Artist Felix Pène du Bois dies at age 61

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Artist Felix Pène du Bois dies at age 61
Felix Pène du Bois, Atlanta, 2010. 7'3 h x 10'3 w. © Curtis Rogers, New Orleans, LA.

by Tom Breidenbach

NEW YORK, NY.- Born Clodagh McKenney on April 11, 1957, the artist Felix Pène du Bois died May 31, 2018, at age 61.  The cause of death was suicide, committed after decades of suffering from a lack of medical treatment for schizophrenia and depression.  She is survived by her husband Curtis Rogers of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Felix Pène du Bois painted in a lushly fauvist style recalling that of her teacher, the painter Paul Georges.  Often informed by visual elements of her life in Boston, New York City, and New Orleans, her colorful canvases combined deftly expressionistic passages with more refined imagery, evincing a classical sense of form as well as an accomplished painterly hand.  They are marked by a fanciful charm, as though indicative of an inherent sense of the magical, as well as of the humor necessary to tolerating life’s extremes.

Felix’s maternal grandfather was the painter Guy Pène du Bois, who died of alcoholism a year after she was born.  Her father James Harvey McKenney owned Wetherell Steel of Cambridge, Massachusetts and collected Guy Pène du Bois paintings while on trips to Paris.  In the mid 1950’s Harvey met Guy’s daughter Yvonne Pène du Bois at the artist’s Paris studio.  After divorcing his first wife, Harvey married Yvonne (also an artist) and brought her and her father to live in Brookline, Massachusetts.  Adjoined by a large yard with numerous gardens and overlooking a nature preserve, their large manor home was hung with paintings by Guy Pène du Bois, Edward Hopper (a good friend of Guy’s) and Yvonne (the foyer featured a trompe l’oeil painting by Yvonne depicting the black and white tiles of the floor continuing on through a grove of trees).  It also contained an eclectic collection of antique furniture, most of it French.

Clodagh was soon born to a 44-year-old mother and a considerably older father.  She drew and painted continuously from an early age, with her mother encouraging her creativity and her father urging her to be like the hero of his favorite book, Huckleberry Finn.  The family took several trips to France, Italy, as well as Switzerland, where Felix would attend boarding school, in addition to the local Catholic elementary school she attended in Boston.  She later enrolled at High Mowing High School in New Hampshire, where she made many friends.

When Clodagh was 13 she discovered “Felix” written on the name tag inside a leather jacket she’d purchased at a thrift store.  Recalling the wily cat of cartoon fame, the name became hers too from then on, being appended to her grandfather’s surname to form the professional name the younger artist would subsequently use throughout her life.

Felix studied music with Ran Blake, a “Third Stream” musician and an innovative educator who believed music should be taught by first developing one’s ear with careful listening and imitating, as well as with improvisation.  Blake told Felix that while she was not a genius on the piano she could sing and dance masterfully.

In 1975, Felix studied classical realistic drawing in Florence with Segniori Seimi.  She also studied painting at Brandeis with the artist Paul Georges, who regarded Felix as his most talented student, and became her most influential teacher.  She would show up to class twice a week with an entourage piling out of an old station wagon driven by a boyfriend.  Georges taught Felix the visceral expressiveness of the painterly tradition he had learned from Hans Hofmann, Fernand Léger, and Jack Wilkinson.  He encouraged Felix to paint on a large scale, to depict her dreams and be free, advice she avidly followed.

He also persuaded her to move to New York City.  Which Felix did around 1981, working as a babysitter for the children of composer Philip Glass and JoAnne Akalaitis, and inheriting a modest trust fund after her father’s death.  She rented a loft above a movie theater on Delancey Street, living there with her boyfriend, Greg Van Cook, formerly a lead guitarist for the band Wayne County and The Electric Chairs.  The couple was always welcoming to their friends, some of whom would stay with them for days at a time.  These included Michael Patrick MacDonald; Marguerite Van Cook; James Romberger; Tony Rocco, a soft-spoken, kind-hearted Brooklyn junkie; and Albee Pritchard, a homeless beat poet and irascible drunkard whom Felix and Greg loved dearly.

In order to start showing her own work in New York Felix would arrive at a gallery’s opening night and prop one of her paintings nearby.  In 1985 she and Greg moved to a storefront at 647 E. 11th Street, living in the apartment in back of what she named the Pène Du Bois Gallery.  From late 1985 until early the next year she presented four exhibits, including two one-person shows and two group shows.  Her own work was displayed in galleries associated with the East Village art scene, including 56 Bleecker Gallery.  Barry Blinderman offered her a one person show at Semaphore East in 1986.  During this period Felix was often visited in both Boston and New York by her friend, poet and artist René Ricard.

In the late 1980s a former high school teacher of Felix’s wheedled large sums of money from her, depleting her inheritance and leading to her being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, after which she left New York and moved back to her Brookline home.  Around 1990, Felix and a boyfriend drove a van from Brookline to New Orleans, in and near which she would live from then on, sometimes in shelters and on food lines during periods of destitution.  In New Orleans she met and later married the love of her life, Curtis Rogers.  

When painting on the streets of New Orleans (as she had also done in Boston) Felix collected crowds of admirers with whom she conversed as she worked.  She would often paint all day near Jackson Square, some of the exotic scenes—filled with people, musicians, revelers, dancers, and animals—being applied in acrylic directly to the sidewalk.  Paul Georges encouraged her to use a canvas so she could retain her work.  
Felix took to unfurling 20 feet of canvas and painting all day, a hat beside her for the contributions of well-wishers.  In the last decade of her life she painted on small canvases at Jackson Square and at the outside benches at Frady’s One Stop Food Store on Dauphine Street. Felix returned to Boston with Curtis in 1996-97 in order to faithfully attend her dying mother in a nursing home.  After this Felix returned to New Orleans, but made several trips to New York and Boston in fruitless efforts to obtain money to live on from lawyers for her family’s estate.  Unable to access the wealth her parents left her, what assets she did possess prevented her from obtaining Medicaid or welfare, and she suffered mental illness and alcoholism in poverty.   

Felix and Curtis sold their house in New Orleans in 2005 because their neighborhood was becoming intolerably dangerous.  They purchased a house in Waveland, Mississippi, and five months later Hurricane Katrina struck.  They fled in a van only to return days later to traumatizing devastation—their house damaged beyond repair, many of Felix’s paintings damaged as well, and their community badly battered.

In the aftermath of Katrina Felix often painted in Pirate’s Alley with New Orleans artist friends who revered her and her work.  She spent 2009 in Maryland at the farm of her best friend from Brandeis, Suzanne Brault.  In an episode of mania that summer she attempted to hitchhike to New Orleans without her wallet and wound up in a homeless shelter in Atlanta, Georgia for several days.  She returned to Maryland and in 2010 painted a signature work in her style, Atlanta.

After 30 years of trying, in 2011 Felix stopped drinking with the support of a 12step program she attended daily.  She lived life to the fullest, creating a lifetime’s worth of vital art in spite of severe illness and poverty.  She kept painting to the end.  Having been discovered after she took all of her pills and left a note, she was kept on life support in a hospital, and died surrounded by Curtis and many friends.

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