This month’s West Village Original is painter Elliott Gilbert, born in Brooklyn in 1924. After leaving the advertising profession in the early 1980s, Gilbert began to paint seriously, eventually spending summers in a monastery in Provence, France where he practiced his art. A resident of St. Luke’s Place for 49 years until moving to Hoboken last year, Gilbert has a one man show at the Hudson Park Library on Leroy Street from January 3 through February 28.
In 1959, Elliott Gilbert found himself aboard the liner Liberté, bound for France and the life of an artist. Or so he thought. After meeting his future wife, Judith, on the boat and spending time in France “taking notes and making sketches,” he returned to the USA. “I had to make a living before I could become an artist!” he says, chuckling. So he began working as an art director for BBDO and ultimately went on to open his own ad agency. “However, I was always planning to leave at some point,” he admits.
By the 1980s, Gilbert had become disillusioned enough with the advertising business that he seized his chance. “The business started to seem rather shallow to me,” he says. “I just felt I wasn’t getting anywhere so I sold my agency. That’s when I really started painting and I got quite serious about it. It wasn’t easy, either, because I had no contacts. But I entered competitions, joined art societies, peddled my paintings to galleries, and got my name out there. Eventually, I felt that the painting I was doing was pretty well appreciated all around.” It was a good thing too, because it turns out the life suits him. “I still feel more comfortable in expressing myself with painting than anything else,” he says. “I paint in oils, watercolors, and pastels and it’s a feeling of relief to be able to paint. Painting is my comfort and solace.”
How does he determine what medium to work in? “That’s a good question,” he replies. “The watercolors are more spontaneous for me. I’m able to work in them and immediately determine whether I like it or not. It’s not as laborious as oils. With an oil painting it takes quite a long time for me to determine whether I was successful in what I was trying to do. It’s a slower medium.” Regardless of which medium Gilbert works in, he tries to convey his impressions of a scene rather than as an ultra-realistic rendition. “I really like to interpret what I see in an impressionistic manner. One thing I never wanted to do was be a slave to an image. I want it to be a point of departure and let my mind take over. That’s why I like painting nature because I enjoy interpreting the light and dark aspects of what I see. Light has always been very important to me.”
One of Gilbert’s series is of the beautiful gardens at St. Luke’s Church on Hudson Street. “The gardens were almost like a sanctuary what with the foliage and the trees. People would go in there as an escape from the hurly-burly of the city itself. I’ve done about 15 paintings of the gardens – some in oil and some in watercolors – and those will be shown at the Hudson Park Library as part of my show.”
Sadly, after living on St Luke’s Place since 1963 and raising three sons there, Gilbert and his wife were suddenly forced to move last year when their building was sold. “It was almost a shock when it happened,” Gilbert admits. “We didn’t even have much time to move. We wanted very much to stay in the Village but we simply could not afford it now. It’s become very, very chic and very expensive. It’s almost a heartbreaker to see what’s going on there.” They ended up moving to Hoboken near one of their sons where they found the space they felt they needed. Still, the experience of living in this neighborhood will always be with them.
“The West Village was a major part of our lives,” Gilbert says. “As an artist, the serenity of this area helped me very much. It was a very idyllic way to live because I had proximity to all of the city’s activities yet I could come back to the Village where it was peaceful. To me it was the perfect spot. Forty-nine years is a long time to live in an area and then have to leave. While my family and I left a lot of emotions and memories on St. Luke’s Place, they’re never going to leave us.”