Aurthor : Rayon Richards
Publisher : www.TimeoutNewYork.com
For 24 years, Karen Santry has called Westbeth home—“a dream come true,” she says. The painter, illustrator and FIT professor has lived in her tenth-floor 400-square-foot apartment for the past 17 years, but the sky-high ceilings keep the space from feeling cramped. “When you move in, what they give you is a box, and it’s up to you to build your own area," she says.
For the past 34 years, Santry has taught illustration classes at FIT. She has also been one of the few artists allowed to draw at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week for years. A photograph of a Chanel outfit inspired the 16-foot construction on her living-room wall, which is painted on rosewood cutouts.
The showstopping black sofas were custom-made by Chanel for a Bergdorf Goodman window display a few years ago. Months after inquiring in-store about the fate of the sofas once they were no longer on view (“no one had an answer”), Santry happened to see them in the Housing Works storefront on 17th Street. The shop was already closed, so she arrived the next morning at 6am to ensure that she’d be first in line.
Santry’s wall of bookshelves are lined with art tomes and “odes to different things”—student work, tiny shrinelike vignettes dedicated to her mentors and collections of objects acquired on her travels. The masks and hats constantly shuffle between the apartment and FIT, where models wear them while posing for her illustration classes. “It just makes the work so much more interesting,” she says.
“I’m a community person, that’s why I love Westbeth. I moved here because there are artists around,” says Santry. “You don’t feel isolated—you can interact and feel justified doing your art.” Westbeth residents must be practicing artists, and need to derive the majority of their income from selling their work (instead of from commercial work), which means that Santry carefully balances creating and selling pieces with her teaching career and her other illustration projects.
FIT’s emphasis on modern technology and brand identity has transformed Santry’s outlook. “Before, I just painted. Now, you can’t just paint in a vacuum. You’re supposed to be a good parent to your art, and it’s up to you to get your work placed. It’s not an ego thing. If you believe in what you do as an artist, you have to market that properly and be amongst the greatest so that you can contribute to the face of painting.”
After Santry told her students she was planning to go to the American Museum of Natural History, an elderly woman approached her and said, “I’d like for you to meet my son.” As it turned out, Santry had been teaching the mother of Gardner D. Stout, then the president of the museum. Santry recalls meeting a debonair man reminiscent of a 1930s movie star, who was sitting behind an immense gold desk surrounded by taxidermy. Years later, she got a court summons to attend a will reading, because Stout had left Santry any animal in the museum that she would like, as a gift for teaching his mother. The swan she chose perches amongst the living-room furniture and features prominently in some of her artwork.
“I like mixing highbrow and lowbrow,” says Santry. Her plastic dining table is a piece of garden furniture. The hole in the center of the table, intended to accommodate an umbrella, became the perfect place for a built-in light fixture.