Walking into Manhattan Furrier on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint is like taking a tour through 80 years of shop owner Irving Feller’s life. Colorful abstract paintings, photographs, animal busts and a hodge-podge of memorabilia adorn the small store that serves as a fur shop-slash art studio.
Feller traces out curved shapes with a black Sharpie on a piece of paper that sits on his lap. Warm weather means quiet time for the Manhattan Furrier–the furs are cleaned and stored away, and customers are few and far between. In July and August, Feller plans to go on his annual trip to visit the Native American tribes of Navajo, Zuni and Hopi in New Mexico and Arizona. He will bring them furs and money, for which he expects to receive several pieces of the handcrafted turquoise and silver jewelry he sells at the store.
The workshop in the back is filled with furs, tails and miscellaneous pieces of many different types of animals. But amidst the Asian Raccoon, the Sheared Nutria and the Mongolian Lamb, large abstract canvases propped against the walls and worktable are a testament to Feller’s first true lifelong passion–art.
“Number one came art,” said Feller, who considers himself an artist above all else.
He draws and paints intricate colorful patterns on paper and canvas with markers and acrylic paints, and sells them for $300-$1,000. Recently, his work was exhibited at Café Grumpy on Meserole Avenue. On Sundays he, assisted by a young lady, paints portraits of his customers, free of charge.
When he was younger, Feller tried to go to the galleries. He even had an offer from the Guggenheim Museum, but before it could go any further, Feller said, the man who had made him the offer was fired. Eventually, Feller found that he liked painting and drawing for his own satisfaction, even though he made a living as a furrier. Strikingly, the wavy, irregular shapes in his paintings are similar to the pieces he stitches together to make fur coats and hats.
His creative career began during World War II. The U.S. army hired 18-year-old Feller to draw posters illustrating the dangers of venereal disease. Feller, who was a virgin, much like most of the young troops during the war, believed he can keep his comrades from getting sick by educating them with posters.
When he told the army panel that he wanted to study art in Paris after the war was over, they laughed at him—they laughed so hard they almost fell out of their seats. The panel thought that he wanted to go to Paris to chase women.
As soon as the war ended, Feller left the army to study art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, on the GI bill.
“I went to Paris because Picasso was painting there, Matisse, the Post-Impressionists,” said Feller. “It was the place to be for a young artist.”
He opens a tin box, brought out from a closet in the back of the store, and retrieves his first passport. Issued in 1946, the green document is full of stamps, and displays a photograph of a serious young man with pouffy hair and a steady gaze.
After Paris, Feller moved to Jerusalem, where he worked as a portraitist for the King David Citadel Hotel. The head rabbi of India used to find him customers, he remembers. He drew portraits of the distinguished hotel’s lodgers and sold them as souvenirs.
After a brief stint at a conservative Los Angeles art school Feller came back to New York. His father, an Astoria furrier, sent him on vacation to the Catskills, where he met Selma, the love of his life. They married and Feller bought the Manhattan Furrier from his uncle to support his new family.
About 35 years ago, an official from the bureau of Indian affairs called Feller and asked him to help the Native Americans go into the fur business. The official promised Feller an all-expense paid trip to the Southwest, then disappeared, sparking Feller’s curiosity. He went to the reservation on his own. Although the trip went well, establishing successful trade between Feller and the Native Americans was more difficult than he had originally anticipated, and he expressed anger and sadness toward the plight of the American Indian. He said the reservations evoked prison camps.
Back in Greenpoint, the self-described “old school guy” with a penchant for Cherry Jubilee ice cream recently expressed disappointment with humanity, a rather commonplace phenomenon among the aged. He recounted a story about a boy who used to visit the store a year ago. “He was a beautiful, well-dressed polite boy. He wasn’t running around like the others. He used to sit with me, ask me questions.”
Once Feller treated the boy to an ice cream at the nearby Baskin Robbins. A few days later the boy surprised Feller with an ice cream, bought with his own allowance. Feller was so touched that he gave the boy a painting. The next day a woman stormed into the store carrying the painting in one hand and holding the boy with the other. She could not believe Feller gave the boy an obviously marketable painting for free out of the goodness of his heart. She left the painting and dragged the boy, teary-eyed, out of the store, and out of his life.
“I love my wife, I have a daughter,” said Feller. “How could she think [my intentions weren’t pure]?”
Still, Feller wouldn’t change a single moment in his long life that created the person and the artist he is today.
He holds up the white paper he has been drawing on the whole time.
“It looks like a black and white simple ripple,” said Feller. “But behind the curly q’s is a world of experience.”