My Mom the ‘Outside’ Artist

Thelma Kandel’s work is the latest exhibition in a kiosk gallery series on West 83rd Street

| 06 Jan 2022 | 02:30

My 89-year-old mother, Thelma Kandel, is a self-taught outsider artist who just became an “outside” artist.

Last week, 29 photos of her 3-D collages and artworks were hung on the West 83rd Street kiosk on the corner of Broadway, in a show called “Lost and Found.” She is the 15th artist whose work has been displayed on what’s known as the “Cylindrical Gallery.”

A former writer and editor, Thelma came late to the art world. It began 20 years ago, when she found an interesting piece of rust on the street. She turned it into a figure with chains for arms and an aged bottlecap head. Its name: “Rust in Peace.”

Since then, discovering detritus – what others might call trash – and turning it into art, has become a beloved hobby.

Now, the walls and bookcases of her Riverside Drive and 83rd Street apartment are overflowing with her museum-quality creations. A faded cardboard ad becomes a background. A broken violin becomes a body with a doll head and rusty springs for curls. Pieces of water-logged cardboard becomes clouds. And assorted broken odds and ends are supporting elements.

Her work was previously displayed in a one-woman show at the Brooklyn College Art Center. She is a Brooklyn College graduate.

“I See Potential”

She also creates jewelry from watch parts and makes intricate folded books as gifts. The apartment she shares with my 91-year-old father, Myron Kandel, a former financial journalist and television commentator, is a giant “I Spy” book.

Thelma could be the spokesperson for the reuse, repurpose, upcycle movement. “Many people pass by cast-offs and see garbage,” she says, “I see potential.”

Life is a continuous treasure hunt for her as she walks with her eyes peeled to the ground. She discovers random gems everywhere, especially on the Upper West Side, where she’s lived for almost 60 years. “Objects find me,” she says, “I don’t find them.”

Mother Nature is the “greatest artist of all,” she believes. Wind, rain, snow and age add to the patina of deterioration that turns something commonplace into a prized component of her masterpieces.

Her muses include artists like Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte, and many of her creations are whimsical plays on their works. One hanging on the kiosk is a homage to Pablo Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” in which she adds large plastic feet and titles it: “Hey Pablo, Who’s the Woman with the Big Feet?”

Another of her artworks named “The Wrong Brothers” is a humorous poke at the Wright Brothers, with a toy airplane descending on a train track.

Witty names for her assemblages include “Mona Pizza” and “Forgotten But Not Gone.” “No No Manolo” is a collection of metal Monopoly shoe game pieces.

Original Kiosk

Look carefully at her work on the kiosk and you’ll see a black and white photo of her parents and her own baby bootie among other of her favorite finds and personal artifacts. Plus, there’s lots of random stuff picked up around the world by me and her four grandchildren, all of whom share her creative genes. They always bring her a pile of rusty finds from their travels; gifts she appreciates far more than any store-bought souvenirs.

The original kiosk, which stands outside Harry’s Shoes, was built in 1970 by local architect Roger Bartels out of cardboard and lumber. It served as a community bulletin board for the West 83rd Street Block Association. Over the years it was damaged by trucks and eventually knocked over in 1993 by a street paver.

Local artist and sculptor G. Augustine Lynas – whose studio overlooks the kiosk – got the city to replace it with a steel sewer pipe filled with concrete. The original rooster weather vane that topped it was stolen and has since been replaced with a metal egret.

In 2017, Lynas turned it an outdoor gallery showcasing the work of local visual artists for three-month periods. My mom’s show will be up through the end of March.

She hopes to inspire others to find beauty everywhere. Interpret her pieces as you will. As Thelma says, “Art speaks with no words.”