ITAS Podcast Episode #3
Bea Gold is my absolute hero! She is a 93-year-old working artist with an insanely reach life story and evergreen child-like curiosity to all new things. I feel extremely lucky for having to meet Bea and being friends with her. Today, she shared some stories from her young art student’s life in NYC in the 1940s and how to always do art for art’s sake.
Listen to Episode #3 of ITAS podcast with Bea Gold:
I was in the fifth grade when my teacher liked my work and said I should think about pursuing art. I was saving my work in a little portfolio and encouraged me to apply to go to the High School of Music and Art. It was the school in New York that was devoted to both music and to visual art.
So I did that just when I got into the eighth grade, I applied to the High School of Music and Art and they accepted me.
I was a little Jewish girl in Brooklyn, and the High School of Music and Art was at 125th Street in Manhattan, which was the other end of the world.
And because it was a high school that was devoted to adding the art program to the regular curriculum art, it meant that there were three additional classes each day on top of the regular classes. I was getting up very, very early in the morning and coming home in the early evening. And I did that for a year and a half.
From art school to high school
I loved being at the school. When finally one day in the winter my mother said, “This is it. You are not getting up in the morning when it’s dark and coming on back from school when it’s dark. You’re not working, you don’t need to make a living for anybody, you’re not going there anymore.”
So I got transferred to high school in Brooklyn, which was Lincoln High School in Coney Island. And there, I had a mentor, an art teacher who was very influential in my life. And he’s the one who said to me, “You cannot call yourself an artist just because you’re going to school and doing things. You cannot call yourself an artist unless you always have something you are working on.“
I was 15, and that really stuck with me up to these days. So I have always had something I am working on and I am really glad about that.
Socialists and communists
He was a wonderful guy and he was very much a socialist, I guess, at that time. He showed his work at the gallery that was a socialist gallery in Manhattan.
I’m trying to remember what year it was… I was born in 1927. And I was 15. So it was 1942. Socialism was not a negative issue at that time. This was not something you thought was a bad thing, as it is today as we threaten the democrats to be called socialists. This was not communism, which was another issue at that time.
As a matter of fact, those days, when I was going to Lincoln High School, one of the girls that I became good friends with was a communist. She also was a creative person, I think she was a writer. And she was kind of proselytizing me.
And I came to the conclusion, No, I will not join, because the communists were using art as propaganda. They would suggest to you what to do and how to do it. And I said, art is for art’s sake, I will not do anything that somebody else tells me to do and use my art for propaganda. So no communism.
Art for art’s sake
And there is a line between what is propaganda and what is expressing your own views.
Propaganda is when somebody else – a government or a group – insists that this is what you use your art for. It’s fine if you send your own message as an artist. I think that the young people today are very, very clear in their message. That’s their choice and they are doing it for their reasons. But to have a government say, You shall do this, means that you have given up your own individuality.
I mean, you may choose that person’s art because you believe in their message. But that’s your choice.
This was the period of time when commercial art was not looked upon as art, commercial art was business. And so I’m talking about being a part of an art world where people’s thinking was not just their own, they were part of the group.
Art Students League
After I left the High School of Music and Art and went to Lincoln, I had a friend who took me to the Art Students League. I walked up the staircase with her while she’s telling me all about the school. We came past a modern painting that was somewhat abstract. And, in my youthful behavior (i was between 15 and 16th), I looked at it and I laughed because it looked silly or amateur to me.
She blasted me saying, “You never laugh at anybody’s work! You are ignorant! You don’t know what you’re laughing at!” And I never did ever again. So that was part of it the whole issue of who you are and what art means.
Despite parents’ will
When I was 16, I got a scholarship to The Art Students League. At that time, we were a poor family and never would have paid to go to art school.
My mother hated my doing art anyway. She just hated it. But I did it anyway. She called my work “Majgarosch” which is a Yiddish word for devil-like evil creatures, because I’ve always painted people, and the people were not realistic. My mother thought that was pretty awful.
So I went to high school in the daytime in Coney Island and at night, I went to the Art Students League. The art students League rotated their classes between morning, afternoon, and evening. I had evening classes. I was the only one there that went to the league after school, everybody else went after work. That was an interesting and special experience.
Making a living as an artist
Art for me has always been for art’s sake. I never made living off of it. While I was still at the league, at the age of 18, I made money painting buttons at a clothing factory.
The reason we got to be able to paint buttons was that we were art students. All the art students, all the kids that were from the Art Students League or other places were able to get these terrible jobs. There were a lot of young artists that sat at tables with trays of buttons and little brushes and little plastic paint tubes.
