December 20, 2020 – The mystery of J. Denaro.

Have you ever come across a piece of art with an unknown signature? I am sure you have. You can walk into practically any thrift store and there are usually countless paintings available for purchase, signed by countless ‘unknowns’. When my oldest sister passed away over three decades ago, she had in her possession nearly two dozen beautiful illustrations by an artist that signed his/her name ‘J. Denaro’. Several years ago, my mom asked if I wanted any of them and I selected two that I was particularly drawn to. I had every intention of framing them and hanging them up in my own art studio but have yet to get around to it. In recent months, I acquired the remaining pieces. And there are a lot! Definitely many more than I remember. “This is some incredible work!” I thought to myself. “How did these pieces end up with my sister? Did this ‘J. Denaro’ know her somehow back in the day, through work or school or some other means?”

Being the curious person that I am, well over 15 years ago when I obtained the first two pieces, I attempted to look up the artist via Google. I came up with a big fat goose egg. It was quite surprising because these aren’t just some casual doodles on paper, these are really quite exquisite. Did a woman do these or was it a man? And are they even still alive? When I looked over the illustrations, there were no telltale signs. Almost all of them depict women (which isn’t really helpful) and trying to study the signature didn’t definitively lead me to one conclusion or the other either. The first time I researched the name through Google, I got nowhere. But it’s amazing what a difference a few years can make! When I looked up the name recently, Bingo! There it was, clear as day. There was no denying this was the same person. The style and signature were an exact match.

Apparently, J. Denaro is alive and well and is a ‘he’. Fantastic! Maybe I’ll get some answers!! Hang on. Not so fast! Life doesn’t always work that way. Once I found the website that clearly belonged to Mr. Denaro, I sent an email (back in September). No response. But I get it! There are any number of things that could have happened. The easiest explanation? It went directly into his junk mail folder. Ok. Maybe. But another explanation? Maybe he did get it and he thinks I’m a nutcase? That is also possible. After contemplating what to do when I didn’t hear back, I thought perhaps a phone call might be the best way to follow up. He had his workplace listed on his website, so I called and left a voicemail once I reached his extension. Once again, nothing. It has now been three months and ‘crickets’. Hmmm. What next?

How or whether to proceed from here, if at all, is a tough one. I don’t want to come off as some crazed stalker or someone with an agenda. I just have some legitimate questions I wanted to ask. My sister was 15 years older than me and she died at the age of 31, when I was 16. I know so little about her. I know she was an artist, just like me, and I know for a time she lived in New York and worked for Vogue and/or Butterick. But for how long and when precisely? No idea. My best guess is sometime in the late 70s because she moved to San Diego in the late 70s or early 80s and died in 1984. And from the illustrations by J. Denaro, which are of fashion models, the late 70s seems like a pretty good guesstimate of when they were done. So I ask myself, do I reach out one more time or do I leave well enough alone? How much is too much? How many times do you have to reach out before your innocent gesture becomes interpreted as being ‘harassed by a lunatic’?

And why hasn’t he ever written or called? As an artist, I don’t understand it. If someone reached out to me that had a bunch of my original art from over 40 years ago (when I was at the beginning of my career), I would want to reach back. If for no other reason, just to ask which pieces they had? “Oh, I see. You have my ‘Girl in Boat’ Painting? Nice! I remember it well. And I am so glad you appreciate my work!” Yes, that’s how I would feel if the person that has that painting (it’s actually pastel) reached out to me. And, yes, I do have other questions. How did they know each other? How did they meet? Were they friends? Were they roommates? Were they co-workers? Did they go out on weekends and party together in New York City? Was she as cool as I remembered? How did she end up with all of that artwork? Did Mr. Denaro give it to her to hold for safekeeping or did she acquire it through another means? Inquiring minds want to know!

My instincts tell me to leave it alone. Maybe we aren’t meant to have all of our questions answered. After checking out his website (from the look of things), it appears Mr. Denaro has had a lucrative career and has done quite well and he probably doesn’t have any desire to talk to the sister of someone he knew over four decades ago. That’s certainly his prerogative. I don’t necessarily understand it but I guess I have to accept it. I guess whatever happened between him and her and how she came into possession of his artwork will have to remain a mystery, just as it has always been. Every now and then, no matter how hard I try to get ‘to the bottom of things’, I come away with nothing. Usually, those things (or questions) are existential in nature so it is next to impossible to ever truly get an answer.

“What the Hell am I doing on this planet? What is my purpose? Who am I? What happens when I die?” Those are some of the questions I ask myself that I am 99.99% certain that I’ll never know the answers to (at least in this lifetime). I mean, some of us have an idea about certain things, such as where we ‘go’ when our physical body ceases to function. But until it actually happens? It’s anybody’s guess really. Some of us believe we either go to Heaven or Hell. Some of us believe we leave for a short time and then we come back for more (in a different body). Some of us believe that when our heart stops beating, we’re done. Finito. There is no Heaven or Hell. There is no ‘Act Two’. Once the ‘lights go out’, adios! There will be no encore. Some of us believe we will be reunited with aliens. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch. The aliens are too far advanced to want to do anything with us at this point other than observe us from a distance. We’re basically ‘lab rats’ that they watch with mixed emotions through their frighteningly large, almond-shaped eyes.

Due to the absence of a response in 3 month’s time, I suspect I will never hear back from Mr. Denaro. And I guess I’ll have to add those questions (that I had hoped to have answered by him) to the list of the ever-elusive existential questions I mentioned earlier as well as a few others. What other questions constantly plague me that I cannot seem to find the answers to? Why do my big toes poke holes in every single pair of my tennis shoes? This is no joke. Every single pair! What caused my ‘idiopathic’ kidney disease? I love that fancy title that sounds a little bit like ‘idiot’. It’s not helpful at all because it actually means the cause is unknown. Why were beets, parsnips, rosemary and cilantro created? In my opinion, which I think is a pretty valid one, they destroy nearly every dish they’re added to. The last question I have is one that I think both you and I share. It is the biggest and most elusive question of all! Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

And with those perplexing questions to ponder, I must leave you now, my friends. My daughter is heading home tomorrow and I’ve got to spend a little more time with her before she returns to her humble abode. I wish you happiness in your heart and I hope I provided a little bit of entertainment to distract you from all of the bad news that seems to be coming at us from every direction. I wish you good health and I hope to ‘see’ you again tomorrow.

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