Canvasing SoHo: A Brief Chat with Daniel Himmelfarb of Jamie Canvas

Jamie Canvas store in Soho, 1976 / Robin Forbes, photographer. Robin Forbes' slides of Soho, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Jamie Canvas store in Soho, 1976 / Robin Forbes, photographer. Robin Forbes’ slides of Soho, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

My father, when he was walking out the door, often used to say to me, “I need to go to Jamie Canvas,” or “I’m stopping at Jamie Canvas on my way home.”  I always thought Jamie Canvas was a person, someone he was going to visit.  But as many of you may remember, Jamie Canvas was an art supply store on Spring Street that sold, among other things, lots and lots of canvas.

I recently sat down with Daniel Himmelfarb, who opened Jamie Cavas in 1972 when he was 25 years old, at Housing Works Bookstore to talk about his shop.

After working at several art supply stores, including Pearl Paint, and also selling canvas out of his studio apartment on Carmine Street, Himmelfarb took over a small retail space at 151 Spring Street where the rent was $200.00 a month, an amount that seemed rather exorbitant to him at the time.  To build up a clientele, he made up business cards and flyers that he distributed throughout the neighborhood, placing them in AIR (Artist in Residence) boxes of loft buildings.

Jamie, for whom Jamie Canvas is named

Jamie, for whom Jamie Canvas is named

Named after Himmelfarb’s then girlfriend, Jamie, the store became a kind of hub for local artists.  In 1976, he expanded by moving into a larger space across the street, where he sold art supplies and toys until he closed 1986 because his landlord, Manny Lehrman, who “looked like Nelson Rockefeller and talked like Nelson Rockefeller but was Jewish,” raised his rent.  The space is now a Doc Marten store.

Flyer for Jamie Canvas

Flyer for Jamie Canvas

Back in the good ol’ days, Jamie Canvas was patronized by a cast of local characters.

Philippe Petit once showed off his talents by balancing a paintbrush on his head, and then tripped on his way out of the store.  Hannah Wilke came in to rant about how her freighting company, not realizing that her “vulval” sculptures, made from chewing gum, were works of art, lumped them all together into a huge wad and shipped it as a gum ball.  George Horner, whose medium was Silly Putty, had Himmelfarb order tubs of it wholesale.  In the later years, after he acquired a color Xerox machine, Jean-Michel Basquiat used to stop in to make photocopies of his drawings that he would later glue onto canvases.  He even once left a drawing behind that Himmelfarb kept as a souvenir.  Andy Warhol also came in:

Warhol bought  a lot of toy boxes, Russian and Eastern European toys, and did a series of small paintings from them and hung at children s height.  All the images were taken from my carefully chosen art toys.  But they were meant as toys, not art.  The art was accidental, unlike KidRobot.

Interior of Jamie Canvas on Spring Street

Interior of Jamie Canvas on Spring Street

When I asked him what he misses most about old SoHo, he said he is nostalgic for the small-town feel of the neighborhood.  Everyone knew each other and everyone was excited about each other’s work.  There was a community support system that disappeared when the neighborhood reached a critical mass and then its members were dispersed into a far-reaching diaspora.  He misses the realness and grittiness of SoHo, the “authenticity of an Italian Neo-Realist film” that is long gone.

What ever happened to Jamie, I asked.  Himmelfarb is not in touch with her.  Even before he closed the Spring Street store, he married someone else, and his wife was the one who lobbied against changing the store’s name to “Suzanne Canvas.”

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12 Responses to “Canvasing SoHo: A Brief Chat with Daniel Himmelfarb of Jamie Canvas”

  1. Jules Says:

    Fantastic article! The author did a great job at illustrating how important Jamie Canvas was to the art world and the neighborhood. I am very proud of my dad for his contribution to culture and society.

  2. Carol Eckman Says:

    Jamie Canvas—this is a classic soho story, most enjoyable. the way Himmelfarb expressed his nostalgia for the old days is wonderfully touching. btw, regarding Robin Forbes’ slides of Soho, can you please tell me how would one go about seeing them?

  3. Yukie Ohta Says:

    Thanks, Carol. If you click on the photo the link should take you to the archive. Let me know if that doesn’t work!

    • crumpet212 Says:

      thanks Yukie. while i was looking around i saw the “archives of american art.” great stuff.

  4. Jaime Davidovich Says:

    I have been reading all your posts. It is really incredible. You are doing such an important work to keep the original Soho alive. Bravo! Jaime Davidovich

  5. Jason Hwang Says:

    Good Old Memories . I think I was 18 years old when I started working there running the Cibachrome Print center Machine & other printing devices . My Cibachrome Prints haven’t changed color yet , LOL

  6. Trish Blair Says:

    This time of year always brings me back to my early years of living in New York, Jamie Canvas and the cast of characters I worked with there. I loved everything about the store and the incredible neighborhood that SOHO was. I’m happy to have been a part of that. Thanks Danny and Jeff for giving me my first job in NYC!

  7. Anna Harris Says:

    What happened to Daniel? Did he open another art supply store

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