Another job I had was painting fingernails on dummy hands, it was the best job! That was also a factory and I was hired as the artist in residence who painted the fingernails on the dummy hands and also put a piece of felt at the bottom and cut around it. Because it was such a menial task. I was able to read while I worked, so I would get library books and sit and read and paint. I had a look at the nails but not all the time. The factory was full of men and I was the only young woman in the factory. All the men used to come and stand and stare at me and shake their head because who reads when they’re working?
Then I drove an elevator in a big hotel near Central Park. In those days, elevators had to be operated manually. It was kind of a fancy job.
Later, after I moved to LA and had kids, I was a teacher and a director of the co-op nursery school where I had been a parent for four years before that. I got that job when the director left they asked me to take the job.
An educator and advocate
I left co-op nursery to take a job with the education department in the school district, and it was a job with kids with handicaps which was really a special wonderful job.
I was there for three or four years and then took leave and worked at the Blind Children’s Center. Then I came back to the district as a coordinator for early childhood development. And then I worked with kids with disabilities and their families.
It was a period of time when there was a great federal impact on serving people with disabilities.
I left the district because there were restrictions put on me that I was not happy about, very similar to the art discussion. But this had to do with working with kids and families and doing training for teachers around working with young kids with disabilities. And I did not like the restrictions. So I left and did a pretty sneaky thing at that time, which was wonderful.
Leaving a legacy
By that time, I had had 13 contracts, working with different groups on different things to help kids with disabilities. And so when I left, I took maybe four contracts with me along with some people who were willing to follow me out.
I had a contract with the headstart program, they had given us a lot of furniture and equipment to use with the school district. And when I left, I took that project with me and I took all the furniture and the equipment and I put it into storage. We started working at my house with nine other people who left the district with me. And that’s where the nonprofit started.
It’s called Pathways LA.
I’m still active as a past founder, but I don’t work with them. They’re very big now. They kept only one program for kids with disabilities and mostly provide childcare for working people.
An artist, a storyteller
I took my old teacher’s advice and always had something going in terms of art. There was never a time when I didn’t. But I had kids, so I used to paint when they took a nap or whenever I had a spare moment. I always did woodcuts, that was the other thing that I really love doing. They were mostly black and white.
And then in 2000, I got involved with a group called the Baron. It was the beginning of interest in the Japanese method of woodcuts. So I got involved with that.
I’m a storyteller. So whatever I do in terms of painting or woodcuts, it’s a story. It’s a story of a family, It’s a story of people, it’s always a story. So now I’m doing stories about animals, pets. It’s really fun.
My husband was a member of a writing group. And I joined him to be doing something with him. And it really had nothing much to do with writing or anything else. But I started writing, and I wrote stories about my family and my friends, and this whole early period of my life.
I wrote about the years starting with my babyhood (when I was fond of my grandpa who was special to me) and up to my teenage years, so it was about from 1930 to 1948, or something like that. I loved writing stories and I loved illustrating the stories! So I wrote the book and I did self-publishing.
How not to publish a book
You know, as an artist, whether you’re a writer or a painter, or whatever, your work is not just what you do for yourself. You’re interested in other people looking at your work. Otherwise, why bother? The same thing is true with writing. You write something, you don’t want it to sit on your shelf, because you wrote it. You want other people to read it, right? And because I was at a period where I was not interested in doing any selling of my work, I thought, let me publish it myself and get it out to people after that through the bookstores and such.
What happened was, the first bookstore at the Jewish non-profit organization in LA rejected it. I showed it to the woman who never opened it. She looked at it, she said, “You self published it, we will not sell it.” And there’s a good reason. She said this book should sell here for $19. I was paying to have it printed $20.
When you’re not a part of a big publishing company, you end up with the thing you’re working on costing a lot of money. Therefore, I gave that whole concept up.
At that time, I sent the book out to friends and family, I bought 50 of them that I have in my house, and I give them to people, whoever wants them. I sell them at the local gallery and I have them on Etsy.
Lucky to witness the evolution
And then I decided, if I still want other people to know my stories, I should tell them! And I started doing the videos of me reading the stories and putting them on YouTube. I love doing it! Now that I’ve done it, I get to look at them as though I am a reader.
I keep talking about being fortunate to be alive and working at very specific times in evolution. So for working with kids with disabilities, was an amazing period of time. Where people came out demanding rights and changed the world. We didn’t have curb cuts before that time, and now you are passing them on the street without even thinking! To live through that and to watch changes that can occur through demands is really important.