January 15, 2005
Portrait of a lady of destiny
for the Oneonta
They used to call her the lady with the horse, but now the horse is dead and she is just Lady.
She lives alone in an old farmhouse on a hill in Fly Creek, has lived there for nearly half a century, collecting things and transforming people. She is an artist with a career that has brought her some notoriety but not much money; a career she began on a whim and now says she was destined to pursue.
She is Lady Ostapeck, Pictorial Portraitist, and she has invited me into her studio. I’m not here for a sitting. Nor do I wish to examine her antiques or study her old-fashioned techniques. I’ve come to learn more about the lady behind the lens, the lady some call eccentric and some call a local treasure, the lady who does not use her birth name because she believes it is unlucky.
She has me sit in the corner where her subjects pose in period dress. I recognize the small, wooden, oval table and the window with the white, gauzy curtains.
The 4-by-9-foot room is full of things from other times and places: a statue of Iris, a bronze Roman bust, an 1888 Story & Clark organ, a box of vintage clothing she has been meaning to send to a museum in Finland. Gilded bird cages from the Victorian era and the 1920s hang from cracked ceiling tiles.
Across the room, a brown and boxy camera with a 104-year-old lens stares at us from its tripod perch.
Lady Ostapeck has white hair, knee-high brown boots and a Brooklyn accent that’s not too loud or too fast. She was born in 1918 in Brooklyn’s Finn Town, and by the time she was 5, her mother had died, her father had left and her aunt had been murdered by a crazy neighbor. A Finnish family adopted her, and she came to know happiness.
She studied dress design but couldn’t find a job, so she learned to retouch negatives and eventually made her living working for some of the best studios in New York.
In 1960, she moved to Fly Creek after placing an ad in The Rural New Yorker: “Lady and horse desire country place.” Responses poured in from as far away as Maine and West Virginia. “I only put the ad in to dream,” she recalls. “I didn’t know they were going to answer.”
Lady bought her first camera for $50 after a “magical urge” led her to a Salvation Army thrift shop in Utica. “The camera said to me, `Will you please take me out of this place? I can’t stand it!’ I said, ‘But I only have $53 in my checking.’ ”
She shows me her first photograph, a portrait of her son looking up from a book at 19. “I started to dream: `Gee whiz, I wish photographers would do beautiful pictures like the old-fashioned pictures.’ I thought, `I’m going to do it’ — and that became my style.”
Four decades later, she is so consumed by her passion that she won’t open a set of oil paints for fear the fragrance will make her yearn to paint.
Lady believes she was destined to live this kind of life, make this kind of art. And everything she did before — the days of her youth spent soaking up atmosphere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, her dress-design studies, her city career as "the negative retoucher with soul" — led to this calling.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I drew things,” she says. “I was going to be a painter, but I didn’t have the discipline to learn. My best paintings were like burps — had to be done right then. They were realistic, but they were fast. — When I found my camera, I gave away my paints.”
Most visitors to Whimsy Hill Studio go home with a list of things to do, Lady says, and I’m no different.
By the end of the interview, I’ve promised to learn more about my Greek ancestors, read an epic novel about the history of England, and listen to a cassette she has insisted I borrow, by the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri.
I drive home groggy, still in Lady’s world. She is, I decide, the most fascinating person I have ever met. The images in her photographs are beautiful, unique, haunting — but it is her words that won’t leave me.
“I see my life from here to here,” she said, thrusting her hands wide. “It’s like a long panorama. One thing leads to the other, and you can’t be very happy unless you’ve been very sad. There’s a balance.
“What do I regret? Nothing. Because what I regretted molded my life again. It’s all part of the story.”