, John couldn’t miss this meeting. He struggled getting to the city hall as I remember.
    We found a seat at the meeting. We sat quietly.
    You must remember John could hardly walk or stand for that matter. John was wearing those crutches that you slip on your arms and walk with.

    Hearing them spout about artists – as though they were going to spread the plague, John struggling with his legs and crutches –with all his strength (me watching his face turning red) — shouts — “What is this Stalinism!” The room became silent. The know it all politicians didn’t make a peep. Then John talked about artists — THE BENEFITS –by having them apart of the Lowell Community. That was really the beginning of the ART IN LOWELL. It was quite a speech — it was a HAPPENING! The fall of 1998.
    Thank you, Maxine for bringing back that wonderful memory. I know John is very happy to know he made a difference in the City of Lowell.

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