WOODSTOCK TIMES | November 12, 2012


Maintaining a Legacy. Lily Ente Gallery Lives On

November 22, 2012

The Catalpa tree that shades the late artist Lily Ente’s studio off Tinker Street on the western edge of Woodstock is striking in its size and classic beauty. But so is the garden the sculptor and printmaker started, since continued by her daughter Paulette Esrig, which backs on to the wooded edges of the town’s Comeau Property, including the sledding hill.

“I remember my mother teaching art under that tree,” Esrig says, before recounting a memory Ente had of her friend, the sculptor Louise Nevelson, noting how Lily would never be the artist Nevelson was because of her devotion to her husband and daughter… as well as to a family that never fully understood, or appreciated, her strikingly original abstract work. “At the end of her life we had what amounted to a final talk, as she walked me to the subway station, during which she said, “I don’t know why I didn’t break out.”

Who was Ente? Born Lena Deitchman in the spring of 1905 (the exact date is unknown) in what was then the Russian Empire and is now Ukraine, she spent her childhood moving — first to Rumania, and then Paris and Cuba — en route to the dream that was America. She married a tailor, Lazar Ente, before making it first to the Bronx and then to her own home at the tip of Coney Island. And it wasn’t until the 1940s that she was first introduced to clay by a creative sister…and took to it immediately, obsessively, after which she moved on to wood and, eventually, a variety of ever-more challenging marbles and monoprints.

“Art truly saved her life. She had had a horrific childhood. She had enormous drive,” the daughter continued, remembering her mother at the kitchen table, making art. Then getting her own studio, finding similar self-trained artists to bond with in New York City, starting to show at several New York galleries, and eventually moving to Manhattan where she exhibited with the likes of Nevelson and Bourgeois, Sari Dienes ( a truly wild woman I knew in her later years), and Isamu Noguchi.

Alongside Nevelson and Dienes, the Modernist-influenced Ente became known as one of the “three old ladies of modern sculpture,” according to a new website, put together by her daughter Paulette and husband, designed to take up where her preserved studio/gallery leaves off every time the Esrigs have to return to New York for the autumn, winter and spring. By the 1960s and 1970s, Ente had gallery representation in New York and was showing regularly in museums and arts centers around the world. And following her death in 1984, her works have slowly gained in stature and she’s been the focus of solo and group retrospectives at the Woodstock Artists Association and Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art.

“As a child during the First World War, my life and that of those around me was infected by poverty and ugliness. My response to these experiences was a desire to combat this deprivation with beauty,” Ente eventually wrote. “My choice of marble as a medium was made in part because it challenged me more than clay and I found great joy in the beauty of the natural forms and surfaces I could achieve.”

Paulette Esrig remembers being dragged to galleries and museums as a girl…as well as her father’s undying support for his wife. “He didn’t know what hit him. There was a great love there,” she said. “But as her work grew more abstract over the years it became more of a challenge for him and her family to speak about the art.”

Eventually, Paulette married her husband, Bernard, took up teaching and started her own family. Her mother and father visited Woodstock a couple of times and then bought an old barn and built a studio, heated by wood, for her mother to work in April through November. Lily Ente took students and made friends within the local arts community.

After her death, her daughter and son-in-law decided to renovate the old studio into a gallery for the preservation of the artist’s work. Eventually,they renovated the barn into a stunning home for their own family, as well.

“We used to have regular receptions here and were open weekends during the summer for many years,” Paulette recalled. “But then I had a decade-long illness and grew more interested in my own art…Now Bernard and I are both in our eighties and we have to figure what to do with my mother’s legacy.”

Hence the push, this past year, to complete the new long-planned website. And renewed thought as to what happens with a vital artist’s work a quarter century, and longer, after her passing. “I have to figure this out,” Paulette said. “You become more realistic about figuring these things out at our age.”

She tells of a journey she and her husband made to an artist’s home in Finland and what it was like to walk through the woods there, sensing the orchestral works of Sibelius come alive amongst the trees…and defining the whole trip for them.

“I don’t see why you can’t do that here,” Esrig added, standing in the garden her mother started years earlier, which she’s maintained and allowed to age with grace and beauty. “There’s so much of a spirit here in Woodstock, tied to these artists’ homes and lives, that deserves a rebirth. Something needs to happen.”

We speak of the protected estate of Ente’s friend, the sculptor Alexander Archipenko, and Raoul Hague’s cabin at the Maverick. Byrdcliffe’s worked hard to maintain that ageless presence of the muse, we agree. Perhaps there’s a way of doing more for the pieces that remain of an earlier age around town…

In the meantime, the Esrigs point out how the Lily Ente Studio is open by appointment now…mostly during those parts of the year when they are in residence at 153 Tinker Street in Woodstock and reachable by phone at 679-6064, or by email at bernpaulet@aol.com. But perhaps, eventually, on a more permanent, lasting basis.

“I want what my mother, Lily Ente, [created] to last,” her daughter, Paulette, replies, standing amidst the woman’s incredible works, their abstractions carrying the emotion and passion of earlier figures, all pulled from times of war and diaspora now disappearing into history. “Something will be done.”++

Paul Smart
For more, including suggestions, visit www.lilyente.com.