As she sits in front of a wall in her tiny cluttered Greenwich Village studio apartment that holds an assortment of her colorful paintings of flowers and naked women, Ilona Royce-Smithkin, 90, who seems equally as vibrant and dazzling is surrounded by tons of multicolored bright fabrics in addition to boxes and drawers loaded full of a lifetime of her treasures. Her hair is fiery red as are her matching ultra-long faux eyelashes, which she makes from her own hair, and she wears a blue Tweety Bird sweatshirt and drinks take-out coffee out of a petite demitasse. “It‟s more fun to drink coffee this way,” she says with her decidedly European accent.
And fun she has had, especially in these twilight years of her life. Smithken has quite a history of accomplishments. As a former member of The Art Student League she developed a network that led to her teaching painting on television, and later writing a book, Painting With Ilona, based on this show. Today she is singing in off-Broadway “Eyelash Cabarets” and doing fashion modeling for Time Out Magazine and “The Look Book” in New York Magazine. She has managed to succeed and keep working despite the pain she is in from arthritis and also from her emotionally difficult childhood.
Smithkin was born in Poland in 1920, but a year after her birth, the family moved to Berlin. As a young girl living in Berlin during the Great Depression and World War II, she constantly feared the Nazis knocking at her door. “When you are living in a police state, you are afraid someone is going to come, pick you up, and kill you,” she said.
During Smithkin's fearful childhood the artist in her started to bloom; she used this talent to make and sell hats, but gave the money to her parents to live. “Today everyone claims they have a dysfunctional family,” said Smithkin. “I hear people say, I don't want my son or daughter to go through what I went through,‟ but there is nothing wrong with what we went through.” She went on in regards to the great depression she grew up in. Smithkin believes that today's generation is spoiled and does not know how hard it really can be out there.
Her actual artistic talent was discovered by one of her schoolteachers in Berlin. However, her father thought art was a waste of time and told her, “I don't want one of these crazy bohemians in my family.” But Smithkin's mother believed in her talent and therefore encouraged her to pursue it. When Smithkin blossomed into a young woman she went to study art at The Royal Academy in Belgium. Soon afterwards, her family decided to immigrate the United States due to their dangerous life in Berlin.
Smithkin arrived in New York as a teenager and lived on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx with her family. She worked in a factory, which made her appreciate hard labor. “I think every statesman and politician should have a little while, where they do menial work,” Smitkin said, “and then they will understand what regular people go through.” In addition to working in the factory, she continued to make and design hats and leather goods. She also ushered at concert halls. Her salary was $13 a week, which she gave to her parents.
Her youth was not perfect; she was never happy and did not know how to laugh. “When I came to the United States, I was amazed how people could laugh so freely,” she said. Her father would tell her that she couldn‟t do anything right, furthering her insecurities. She did not believe that she would ever be somebody, especially an artist. It would take her years to figure this out and she eventually did through the kindness of the people she met.
At 18 Smithkin married a young man who served as a pilot in the United States military. She married young because she wanted to get away from her parents and also because this young man wanted more than to simply sleep with her. “He was a very nice person,” she said.
However, he died while serving in World War II. Smitkin was never remarried and became very used to her independence. Today, she sees different kinds of people for different reasons. She may have one “date,” as she refers to it, that she always goes to the movies with or one that she attends the theatre with. “I used to believe when you fall in love with someone, you fall in love with them because they fulfill all your needs,” Smithkin says, “but I don‟t know if that is very true anymore.” Having children was never a desire of hers. “With children, you never know what you are going to get. I know a lot of loving parents who have had horrible, awful children,” she said she has no regrets about not having raised a family.
From the time Smithkin moved out of her parents‟ home in the Bronx, she has always lived in her top-floor studio in Greenwich Village. This doesn‟t mean that she has never been anywhere else. In fact her art has taken her to quite a few places around the country. “Traveling is a ripening process. It really gives you a completely different outlook,” said Smithkin.
In the mid-60‟s, she traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, the first place where she was truly on her own, away from her comfort zone. The Kentucky Arts Commission discovered her in Louisville and took her around Kentucky to a number of small communities before commissioning her to teach art classes. Teaching helped Smithkin realize that she actually had something to offer the world through all the positive feedback her students gave her. One woman wanted to learn from her so bad that she brought Smithkin to South Carolina, installed her and fed her. After that, Smithkin traveled around South Carolina and wound up teaching in 14 different communities within the state.
One producer was so fascinated by her art that he wanted to produce a show all about it on South Carolina Educational Television. Smithkin was the first woman who taught fine art on television. The show was called “Everybody Can Paint, If You Want To” and she made forty half-hour segments. Smithkin eventually wrote a book based on this show, the title is “Painting With Ilona.” After her adventures she returned to her studio in the Village to continue painting.
Four years ago, Smithkin underwent a painful hip replacement. “I thought to myself, 'I am very positive, something good has to come from the pain',” she said and went on to paint 54 “pain portraits” in 54 days, as she puts it. They eventually became part of a traveling show, “Menopause,” consisting of art done by women over 80. This “Menopause” exhibit wound up in the Women's Museum, Wiesbaden in Frankfurt, Germany, and 40 of Smithkin's portraits are there now.
Today Smithkin's spirits are high and her attitude is positive, despite the chronic arthritic pain she is in. She attends pain clinics, goes for acupuncture, and has to lie down often. However, she still paints, draws and makes all of her daily routines into fun, like running her bathwater, she gives herself what she calls little “goodies” to look forward to throughout the day. When she gets really down in the dumps, she thinks to herself, “What would you tell your students?” Smithkin continues to teach in the Provincetown museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts every summer, which is where her summer home is. She performs her “Eyelash Cabarets” in the Provincetown nightclubs where she sings Edith Piaf songs like “La Vie En Rose.”
“I never say no when things fall in my lap. I never go out and hustle and ask for it or fight for it, that time has come, but when something falls in my lap I say okay,” says Smithkin, like modeling for Time Out Magazine and “The Look Book” in New York Magazine, which she recently did. Smithkin is regularly featured on a blog called “Advanced Style,” which is about stylish people over 70. “At 90, Ilona is an inspiration to all. She is a fearless lover of life and a great artist and performer. I hope to have as much energy and creativity when I am her age,” said Ari Seth Cohen, publisher of “Advanced Style.”
Gina Brooke, Madonna’s make-up artist and a close friend of Smithkin says, "Ilona is a true vision of light. She exudes the most beautiful energy of artistic expression and above all, life,"
“I have never been as happy as I am [now] because of all the wonderful people I have in my life,” Smithkin said. She hopes to be an inspiration to younger people who are struggling with their identity. Her philosophy is simple, “Never look at what you haven‟t got. Always look at what you have accomplished.” Her style is based on what colors look “happy” because happiness is so important to her now. “My life actually started ten years ago,” she said referring to all the opportunities that have come her way. Still, when asked what her plans for the future are, Smithkin at 90 said, “I don't even buy green bananas anymore because I don't know if I will live to see them ripe.”