Painter, Lenny Contino

Lenny Contino, the painter, died on March 10, 2016 at 4:50 AM in Queens. He was seventy-six years old and the most courageous person I have ever known.  He spent most of his life in a wheel chair. Nancy and I visited Lenny in his Ozone Park home about fourteen months ago. When I asked him why he hadn’t showed up at a recent art event he said it was hard for him to get around. “Lenny,” I said, “that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you complain.”

Lenny Contino at his work table in Queens, 2014.

Lenny Contino at his work table in Queens, 2014.

I met Lenny fifty years ago through Mark di Suvero. Lenny grew up in the nineteen fifties in Brooklyn and was a wild kid. He liked to drag race in cars. In 1959, at age nineteen, young Lenny Contino dove into the waters of Jamaica Bay and for whatever freak reasons, sustained a massive spinal cord injury. That made him a quadriplegic. When he wasn’t in bed he lived in a wheel chair. He had to use both of his hands to hold up a cup.

Lenny with his mother Annella, standing at his right, at Park Place Gallery, 1967.

Lenny with his mother Annella, standing at his right, at Park Place Gallery, 1967.

Lenny Contino became an artist and a painter. He painted every day. It kept him alive, and on that last visit when I made a picture of him at his paint covered kitchen table, I realized his small Queens home had become an art gallery. Every bit of wall space, every cabinet, held art or sculpture, most of it made by Lenny at that table inside that house. In modern times he enjoyed using a computer and sending links over email. When I learned he was dead I did a search on my old computer looking for a photo of “Lenny Contino”.  What  came up on the screen was something Lenny had sent me as email, a photo of a woman’s suntanned butt in a bikini. Lenny was making jokes from the grave.

Lenny with Mark di Suvero on Front Street, 1967.

Lenny with Mark di Suvero on Front Street, 1967.

Hemingway’s line that “courage is grace under fire” doesn’t’ really fly when faced with a Lenny Contino. Lenny’s grace was greater. He wasn’t a soldier, he didn’t wear guns or armament. He got upset when you stepped on a bug, claiming it had an afterlife. Lenny was a naked human soul that kept himself alive by making art. When I urged him to get an iPhone, and told him he would be able to use it, Lenny said he didn’t want the intrusion on his life.

Lenny Contino was amongst the most loved of artists and most courageous of people.  So long pal. We love you.

8 Responses to “Painter, Lenny Contino”
  1. Kathy says:

    Lenny was a friend for 60 years. He was remarkable in every way. I met him when i was 15 and we remained in touch all these years. May he rest in peace and be racing his cars somewhere. He was a real hero, one of a kind. Someone should make a movie of his heroic life. I am so glad i was his friend

    • dektol says:

      He raced cars? Where, in the
      street? He painted cars? It’s
      good to leave a record of Lenny’s early life.

  2. Marlis Freitag (Henke) says:

    Lenny was a close family friend since he was a small child. As my father died just before about the same day, it was shocking that when his mother left my fathers funeral that as she came home she found Lenny in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down. We kept in contact all these years and watched how Mark befriended and encouraged Lenny throughout them. How lucky they lay next to each other in the hospital. It was great to see Lenny go into the arts. Every time I pass Lenny’s painting I always thought and will continue to , think of him. He’s always been in my heart, and he will be sorely missed. xoxo Marlis Freitag (Henke)

    • dektol says:

      We would welcome any more stories of young Lenny. Most
      of us knew him, and Anella, through Mark and the art world.
      Lenny often told me he was a “wild kid”, and his love of cars. I grew up in Forest Hills,
      a very different life.
      Anything about his life before the accident would help fill out
      his story.

  3. Marlis Freitag (Henke) says:

    I had left a comment here and it disappeared.

  4. Kathy says:

    Lenny was my first boy friend when i was 16. We went to Coney Island to celebrate. We fell in teenage love. He always said he was a wild kid, but to me he was not at all. He drove a gray prime painted hot rod type coupe and would drag race on Crossbay blvd. From Ozone Park,where we lived to Howard beach and tne Rockaways. Life then was like the movie Grease. He hung out with a group of guys in a candy store on the corner of Pitkin Ave. And Crossbay blvd. One fellow i know he has seen in the last few years was Joey P. Lenny also liked to scuba dive in Far Rockaway.we broke up after a few months and shortly after that was that horrible day. After about a week after his injury his father came to my house and asked if i would come to the hospital to help encourage him to live. It was horrible for him until he met Mark. Mark helped him to start a different life, one that gave him the will t o go on. He went on for almost 60 years. Thru the years of my trials and troubles he would always encouage me.. the last time we talked i was recovering from hip replacement surgery and his joke was I cant believe you have a walker.i will never forget this wonderful man and what he contributed to our world. Courage, understanding, strength and the will to live under any circumstance. Thank you

  5. Marlis Freitag (Henke) says:

    How does one send a photo here?

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