Painted Into a Corner Over a $576-a-Month Chelsea Apartment

Fire hazard? Philip Sherrod is a triple threat to the senses.

When Philip Sherrod mentions at regular intervals that he is "the most prolific painter of any century," you assume it's an exaggeration. That is, until you walk into his apartment.

The spacious fourth-floor flat on West 24th Street is a dizzying tangle of colorful faces and bodies. Bold portraits and streetscapes are nailed to the ceiling and doors and stacked 10 feet deep against the walls. In 48 years of living in the apartment, Sherrod estimates that he has accumulated a collection numbering some 5,000 of his own paintings. The walk through successively smaller doorways that lead to the back room—where hundreds more oil-painted faces peer at one another—gives you the feeling that you've fallen down Alice's rabbit hole. Even the toilet seat is painted with stripes and red hearts.

It's a fitting abode for Sherrod, the 72-year-old founder of an alliance of artists called the Street Painters and a teacher at both the Art Students League and the National Academy School of Fine Arts. But to the city government—and Sherrod's landlord—all that canvas and paint adds up to a fire hazard.

In May, the Department of Buildings issued two violations to the landlord, because a fire escape was blocked with stacks of paintings and Sherrod was storing paint and other unspecified "combustible materials." The landlord, in turn, sent Sherrod a letter telling him to move by July 7 or face eviction.

Sherrod's apartment has been stacked with paintings for years, but the trouble started, he says, when a new buyer took over the building and asked the Department of Buildings to inspect the property.

"They were shocked by the art," says Sherrod, who sports a Santa Claus beard and one wide, matted dread that hangs down his back. "The art intimidated them and excited their glands. I'm dealing with primordial creatures."

At the time of the inspection, the path to the fire escape was only 11 inches wide. Despite Sherrod's rebellious language, he complied with the inspector's order to create a three-foot-wide path to the emergency exit. He has stored some of his paintings elsewhere, but has made no plans to move.

On July 7, the day he was supposed to vacate the premises, Sherrod surveyed his apartment and worried about the financial repercussions of losing it: His rent is only $576 a month, and he is bewildered by the prospect of having to move that multitude of paintings. The day passed without incident, but Sherrod received a notification that the building's managing agent, William Punch, would come to inspect his rooms this week. If Punch doesn't like what he sees, he could start eviction proceedings. At press time, Punch was out of town and unavailable for comment.

"There's a great deal of subjectivity in what the courts refer to as 'clutter cases,' " says Stuart W. Lawrence, a staff attorney at Housing Conservation Coordinators, an affordable-housing nonprofit. In cases where a landlord believes that a tenant's mountain of possessions is causing a health or safety hazard, the eviction can be based on the grounds that the tenant is a perpetual nuisance. But proving that can be difficult.

Despite the potentially dire consequences of his landlord's newfound interest in his work, Sherrod's spirit is barely dampened. "I'm a triple threat—painter, composer, and poet!" says the artist, who regularly sets up easel and canvas on the sidewalk to paint. "I have more honors than almost anyone in the damn world. They shouldn't be kicking me out of the building; they should be putting up a plaque on it honoring the building I live in!"

 
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