Sadie Penzato exhibition at Highland’s Knaus Gallery

Longtime area resident Sadie Penzato with some of her paintings in her barn gallery in Highland. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

At a time when “ageism” emerges as a buzzword for yet another social sensitivity demand, one of our local octogenarians declares her long-term refusal to be a victim and prepares to move on – on her own terms, as usual. Painter, teacher and writer Sadie Penzato is pushing up against 90. “Ninety is ancient!” she says. “It really is. Maybe I’m the girl who cried ‘Wolf!’ too many times. Four years ago, I sold my paintings, but nobody bought my house. I went to Florida and came back, and lowered the price. When three people wanted to buy it, I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t want to sell it.’ I thought I’d just go back and forth. While I’m in Florida, I get a phone call from someone who wants to buy my house. It turns out it’s the guy next door!”

So she is once again mounting an exhibit, this time at the Knaus Gallery & Wine Bar, where she hopes to meet and greet old friends for one last hurrah before heading south for good. Penzato taught art for a number of years in Marlboro schools under her married name, Stellefson. She painted. She wrote a memoir. She turned it into an Off-Broadway musical. She worked as a journalist. Along the way, she put herself through multiple degree programs, earning five in total: three from SUNY-New Paltz, including a Certificate of Advanced Study for Administration, and two, including a Doctorate of Education, from Columbia.

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“I have to tell you, I thought I was going to be a famous writer, a famous artist, a famous everything. But I’m a big fish in a little pond. Everywhere I go, local people know of me. The thing is, I may not be a highly successful painter or writer, but I have influenced the lives of so many people. I get letters: ‘If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be who I am, or wouldn’t have gone to the places I’ve gone, you made my life!’ I’ve gotten letters like that from so many students.”

I ask if she can put a pin on exactly what she has done for people. “I loved my students, and they loved me. Everything I do, I do with love. People love my cooking – and I only cook for those I love – and as I’m cooking, I say, ‘They’re gonna love this.’”

She read a book about growing up Sicilian, written by a man. “I thought, ‘That’s not how it was. Of course, he’s a man!’ My father didn’t treat me the way he treated his sons. I thought I’m gonna write a book one day.” Which she did, titling it Growing up Sicilian and Female. “I had no background in literature. I loved to write, but I got rejections from a few publishers.

“At that time the New York Times best-seller list included only one Italian: Mario Puzo. Editors were saying, ‘Sicilians don’t read, and neither do Italians.’ So nobody would touch my book unless it was about the Mafia, murder or a cookbook. I said, ‘Screw them,’ and I self-published 4,000 copies in 1991. It cost me $21,000, and I’d paid it off within a year-and-a-half. I drove my little convertible with no GPS to Italian clubs, got letters, requests; I had my own business. That book has brought me so many friends, recognition, excitement, parties in New York. I was known by the Italian community because of that book.

“When I was writing my book, I’d finish a chapter and say, ‘They’re gonna love this.’ People would come up and say, ‘I loved your book. My 87-year-old mother was sitting in the kitchen listening.’ People wrote, ‘Now I can understand why my father was the way he was. I could never understand him before.’ I’ve got a box full of letters people wrote about my book. So I know I’ve made an impact – maybe not nationally or worldwide, but I’ve done a lot of good for a lot of people in my life.”

“That’s an excellent way to assess your life,” I say. “You could have had it all coming in your direction, the fame and all. But when you measure it by what you’ve done for others, based on their response to you…”

“The thing is, I didn’t set out to do that. I got married at 18; was a mother at 19. For 13 years, I was the housewife, the room mother, president of the PTO – all that stuff. Then, when I was 31, I went back to college. In 1962, there were only seven married women on campus. The professors looked at us like we had two heads. We were close to them in age, and they didn’t like that. We challenged them.”

At 35, Penzato earned her BA degree. “A few years later, I got my Master’s. I’d always wanted a doctorate, so I applied for a sabbatical when I was 48 years old, went to Columbia for one year and got my doctorate. I had hoped to teach college, but I never did. After 20 years of teaching, I applied to be principal; but I think they thought I was a crazy artist, that I wasn’t stable. I hit 55 and I left. When I finally got divorced, I bought seven buildings in Newburgh and sold them for a profit.”

I asked Penzato if she simply fell into success. “No, I worked very hard. I do believe in life you should have a goal. People plan their vacations, their wardrobes, but they don’t plan their own lives. They stumble along. It doesn’t have to do with luck; it has to do with intelligence: thinking, digesting, taking years sometimes to make a decision. It took me 33 years to leave my marriage.

“When I did it, I did it in the right way. I really have no regrets. I sat down and wrote my book after I quit teaching and got divorced. It’s like I’d been in a cage, and somebody opened it and I flew out. I’ve only landed recently. I was 58 when I got out of that cage. Unfortunately, I was an enabler to my husband. I let him get away with it. I was brought up Sicilian. But I’m not the victim.

Now her home, an 1871 Colonial farmhouse in Highland, is upended, with boxes of papers and paintings stacked and scattered in every room. Penzato is packing up a lifetime of documents, works of art, odds and ends. I ask her if she has a plan or a goal now. “Once you’re in your 80s and you’re old, you no longer have a future. You can’t say, ‘Five years from now I’ll do this,’ because you don’t know. I was 85, fit, strong, ate well, never smoked, barely drank – and I got breast cancer. They say if you live long enough, everybody gets cancer. For three years I was an invalid. My body fell apart. I used to build stone walls! Now I’m back to being me, but I say the only thing wrong with me is old age.

Penzato says that over 50 years, she has probably sold 400 works and garnered enough notoriety to be recognized by collectors. Her paintings have been exhibited since 1964 through galleries that include the Ann Leonard Gallery and Rudolph Galleries in Woodstock. Her work is also in many private collections.

The Knaus Gallery & Wine Bar will exhibit a number of Penzato’s paintings from July 12 through 27. Its hours of operation are Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 10 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 9 p.m. The opening reception on Friday, July 12 will be a fond farewell party. 

“Works of Sadie Penzato” opening reception, Friday, July 12, 6-9 p.m., Knaus Gallery & Wine Bar, 76 Vineyard Ave., Highland; (845) 834-3144, www.knausgalleryandwinebar.com.

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