Reinvention is ageless artist's passion

At 100, metal craftsman, painter and photographer Morrie Markoff is having his first art show.

Morrie Markoff is not now and has never been a man of half measures.

When he saw Depression-era evictions in his New York tenement, he became a fiery political activist.

When he trained as a machinist, he was top of his class.

When he argued with his wife, he left nothing in the tank.

There's much to be learned from people like Markoff, who died briefly in 2012, but, true to his nature, clawed his way back to life.

"His heart stopped, his eyes shut, his mouth fell open and his tongue dropped out," Morrie's daughter Judy said to me in an email, adding that the grieving family retreated to Good Samaritan Hospital's meditation room. But 45 minutes later, a staffer called them back to her father's room.

"There Dad was," said Judy, "very much alive and joking."

The next day, the freshly resuscitated Markoff turned 99.

Last month, he hit 100, and what better way to celebrate a full century on the planet than to be discovered as an artist.

This week, Markoff's first-ever art exhibit has been extended due to popular demand, which comes as a bit of a surprise to him.

"I'm not an artist," he told me last week in his Bunker Hill condo. "I can't draw."

But he had just loaded two dozen of his sculptures into boxes for delivery to the gallery.

"They're very excited about having you," I told him.

"I'm very excited too," Markoff said. "Never did I expect this to happen."

Last year, when I wrote about Markoff reaching out to me regarding my own brief death and resuscitation, I briefly mentioned his art and photography hobbies. About the same time, Morrie and Betty, his wife of 75 years, had moved downtown from Silver Lake and were discovering their new environs. On the bus one day, they met Tracy Huston, director of the Red Pipe Gallery in Chinatown.

Markoff told Huston he had no artistic training but had used scrap metal from his shop — Freeway Appliance near Melrose and Vermont — to craft images from his lifetime that had lingered with him through the decades. Huston said she might like to exhibit the work, but then worried about having led Markoff on before seeing what he was capable of.

When she finally saw the sculpture — she exhaled.

"It was an extraordinary delight," Huston said. "He's got a kind of old-world gathering of people playing chess in the park, and then he's got archetypal transition points related to his own family, such as the coming of age of his daughter. So he chose moments that were intensely personal to him, but it transcends to a shared public cultural experience."

There's a spit-and-polish shoe shine boy Markoff used to see on a New York street; a braided ballerina limbering the gams; construction workers, backs arched, throwing their weight into a job.

"The execution and craft are fantastic, and he also developed what is his own style," Huston said.


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