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From Long Island Wins - December 17, 2010

Mort Künstler on Immigration in Life and Art

When it comes to historical paintings, especially of the Civil War, few artists have enjoyed the level of success achieved Oyster Bay resident Mort Künstler. The 79-year-old painter has tackled everything from movie posters to a space shuttle launch, and in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a collection of his related work will be on display at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn until January 9.

Some of Künstler’s paintings – particularly a 1986 series on immigrants at Ellis Island – remind us that today’s immigration debates certainly aren’t the first time America and Long Island, have had to address the issue of how to welcome the people who come here seeking to work towards a better life. I caught up with the artist to talk about his art, our nation’s deep history of immigration, and his own familial history of immigration.

Aside from historical interest, do you have any personal connection to immigration in America?

We’re all immigrants except for the Native Americans; it’s just a question of how long your family has lived here…My father was born in this country but his parents came over from Poland. I was brought up in Brooklyn, and it was like a Jewish neighborhood on the border of an Italian neighborhood, so the kids I hung out with were half-and-half. And in high school, Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, all of us were sons of immigrants. In fact, I was one of the exceptions in that my parents were born in this country.

Do you see parallels between your grandparents’ immigrant struggles and that of immigrants today?

I know that the immigrants of my parents’ era, and their parents, certainly went through the exact same stuff. It’s an ongoing thing; whoever got here first thinks they’re the real Americans.

The paintings in the Ellis Island series include detailed portraits of recently arrived European immigrants. How did you create the characters and capture their emotions so vividly?

You have to research everything that’s new to you. I mean, even the Civil War, I have to research each picture. It’s not that difficult, really. I remember going through files at the New York Public Library; I remember picking up characters from public domain photos. I also studied the photos of Jacob Reis. It gave you a good slice of life in the United States.

Living in Oyster Bay, what are your thoughts about the town’s attempt to criminalize roadside solicitation by day laborers?

I don’t know what the answer is. You’ve got contractors that want to get people working for them, and you’ve got the guys that want to work. But maybe there should be a parking field put aside for them that’s not used.

For a slideshow of the paintings, visit our website, LongIslandWins.com.

Maryann Sinclair Slutsky is the campaign director of Long Island Wins, a campaign promoting policy solutions to local immigration issues. Visit their website at www.LongIslandWins.com.