Painter, Lenny Contino
Lenny Contino, the painter, died on March 10, 2016 at 4:50 AM in Queens. He was seventy-six years old and the most courageous person I have ever known. He spent most of his life in a wheel chair. Nancy and I visited Lenny in his Ozone Park home about fourteen months ago. When I asked him why he hadn’t showed up at a recent art event he said it was hard for him to get around. “Lenny,” I said, “that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you complain.”
I met Lenny fifty years ago through Mark di Suvero. Lenny grew up in the nineteen fifties in Brooklyn and was a wild kid. He liked to drag race in cars. In 1959, at age nineteen, young Lenny Contino dove into the waters of Jamaica Bay and for whatever freak reasons, sustained a massive spinal cord injury. That made him a quadriplegic. When he wasn’t in bed he lived in a wheel chair. He had to use both of his hands to hold up a cup.
Lenny Contino became an artist and a painter. He painted every day. It kept him alive, and on that last visit when I made a picture of him at his paint covered kitchen table, I realized his small Queens home had become an art gallery. Every bit of wall space, every cabinet, held art or sculpture, most of it made by Lenny at that table inside that house. In modern times he enjoyed using a computer and sending links over email. When I learned he was dead I did a search on my old computer looking for a photo of “Lenny Contino”. What came up on the screen was something Lenny had sent me as email, a photo of a woman’s suntanned butt in a bikini. Lenny was making jokes from the grave.
Hemingway’s line that “courage is grace under fire” doesn’t’ really fly when faced with a Lenny Contino. Lenny’s grace was greater. He wasn’t a soldier, he didn’t wear guns or armament. He got upset when you stepped on a bug, claiming it had an afterlife. Lenny was a naked human soul that kept himself alive by making art. When I urged him to get an iPhone, and told him he would be able to use it, Lenny said he didn’t want the intrusion on his life.
Lenny Contino was amongst the most loved of artists and most courageous of people. So long pal. We love you.