Ilona Royce Smithkin, 90, was born in Poland and lived for some time in Berlin, then moved to New York with her parents when she was a teenager. Ilona’s interests were in painting and drawing, and since moving away from what she calls a “strict past”; she had the freedom to study at The Art Students League where she would find her true path.
(In Part 2 of the Ilona Series, I’ll share more of her artwork and share her advice on when to show your first paintings, how to heal your pain with drawing, and where to find the best light in the house.)
Ilona’s philosophy for “building an outfit” is to mix and match the purpose of garments and to reinvent items to better suit your body type and coloring.
For example, one day she’d been excused from a traffic violation so she bought some pieces from a shop across the street and converted them into a new outfit, since sometimes “the way it is is simply bland”. She turned the tunic part upside down to create a new top, sewing together a neckline out of the hem. Then she tied the arms together in front as though it was a wrap dress, and ta-dah… a look a la Diane von Furstenberg!
Many readers have been asking about Ilona’s homemade eyelashes, which for the past 35-40 years she has handmade and applied every morning. Snipped from her natural waves, her exaggerated lashes change in tone as her color changes, and are accented with a swoosh of green shadow.
“I don’t wear anything except my eyelashes and shadow… oh, and lipstick. But I don’t wear makeup.”
I asked if living in New York after the war inspired her to use more color or to dress more vibrantly- Ilona says, “It was more about my change of lifestyle, a less strict time than living in Berlin during the 30’s and 40’s. I only wear something based on how i feel… style is in theback of my mind, but it’s based on my mood.”
“I’ve always had the same style because it’s loose, it’s my feeling of FREEDOM… I’m free and I’m open!”
Ten years ago, at the age of 80, Ilona started perforing (in a miniskirt and heels!) and every August headlines the “Eyelash Cabaret” in Provincetown, MA. (Ilona has always loved to dance, but it’s only more recently that she felt the confidence to get up on stage). We rifled through some of her favorite dance outfits, and one of them was a shirt she was holding aside as a gift for me. She showed me how to wear it “Ilona Style”, tied in the front to cinch the waist. She said even though it’s a bold print, it’s a neutral because it goes with everything.
When a woman is in the presence of a true beauty such as Ilona, it’s hard not to ask for makeup tips or (dare I say) a “makeover”. She says I can do the eyelashes like her, but that they really wouldn’t suit my proportions.
Ilona never tried to emulate anyone else’s style as she was developing her look. She says, “If you try to imitate too much, then you look like nothing. Never compare yourself, YOU are YOU.”
Instead of giving me her signature look, she suggests a bit of green shadow and some Shu Uemura lipstick given to her by a close friend who is a makeup artist.
“All the dark colors are back in, but don’t use colors that are too deep for you, it makes you look older.” We end up mixing colors at her painting station, as though she is painting a portrait.
Ilona has lived for over 50 years above what used to be “The Beatrice Inn” nightclub. She noticed all the fashion trends come and go, and says “some of them look beautiful just because they are young… like springtime….” But she asks, “Do you really like it? Or is it because of fashion?… You have to live for more than the moment, but this you learn with AGE”…
“When I was younger I was insecure and tried anything unusual to be noticed. Now, with perspective, I can even wear something neutral and be comfortable in my skin.”
“I do love when they call me sassy… I flirt a lot, but it’s not about having, it’s about appreciating.”
Ilona talks about “never buying green bananas”, it means to live for today and not to wish for something in the future. She says, ” I feel beautiful inside and that’s beautiful enough for me.”
“I like to give advice to my students, things I wish people would have told me!”:
“Don’t show your first few paintings to your mate, lover, parents, family…they may be either too encouraging, or too discouraging. Tell them you are not ready yet.” She suggests that when you do show your work, however, “everyone needs a Philadelphia lawyer”, as in someone on the other side… a Devil’s Advocate.
Since so many artists are said to be painting a version of themselves with such emotionally charged portraits, I ask Ilona if in fact each of these studies are a side of her personality.
She says, “None of them are me. There is no need for ego at this stage in y life…. I enjoy myself, I know who I am and am contented… no need to toot my own horn, I’m just proud of what I am now, because it was a hard road.”
Ilona started by painting in the Impressionist style, studying at The Art Students League next to the Russian Tea Room on 57th st (where she also lived, after WWII). Until the fire in her apartment that destroyed most of her paintings, Ilona spent her time uptown painting from models and still life. It was traumatic to lose so much, but with Ilona’s past, she said it would be unhealthy to look back. Now in the West Village, Ilona practices her art in the apartment she’s rented for 55 years.
She admits her apartment does not have a kitchen, so she doesn’t cook (nor has she ever).
“My father once said: If somebody does it better than you, let them.”
She approaches new bodies of work as “experiments, new phases to learn from and grow with… they are the beginning of a new idea”. What impresses me most about her approach to the hardships she has endured is her ability to look at each tragedy as a chance to start anew, or to try something challenging. Of course Ilona has 90 years of perspective, but it’s rare we hear a woman of this age being so open and willing to grow. She claims to be set in her ways, but also open to new ideas… her artwork says it all.
Ilona’s new series she calls “Nouveau Deco”, based on paintings Art Nouveau and Art deco. She draws her subjects with pastel, but adds graphic backgrounds and strengthens the women so the settings don’t overpower them. She says someone described her women as “so vulnerable you want to guide them across the street”. She likes this, “they can screw around all they like but they are still innocent and untouched”.
Another series, “Blue Stockings”, was inspired by Ilona’s trip to Paris. Here she reinvented Lautrec’s women with “ugly faces and changed them to be naughty and funny”. Each one has a caption like “What, not again?!”
Approximately three years ago, Ilona developed a stinging pain in her neck, disabling most of her activities (dancing, singing, painting…)
She tells me this is an exaggerated version of a tremor she had as a 5 year old in Berlin and then during the war, when the Nazis would knock on her family’s door to search the house. More recently, the disability became more acute, in the form of a crippling pain that led her to discontinue painting.
During this time, Ilona managed drawing daily self-portraitswhile sitting in her bathroom- the best light in the house. This is the place where she does her most detailed work, the application of her eyelashes, so this is where the drawings would take place.
After 8 months of unsuccessful doctors’ treatments, Ilona started swimming daily in the cold and salty bay near her home in Provincetown (where she teaches painting every summer). Swimming, of course, with eyelashes and shadow, with head above water. She claims the pain “vanished, like nothing”…. “You see? Something good can come of something bad”.
“I’m so glad that I did them because at this point I almost forgot that I had it (the pain)”.
Ilona’s most admirable quality is how much she absorbs, and how open she is to new friendships and ideas. As I was leaving her studio the other day, she suggested we meet up with a few of my girlfriends, “just like Sex and the City”.
She says: “This show was important because they had four characters who were all very different, none all good or all bad… they were all pretty, they all look as good as the other but each with different personalities that are recognizable. They were all human beings, real humans who are not perfect.”
I asked Ilona which character she would be (as the average girl of my generation would ask, admittedly):
“Each one had merit. At my age, you ask me a question but the answer will have so many factors. People want to identify with one thing, but that I am not. You change with different situations!”