“We were driving into New York to see a synagogue — a very old one — and there was no desire in me to paint it, because it was beautiful, and it didn’t need me,” Hedy Pagremanski said at a small table in what used to be her grandson’s bedroom. A few feet away, a painting sat waiting to be varnished.
“This is the painting room,” she said.
Pagremanski, a soft-spoken, 88-year-old street artist who has lived in Long Beach for more than 30 years, had just finished her most recent painting, which depicts 53 actual Long Beach residents on a stretch of Park Avenue between Riverside and Long Beach boulevards.
She was born in Vienna in 1929, escaped Hitler’s rule by fleeing to Panama at age 8 and settled in Chicago in 1947, where she attended art school. She is best known for her New York street paintings, in which she depicted buildings that would soon be torn down.
Pagremanski and her late husband, Eric, used to travel with her easel and supplies to New York City sidewalks, such as the Lower East Side, where she painted as strangers walked by.
“We sat down in front of an old broken building which was going to be torn down,” Pagremanski said, referring to one of her earlier paintings. “It was begging to be painted.”
She has painted more than 80 scenes of New York City landscapes, including commissions for Goldman Sachs. But what started out as a mission to paint soon-to-be-demolished buildings transformed into painting another subject.
“I want to do what’s disappearing, which is mostly people,” she said.
Each person in her paintings is a real native to the area, and they all have their own stories, she explained.
“People who walked by would say, ‘Is she painting this? I live here, would she put me into the painting?’” Pagremanski said. “And Eric said, ‘Only if you give us a story of how you belong to this area.’”
That was the condition — if they gave her their stories, they were immortalized in her paintings. Even the dogs are real.
Pagremanski said she keeps a chart for each painting that assigns every person a number that explains their corresponding story.
“I have stories that are just miraculous,” she said, “about America and how it was founded, from the Lower East Side.”
After spending time in upstate New York and Oceanside, she moved to Long Beach in the 1980s. She continued to travel to New York City and paint, and her works portrayed the melting pot that is Manhattan.
But she didn’t paint Long Beach.
“Long Beach wasn’t interesting,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t want to do Long Beach, because the buildings don’t have the history that New York buildings have — but the people are fascinating.”
She and Eric operated a business in Long Beach called Follow Your Art, where they taught their students art skills. It closed in 2003.
In 2000, she finally painted Long Beach and its residents in a piece she called “Long Beach Marches into the Millennium.”
The piece portrayed hundreds of actual residents, including former state Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg and his family.
“I found out how wonderful this city is,” she said. “Long Beach is filled with incredible organizations.”
Then, more recently, she sat down to draw a local bagel shop on Park Avenue, Max Bialystok & Company, which she regularly visits to order a cream cheese bagel with what she called the proper ratio of walnuts to raisins. Then she decided to paint it.
The piece includes employees of the Magnolia Community Center and members of Long Beach Reach.
The next project she’s working on is a street in the West End, but she said it will not be finished for at least a year.
Overall, her paintings seek to relay the message that cities comprise a wide variety of people, ranging in ethnicity and creed, and denounce prejudice.
“I saw America becoming wonderful bit by bit — more inclusive,” Pagremanski said. “And it’s going to come back to that again. We have a period now, which scares the hell out of me, but it won’t stay. We’re so mixed. It’s the best place. No matter where you live — your apartment, your home — there are corners that are not as nice, but there’s a room that you might love.”