People ask me how it was that I ended up painting a portrait of Lee Marvin for Jim Jarmusch‘s film Coffee and Cigarettes in 2004.
Well, as with every painting, there’s a story to it.
In January 2002, I opened Zito Studio Gallery in a small storefront on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was just after the insanity of 9/11 and I had seen the prices of rent drop about $800 in one week in the Village Voice. I immediately met with the landlord and rented it for $1375 a month. Even that was a stretch for me, since I’d never had steady business before and didn’t know how I would pull it off. I don’t know how I convinced him i could. But guess what? I was wingin it. I’d been through all kinds of studio spaces (I’d been threatened with being shot at the last one) so to finally arrive at having my own little shop… I was gonna make it work no matter what.
So I was a portrait painter, man with a van, playing in a band and booking rock shows at CBGBs. Occasional portraits and more frequent van moving jobs managed to keep the rent paid more or less. The music thing was just a labor of love, I never made anything more than beer money by playing music or organizing events. But every once in a while, Louise, who booked the bands at CBs, would finally, finally after weeks of calling and calling back, give me a Saturday night to book as I saw fit. I called it New York Rock Circus and I brought in bands from every genre – the center of a wild variety show with performance art of all kinds happening between the bands; a mixed bag of rock-a-billy, metal, experimental/noise, punk, stoner rock, blues, Hawaiian; whatever was different. I wanted to create a seamless event with no dead air or down time. When no one was performing we had trippy obscure psychedelic music playing and the film projections ran all night. Tom Jarmusch was a neighborhood friend who set up his projectors and gave the place an incredible feeling of nightlife experience with his beautifully dischordent barrage of images.
Like a lot of my neighborhood pals, Tom used to drop by my gallery on Ludlow to shoot the shit once in a while. One day he told me his brother, Jim, was looking for a painting for his new film. Thats how I began corresponding with Jim and his production team. They wanted a mid-sized portrait of Lee Marvin, they sent me the photo they wanted, I dug out on old painting I’d found on the street with a crappy ornate gold frame around it, and got to work. Funny, nowadays I would ask exactly what size they wanted or other particulars, but back then I just grabbed the nearest piece of garbage I had on hand and started painting.
So I whipped it together in a few days and got this:
To my enduring surprise and amazement, when it finally appeared in the film, it hung on the wall between two heroes of mine, my favorite band at the time and one that still holds a firm rank at the top of my playlists, The White Stripes. And who were they talking about in that scene? Nikola Tesla!! Another hero of mine. Jim could have included my art in just about any scene in that movie and I would have been ecstatic. I mean, just look at this cast!!
Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joseph Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renée French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Mike Hogan, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan , Katy Hansz , GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, William Rice, and Taylor Mead.
So to put it mildly, I was honored to be asked. I’d seen several Jarmusch films at that point and, like any literate fan of film and the underground, I had a strong admiration for his work. So being asked to be included in it was important to me. There may be a people with more street cred than Jim Jarmusch but I can’t think of one.
Here’s a video clip of the scene from Coffee and Cigarettes with my portrait in it:
A few years later, Jim asked me to make some artwork for his following film, Broken Flowers. I painted a portrait of Ethiopian master musician Mulatu Astatke and a Lion of Judah. Strangely enough, though I didn’t know it at the time, Ethiopian culture would soon become something I would eventually learn a lot about, and I’d even end up visiting the country before too long. But at the time, I knew nothing of the place.
I don’t see Jim all that much but I always enjoy hanging out with the guy when it happens. He has a deep intellect and is always asking questions, digging up discoveries or telling stories. He said something one time that I will never forget. We were at my old apartment on Suffolk Street looking at my paintings and I was telling him about how I was torn on the subject of painting rock icons. I told him how much these people mean to me, and how I love their work, so I want to paint them, but how painting rock stars is generally frowned upon. He told me to do it anyways and forget about what people think. He said what’s out of fashion now will come back into fashion and it doesn’t matter because opinions change about these things. It really hit me. Yeah. I’ll just do what I feel like doing and I don’t need to concern myself with notions of how it will be received. Just do my best work, nothing more.
For more about Lee Marvin check his wikipedia page.
For more about Jim Jarmusch check out his IMDB profile.
For more about Jack White and The White Stripes check out the Third Man Records website.
For more about Mulatu Astatke check out his official website.