Portfolio — From the August 2016 issue

A Sigh and a Salute

An appreciation of Si Lewen and his Parade

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Si Lewen’s ghost is hanging in my studio — or, more accurately, I should say that one of Si Lewen’s “Ghosts” hangs there. The artist painted about two hundred of these haunted and haunting figures in a series he began in 2008. He gave me my “Ghost” the first time we met, at his rest-home condo near Philadelphia back in the spring of 2013. Si was ninety-four years old then, a dynamo: a charming and elfin man, frail but bubbling with enthusiasm, wry humor, and unorthodox opinions. He spent his long days in the small second bedroom of his apartment — he had turned it into a fully functioning, miniature-size painter’s atelier — working on his canvases, as he had most of his life.

Self-portrait by Si Lewen, 1984 (detail)

Self-portrait by Si Lewen, 1984 (detail)

I asked if he had any friends who lived at the facility, and he waved me off. “Nah! They’re all too old for me — ghosts! Besides, I was always a loner.” In his German-inflected English, he went on to say, “You know what keeps me going, Art? CURIOSITY! I want to find out what I’m going to paint tomorrow!”

I heard that line often in our subsequent phone conversations, though since early 2014, he has slowed down considerably. Instead of telling me that every morning, between sleeping and wakefulness, ideas for paintings would start clamoring for his attention, he has begun reporting that when he wakes up it takes him quite a while to figure out if he is still here or has already died. He is an atheist — the son of a highly regarded atheist Yiddish writer and a mother who was the direct descendant of a famous Hasidic wonder rabbi, the Seer of Lublin — but Si is the most God-fearing atheist I’ve ever met.

He had been aware of graphic novels and my work before we knew each other, and in 2011 he talked about the form at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, at an exhibition of drawings from A Journey, a story in pictures that he drew in the 1960s. He has continually tried to convince me to become a painter, since “comic books don’t last, but a painting can be seen and appreciated forever, for centuries after it’s painted!”

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is the author of Maus. His essay “To Laugh That We May Not Weep” appeared in the January 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This essay is an excerpt from his introduction to Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey, which will be published in October by Abrams ComicArts.

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