Hilton Head Island artist Marty Montag looks back on his 95 years of visual memories

loberle@islandpacket.comJune 28, 2013 

Sheri Farbstein, left, of Hilton Head Island talks with artist Marty Montag during his art exhibition "Marty Montag at 95: An Artful Life, Portraits in Pastel and Acrylic"at the Walter Greer Gallery at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island. The exhibition was presented by the Art League of Hilton Head and will run through June 29.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

For 52 years, Hilton Head Island resident Marty Montag worked as a commercial artist on Madison Avenue in New York City. His work appeared in magazines such as Newsweek, Time and Life. He retouched Estee Lauder models in a time before computers and Photoshop.

Work days were up to 14 hours, stretching into the weekends. Every day, Montag took the subway from Roslyn, N.Y., on Long Island where he and his wife, Berte, had chosen to raise their children, into Manhattan to the office he shared with three other artists on 50th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenue.

In the evenings he'd spend time with his wife, who worked as an attorney, and with his two daughters, Jane and Lisa, before getting back to work in his home studio. Jane remembers falling asleep to the sound her father's airbrush compressor.

At age 95, life is slowing down for Montag.

The walls of his apartment at The Cypress, a retirement community on Hilton Head Island, are lined with artwork by his daughter Lisa, his friends and himself.

In the second bedroom, which acts as his art studio, Montag pulls out a thick stack of still life acrylic paintings. He works three to four days a week, finishing one painting each week.

Even at his age, his creations haven't stopped

"It keeps me out of trouble," he said.

"Having a talent has carried me wherever I went. The arts have been good to me."

BECOMING AN ARTIST

Montag grew up in New York City -- two blocks from the Bronx Zoo -- before there were street lights in Manhattan and when Pelham Parkway was a scene for horseback riding.

His family moved to Laurelton, a neighborhood in Queens, where he met his wife. Montag attended Far Rockaway High School before enrolling in Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn.

After earning his degree in art in 1938, Montag got first job was at a silk screening company in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan.

"Rats were taking over," he said. "I would come into work in this factory building, and the rats would eat through the corner of a door."

He worked there for six months before leaving to work on Madison Avenue as a freelancer for advertising agencies, earning $75 a week.

"It was a lot of money," Montag said.

When the United States joined World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Montag joined the war effort as a draftsman and tool designer for Cains Corporation in Brooklyn. In spring 1945, he was sent to infantry training at Fort Wheeler in Macon, Ga., before being shipped overseas.

By the time Montag got to LeHavre, France, the war was over and the rebuilding had begun. As the officers learned of Montag's artistic background, he was put to work accordingly. Stationed in Bavaria, Germany, Montag painted directional signs for the area, and was then sent to Limberg to paint the recreational room of a Red Cross facility.

But first, Montag had to find paint and brushes. He located an art restorer, who had also served as a colonel in the German army, who gave him a can of brushes and paint powder.

"The war was over and anybody I met would say, 'I was not a Nazi,'" Montag said. "They gave me anything I asked for."

Montag painted a 30-foot wide mural. In it, four women in Red Cross uniforms are serving coffee and donuts out of a yellow bus. The mural was made into a postcard for soldiers to send home.

Montag became a cartoonist for "The Dragon," the army newpapers, and "The Hatchet," a ship newspaper for the USAT George Washington, which took him home. He landed on Staten Island on July 4, 1945, where his wife and year-old daughter Jane were waiting for him.

Two years later their second daughter, Lisa Brotman, was born. Brotman, now a part-time Hilton Head resident, went on to become a professional artist, and her artwork is displayed at the Charles Street Gallery in Beaufort and the Filling Station in Bluffton.

"She's a better artist than me," Montag said.

AN ARTFUL LIFE

After 47 years as a commerical artist, Montag and Berte retired to Boca Raton, Fla. They moved to Hilton Head in 2004 to be closer to their daughters. Berte was ill with Parkinson's disease, and died six months later.

Montag's memory is still sharp, the visual images of his life having stayed with him.

"I'm lucky ...," Montag said. "I can remember most everything in my lifetime, from early on. I can remember details of some of it.

"My visual memory is pretty good," he said. "I view the world not so much through what I hear, but what I see."

A few years back he took a memory trip through the city. His office on 50th Street, around the corner from the Waldorf Astoria where he had slept on a couch during the blackout of 1966, is now a condo. He sees streets filled with tourists in a city that was simply a place where people worked.

"New York, it is different," Montag said. "I find New York is for young people. They go to dinner at 10 o'clock at night."

On the island, he lives a life of leisure, spending time with his daughters and grandchildren during their frequent visits.

He looks forward to his art class in the club house at The Cypress every Monday, enjoying time with other residents and the community art creates. His artwork hangs in the window of the art room.

"The opportunity to interact with a community and get feedback is so important at any age, and especially at mine," Montag said.

For the opening reception of his recent art show, "Marty Montag at 95: An Artful Life, Portraits in Pastels and Acrylics," which closes Saturday, three buses of residents from The Cypress showed up at the Walter Greer Gallery in the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head.

"The response I get is so unbelievable," Montag said. "Everyone who came was excited to see a senior who is still active and doing something productive."

His hands shake slightly but are steady when his pencil touches paper and he is drawing.

"Having an art show at 95 is beyond anything I could have ever imagined happening," Montag said. "It's a good way to finish whatever is left of my time."

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"'Marty Montag at 95' exhibit on display at Walter Greer Gallery on Hilton Head Island"

Lisa Brotman's website

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