On Music and Art

Memories and Musings

Faith Restrained. Sculpture by Nina Tisara (before it went into the kiln!), 1955. (Photo contributed)

By Nina Tisara

ALEXANDRIA,VA- I’m not really proud of this but I turned to art because I was jealous of the attention my big brother Murray was getting when his paintings went up on the living room wall. He was around 16 or 17 years old, so I would have been 10 or 11. I remember him saying, later in life, that if he hadn’t turned to art he would have wound up in reform school.

My brother was Murray Tinkelman, an extraordinarily talented artist/illustrator. He won gold medals from the Society of Illustrators, The New York Art Directors Club, and the Society of Publications Designers. His illustrations appeared in Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Delaware Art Museum, the International Photography Hall of Fame & Museum, and the New Britain Museum of American Art. The Norman Rockwell Museum honored him as its 2014 Artist Laureate.

He was an inspired educator. I heard him speak several times and to this day I try to channel him when I speak. Murray died in 2016, two weeks after his wife, Carol. I think he died of a broken heart.

I don’t know what schools are like in New York City now but when I was growing up there were magnet schools where one could focus on math and science, industrial arts, performing arts, music, and art, and probably more.

Murray went to the High School of Industrial Art. Not wanting to compete with him, I applied to the High School of Music and Art. Because it drew its students from all over the city, we were exposed to more cultural diversity than schools with students from a particular neighborhood. Students majored in either music or art. You had to have good grades to be accepted. Art students had to submit a portfolio of their work. Music students were accepted based on a competitive audition. We carried a full academic load plus three classes of either art or music each day.

The High School of Music and Art (M&A), now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, was on 135th Street and Convent Avenue in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. I lived in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, an hour’s train ride away. I did my reading assignments on the train going to or coming from school.

Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma, Indian painter and artist, 1848-1906. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The building was often referred to as The Castle on the Hill. It had gothic towers and quirky decorative gargoyles. I remember listening to kids playing guitar and singing folk songs at nearby St. Nicholas Park. Guitar music, the sound that a fat watercolor brush makes when swished in a coffee can of water, or the smell of turpentine transports me right back to those times.

I majored in sculpture in my senior year. My final piece was titled “Faith Restrained.” It’s a good thing it was photographed before it went into the kiln, because it didn’t make it back out. An air bubble probably. I was sad, but even then I knew that making it was more important than having it.

My mom said that Music & Art ruined me. I think it saved me. Take a quiet kid who feels that she doesn’t quite fit in, surround her with kids like her, and seemingly all of a sudden she finds her voice. If you think you hear me advocating for funding for the arts, you hear right.

I graduated from M&A when I was still 16 and left Brooklyn for Washington, D.C. as soon as I turned 18. While still in New York I worked for the Brooklyn Navy Yard and went to Brooklyn College four nights a week and to the Brooklyn Museum Art School on the fifth. I married soon after relocating to D.C. I was 18. I had a four children, divorced (twice), worked for the official Air Force Photo Library (where I learned about archiving photographs), and then for 11 years as executive assistant to the director of an association of state agencies on Capitol Hill. After taking a photography class at Northern Virginia Community College for fun, I fell in love with my camera and started my own photography business. That marriage stuck.

Though I haven’t made it back to M&A for a reunion, I’ve reunited with the artist in me. These days I’m combining sculpture and photography and creating mosaic art.

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