When 82-year-old artist Ed Jaffe stands up from a chair, he does so slowly and with a pronounced grimace, but it would be reasonable to assume the act is merely for show — a performance so as not to confuse a younger person’s expectations of an old man. Jaffe is and is not a lot of things.
He is a sculptor, but sits in an office surrounded by new paintings; he is a resident of Orange in that he lives within its town limits; and he is that expected old man only in that his stories are better than most and he is all too willing to tell them.
One of the most eye-catching pieces in Jaffe’s main street gallery in Orange is the large sign announcing the building’s for sale. For years the artist has been trying to sell his gallery and studio and make his return to his native North.
“That’s the reason I’m leaving,” said Jaffe, as he nods towards a wall in his studio covered with faces of smiling grandchildren. “The older you get, the closer you want to be to family.”
A stronger real estate market likely would have ushered Jaffe out of the area much earlier, but as he waited and waited for his building to sell, pieces of his work began accumulating around him, eventually convincing him to hold one last scheduled show in Virginia.
“As I waited for my building to sell, I continued to work on pieces for a show for when I got up North,” said Jaffe. “But after a few contracts fell through and my paintings began to overtake my office, I thought, ‘I might as well have one here.’ ”
In his building, Jaffe’s life is neatly compartmentalized: a large, sprawling gallery of finished paintings and sculptures out front; a painting studio with floors and tables spattered with different mixes of color; a stark-white sculpting studio; and then an ordinary office with a computer and printer, but with a floor lined with finished paintings awaiting display.
It is a world separated from any other and intentionally built that way. Traffic barely can be heard outside, and the only windows are ceiling skylights, providing light by which to see, but offering a view of nothing but possibly the time and weather.|
“When you’re in here, you’re not in Orange; you’re not even in Virginia,” said Jaffe. “You’re in my space.”
Seventeen years ago, Jaffe came to that space by happenstance and stayed on a whim. His life has moved in roughly 20-year cycles, and while traveling to Winston-Salem, N.C., to look at a property, Jaffe stopped in Orange and saw the vacant building then owned by the late H.B. Sedwick.
Jaffe never made it to North Carolina on that trip.
“It was big and empty,” said Jaffe. “I spoke with H.B. Sedwick on a Tuesday and closed on the building on Thursday. I drove back to Vermont thinking, ‘Now what am I going to do with this building I just bought?’ But by the time I got back, I had it planned out. I love this building; it’s built to suit my very individual needs, but now it’s time to do something else.”
The gallery is, perhaps unintentionally, set up chronologically, both in terms of years and artistic progression. Jaffe can connect various pieces and trace them back to a particular breakthrough in his work, sculptures influencing paintings and vice versa, a constant movement toward the abstract and a continuing battle with two-dimensionality. What it all boils down to is a small phrase pinned up in Jaffe’s painting studio: “I’m not done yet.”
“With this one,” said Jaffe, pointing to the painting studio’s current work in progress, “I’m learning how to paint. I’m still figuring it out.”
In the past two years Jaffe has moved from primarily marble sculpture back to painting.
“I had these flaming red joints on my hand that hurt like hell,” he said.
Two doctors couldn’t figure out the cause of Jaffe’s pain, and it wasn’t until lunch with a vascular surgeon that he learned the possible cause.
“He asked me if I had ever worked with power tools,” said Jaffe. “I said, ‘Yes, I’ve worked with power tools for the last 40 years.’ He said that was my problem and that I just had to stop using power tools. That meant stopping working with stone. You pay the price to have this much fun.”
Jaffe’s final scheduled show in Virginia will be somewhat of a retrospective of his work, including never-before-seen pieces from as far back as 1957. Viewers won’t find many elements of Orange County in Jaffe’s work, as he said he is mostly influenced foreign and distant cultures that are not his own, but he said that Orange has been an enjoyable place to live and work.
“I enjoy small-town living,” said Jaffe. “Twenty-two years in Manhattan will kick you out of big cities.”
The show opens from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday and runs until the end of June, but Jaffe said he will be around and the gallery will be open until he sells the building.
“If I’m in the gallery, it will be open,” he said. “Just ring the bell and come in.”
Drew Jackson writes for the Orange County Review.