Remembering with love & gratitude the incomparable Ilona–Ilona Royce Smithkin–who passed away this weekend at age 101. We first met 7 years ago, when I took this street photo of her in a little park across the street. (I took many photos of her over the years.) I made a print of this picture soon after and gave it to her as a gift. “You took my picture, so now I’m going to make a picture of you,” Ilona told me at once. As I later wrote in my memoir ‘Insomniac City,’ Ilona invited me to come sit for her at her little apartment in the West Village–an afternoon I’ll never forget:
Ilona sat opposite me, our knees nearly touching. She had positioned a stool to the right and in front of her. I rested my left foot on the bottom rung. Ilona studied the crowded shelf to her left and, after some deliberation, chose three pencils and placed them atop the stool. From some other compartment, she selected a single, small sheet of thick paper, about 4 x 6”. She took up a small spiral-bound pad and placed the piece of paper on top.
“Okay, now get comfortable, just relax.” I sat back a little bit.
“No, really relax. Shoulders down.”
“Yes, that will be fine. But you have to take off your glasses. Now, don’t look out the window. You must look at me. I am drawing your eye.”
“You’re drawing my eye?”
“Yes, dear!” She said nothing more. My eye? Just one? I somehow imagined this meant something other than it did.
Ilona picked up a pencil, then studied my face for a long while. I stared into her eyes. Because of her tremor, her body moved slightly, her silver hoop earrings gently swaying. And then she looked down at the paper and began making some marks. She looked back up, staring seriously.
“You don’t need to wear glasses to see well?” I asked.
“No, sometimes for reading at night I use some, but otherwise no. I had cataracts removed seven years ago, and since then, no.”
“How long have you been drawing?” I asked.
Ilona looked up, put down her pencil, and gave me a patient smile then said quite firmly, “I can’t talk while I work. We can talk later. You talk; I want to hear about you. At this moment, you are the most important person in the world.”
I was a little startled and very moved by her words. Truth is, I had been feeling vaguely badly, badly about myself, for several days–a common condition for me. So, to find myself in a small chamber with a very small, very old artist just inches away from me, who was devoting an hour, maybe more, of her limited time entirely to me—well, I was touched. ‘You are the most important person in the world,’ I thought.
“Thank you,” I whispered to her.
“You’re welcome,” Ilona answered cheerfully. “Now, tell me about yourself.”
So I did…..