A Tiny Tribute To Two Very Big Hearts

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Hello! Yes, it’s been a mighty long time since you heard my voice on this blog. But today, I’m back with a travel hacking tip and a tiny story.

Let’s Begin at the Beginning
We’ll start with the story. My educational path has been fairly checkered, but I did manage to finish a diploma in Fine Arts way back in 1984. I was a student at the Abbotsford campus of what is now the University of the Fraser Valley, under the tutelage of two amazing teachers: Janina and Mircho Jakobow. I don’t know a lot about their history. They were both very talented artists, classically trained, and they’d come to Canada from Romania.

Can’t Draw
I first met this dynamic duo in my portfolio interview, after I applied for entry into the design program at Fraser Valley. This was also my first encounter with Janina’s customary bluntness. “Well” she said, looking at my sketches. “I can see that you have some design talent, but your drawing is not so hot.” She was right, of course. I spent the next two years learning (among many other things) how to draw.

Looking back on it now, I wonder what it was that possessed them to try and build a fine arts program in what was – truthfully – a pretty backwater town in rural British Columbia. But they took on this task with a great deal of devotion and optimism. Day after day, they worked to expand our minds as well as train our hands.

Hitting the Road
One of their great mind expansion techniques was a semi-annual field trip to New York City. They would shuttle twenty-odd students across the continent from Vancouver, and pack in as much art, fashion and culture as we could handle in a week. I joined this trip in my first year of school, the spring of 1983.

Somehow, Janina and Mircho let me talk them into allowing my two best friends from Edmonton to come as well. We unpacked ourselves into a budget hotel in Times Square and had a week that we still talk about, some thirty years later. Museums! Broadway plays! Shopping! I remember flying home and wondering how I would ever again be satisfied with the cultural offerings of Canada.

One of the places Janina and Mircho insisted we visit was Pearl Paint, on Canal Street at the edge of Manhattan. It was a mecca for art students looking for cheap materials. Of course I went, and bought everything I would need for the rest of my time in college. And then some. And then some more. It was like visiting Aladdin’s Cave of Art Supplies, and I left no pencil or paint tube behind.

Hitting the Road Again
Several years later, well after I’d graduated, I got word that both Mircho and Janina had both passed away. Mircho had suffered a sudden heart attack. He and Janina were very deeply bonded, so it was terribly sad but not surprising to hear that she followed him soon after.

Thirty-one years have gone by since that trip to New York. I’m still in a creative profession, although I don’t draw as much as I’d like. And I’m headed out on another field trip experience, this time for four weeks, in Austria and Italy.

But my first stop on this odyssey is New York. It seemed only fitting that I should plan a trip to Pearl Paint, still in the same location. I thought I could make it a tiny personal tribute to Janina and Mircho, who — bless them — had taken a yappy, temperamental 20-year-old named Sally and done their patient best to turn her into a designer.

And Now, a Detour for Some Travel Hacking
Way back at the beginning of this post, I promised you a travel hacking tip. Here it is. If you’re flying into La Guardia Airport in New York, skip the various shuttle services (which tend to get tied up in traffic) and hop onto the Q70 bus at Terminal B. It’ll take you to two subway hubs where you can catch a train to pretty much anywhere. I was able to get from La Guardia Airport to Times Square in an hour, for the princely sum of $2.50.

In a big city, this is a good way to experience life at street level. And you’ll find this kind of transportation solution in many of the big cities in the United States, as well as those of Europe. Besides New York, I’ve taken the MAX train to Portland’s airport, an MTS bus to San Diego’s airport, and the Tube from Heathrow to downtown London. None of these cost more than $10, and got me to my destination quickly and efficiently.

A New York icon since 1933

A New York icon since 1933

Returning to Our Story…
After I booked tickets and hotels, I printed subway schedules and maps from Google, and figured out how to make my tiny tribute work.

And then … Pearl Paint closed.

Without warning, at the end of April. Apparently not even the employees knew it was coming. A New York icon since 1933, it was shuttered almost overnight. I decided to go anyways. I bought a pair of china markers before I left Edmonton, and guessed that I’d be able to find a place to leave a little bit of heartfelt graffiti.

Getting to Pearl Paint was easy, but the store looked sad, permanently locked up behind big steel gates. I located a spot to leave my mark, on the ancient ironwork steps leading into the store, where my feet had last touched down in March of 1983.

I pulled out my china markers and looked around, a little apprehensive. I mean, what happens when a random person starts drawing on the steps of an abandoned store in a working-class New York neighbourhood? I didn’t know.

As it turns out, nothing happens. People went about their business and ignored me. Still, I worked quickly and as soon as I finished, stood up to admire my handiwork. Then I kissed my fingertips and quietly said “thanks, guys.”

Thanks indeed. For so much more than you probably ever realized.



9 thoughts on “A Tiny Tribute To Two Very Big Hearts

  1. Mircho was from Bulgaria and Janina from Poland, they met while they were both studying art on scholarships in China. As a young artist, Mircho won the prestigious Edvard Munch lithography scholarship award to study in Norway as well. They fell in love with the Pacific Coast, put down roots and gave their artistic heart and soul to their students. Mircho’s famously long and rambling stories about his life, art and philosophy held great treasures for the avid student. He told us that if he hadn’t met Janina, who kept him and all of us on our toes, he would still be sitting in a café, drinking coffee and only talking about art instead of making it. They were both amazing, your lovely gesture of remembrance resonates. A fellow FVC fine arts alumni.


    • Rose, I can’t tell you how pleased I was to find your comment this morning! I was hoping that someone out there could fill in some of the gaps in my recollection of Janina and Mircho. Thank you so much for doing that.

      One of my favourite memories of Mircho’s philosophical stories could have been titled “The Difference Between Art and Pornography”. A treasure we were a little embarrassed to be hearing as 20-somethings, but a treasure nonetheless!

      How fortunate we both were to have been their students.

      Thank you again.

      P.S. What year did you graduate? Your name sounds familiar.


  2. Hi AngO,

    Thanks so much for the kind words! It’s an embarrassing irony that I work in marketing and communications, but I’m really kind of bashful about tooting my own horn! However, I think that’s a great idea, and I’ve just added a StumbleUpon button to my posts.

    Thanks again and enjoy this beautiful sunny day!


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