VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Ivan Jenson

Confessions of a New York City Street Artist 

I have stood with a homeless family 

under a canopy on Fifth Avenue 

during a downpour 

all my paintings on a rolling cart 

in the thick air of August

with two bucks in my pocket 

I felt alive 

I sold a painting to a man just released from prison 

I sold to a couple who lived in a shelter with their child 

I sold a work on paper for three dollars 

and bought my girlfriend and me 

hot dogs at Grey’s Papaya on Broadway 

she never looked happier 

a wife of a plastic surgeon opened a briefcase 

in her penthouse apartment dining room 

on Columbus Circle containing eleven thousand cash 

as payment for my six-foot canvas 

I sold another work on paper to a lesbian Juilliard student 

who kissed me on the lips as a thank you

I have sold in SoHo, Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, Fifth Avenue

Union Square, Sixth Avenue, and St. Mark’s Place 

I have snuck into street fairs in Little Italy and festivals on Third Avenue

I sold a canvas in Cooper Square to a stripper for two-hundred bucks cash 

I sold to a hunched old street jazz pianist 

I have sold to cops and had my art confiscated by cops 

I painted a large-scale portrait of a wealthy gay couple 

for eight grand and the guys posed together naked

in my East Village storefront studio apartment 

on a concrete city sidewalk I once made six hundred bucks in an hour 

drawing pop art portraits of pedestrians on sketch pad paper

while getting high from inadvertently inhaling 

the Pilot marker fumes 

I have been commissioned to paint dogs, cats, and birds 

I drew Johnathan Larson in a coffee shop on Avenue A

and he tried to convince me to do backdrops for 

some sort of rock opera based on La Boheme

he was working on

and I was too stressed about my own rent 

to even consider it 

I regret that to this day

I sold to the actor who played Angel in Rent 

and the actress who later played Maureen in Rent

I videotaped her singing for me 

and I told her she would one day be a star 

and now she has won a Tony Award 

and played Elsa in Frozen 

and I have lost the video 

I have sold in temperatures of one hundred degrees 

I have sold on New Year’s Day in sub-zero weather 

with a wind chill

I have made sales at midnight

in front of the now long gone downtown Virgin megastore

I have said hello to almost every striking young woman 

who happened to walk by 

I would invite them to sit next to my set up 

in a director’s chair

beautiful Indian, Latin, or Scandinavian women

and NYU students 

all sat and talked with me 

I would treat them to Starbucks lattes 

I was stood-up by dozens of potential customers 

as well as dozens of potential dates 

I have been stood-up on Saturday nights, 

on the Fourth of July, and on Saint Patrick’s Day

I have stood waiting for love in Washington Square,

the South Street Seaport, and Grand Central Station 

an inebriated man once stumbled and 

collapsed on my table of paintings 

I have seen my art blown away by the wind

into the traffic on the Manhattan streets

I have lost paintings under parked trucks 

kind strangers have chased my art 

blowing down the sidewalk 

one canvas caught a gust and just missed striking 

an elderly woman in the head

I have discarded paintings only to have them 

stolen from the trash outside my building

my painting of John Lennon was stabbed 

in a club called Octagon 

the millionaire owner reimbursed 

me with only three hundred dollars 

I was politely but briskly escorted 

out of the office of Paloma Picasso 

with my two giant rejected portraits of her

that barely fit in the elevator 

I later sold one of those painting for twelve grand cash 

I have drawn millionaire and billionaire CEOs on the 

Highlander Yacht of Malcolm Forbes

I painted his final portrait

I quoted a price and he raised me five grand 

in nightclubs I have drawn instant celebrity portraits with markers on napkins

of Madonna, Mick Jagger, and Eddie Murphy 

I have painted on a commission until nine A.M. in Ottawa Canada 

with ten-grand cash stuffed in my socks 

my hotel had no safe

one day I arrived on a street and sold everything for five hundred

and rolled my empty cart home to get more paintings

set up again and made five hundred more

I used to have a superstitious belief that if I saw a matinee 

it would bring me luck selling later on in the afternoon

and it did

I have sold my art in living room parties, disco boats, bakeries, cafes, 

The Palladium, Limelight, The World 

and the Nirvana penthouse nightclub in Times Square 

as well as at bars and an after hours club called Save the Robots 

that didn’t open until five A.M.

I have strapped paintings onto female jazz dancers because the club owner 

forbade me from displaying them on the walls

and so I sold the paintings right off the dancers’ backs

I have sold to gay men from Rome

rich trust fund teenage girls from Beverly Hills 

psychiatrists, physical therapists, Ric Ocasek from The Cars, possible gangsters 

from Queens and Brooklyn

I have exchanged my art for dental work, podiatry, 

and two round trip tickets to Bermuda, one round trip ticket to Rio,

and a round trip to Sweden to see a girl I loved

and she still broke my heart 

when she didn’t want to come back to New York with me

I have exchanged art for dinners at Benihana 

I have been featured on Network News, Cable TV, and Public Access channels 

I have been chronically poor and periodically rich 

I have seen my career reach peaks where millionaires 

proposed champagne toasts to my talent 

on luxury yachts on the Hudson River

and I have stooped so low that I paced a psych ward in soiled clothing

watching my whole life flash before me like a movie montage 

while I was too paranoid to even take a shower 

I have painted and sold my art for over thirty-five odd years

I have drawn or painted on boards, canvas, T-shirts,

and with my trusted jumbo Pilot marker I have temporarily tattooed 

the bare breasts, backs, shoulders and thighs of top models

I have a painted twenty-foot mural in a high fashion show room 

and was known for painting on the backs of jean jackets 

or drawing on classroom chalk boards, sketch pads, fine table cloths 

of 5 Star Bistros, and bald heads

I have drawn on the fog of taxi cab windows

while looking out at my time zip by

and I have used cheap foam brushes and expensive sable hair brushes

and only a clinical depression and a psychotic break halted my work

knocking me to the floor

but once I exorcised those inner demons 

the art angels came back

to curse and bless me to continue 

on my artistic journey 

evermore 

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