A Westchester Superintendent and His Brush With Persistence

Like all superintendents, Peter Rutkowski has a to-do list: tend to the boilers, renovate the laundry room, check a water leak. It goes on and on; it’s endless. But most importantly, he must paint. Every day.

Not the walls, though those are often on his list, but on gesso panels inside his living room-turned-studio at Pinewood Gardens, a 90-unit cooperative in Hartsdale, a hamlet in Westchester County just north of New York City.

At 5:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in October, he turned on the piano jazz of “Rainy Day at a Cozy Coffee Shop” on an iPad and sat in front of his easel. On other mornings he listens to rock by the likes of Rod Stewart and Little Richard, pretending his paintbrushes are drumsticks. In front of him was a shadowbox where he had positioned a gourd, a green pumpkin and a tiny bowl of yellow gooseberries atop a green place mat to start a new still life painting — an arrangement that took him a half-hour to organize.

A month or so earlier, Mr. Rutkowski participated in an annual art show sponsored by 32BJ SEIU, a union that represents more than 4,400 supers in the New York metropolitan area. At the union headquarters in Chelsea, 85 artists, who are also porters, doormen, supers and security guards, showcased their artwork for about 250 guests. “Renewal” was the theme to mark the first in-person show since before the pandemic.

Mr. Rutkowski showed “Hanayome,” a 12- by 16-inch painting of a bride surrounded by cherry blossoms in front of a bamboo fan.

A self-described introvert, Mr. Rutkowski, 60, said he went to the show, in part, to meet people. Displayed near his painting was another super’s colored-pencil drawings of anime superheroes, a porter’s installation made of recycled trash found on the job, and a commercial super’s documentary images from Ethiopia.

“I have known about the show for a long time. But I never had time. I’m always too busy. I wanted to go there just to be part of something. I didn’t even care about the painting,” Mr. Rutkowski said.

The show combined his two lives as artist and super. The latter takes up most of his day. But the mornings are for him, starting at 4 a.m. with exercise and meditation — part of his health routine to cope with Alport syndrome, a rare inherited disorder that damages the kidneys and can contribute to hearing loss. The disorder was diagnosed 30 years ago; Mr. Rutkowski had a kidney transplant in 2002 and wears hearing aids in both ears.

He likes oil painting, using alla prima, a wet-on-wet technique that requires paint to be applied before the previous layers dry. On this morning, he used a knife to mix a palette of white, red, yellow, and blue colors, fixing mistakes with Q-tips.

Mr. Rutkowski’s artistry began as a child in Poland where he was born. He grew up on a fruit farm in a house built by his maternal grandfather. Noticing his interest and aptitude for art, his mother, Mira Rutkowska, a dress designer, sent him to a five-year high school art program. After graduating from high school, he returned to his hometown to work as a window decorator for local stores.

He came to New York when he was 25 to visit Ms. Rutkowska, who had moved to the city and was working as a tailor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, after separating from Mr. Rutkowski’s father.

Mr. Rutkowski fell in love with his English teacher and decided to stay and get married. He started out as a busboy in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and later worked as a screen printer at a midtown studio. It was at that studio where he met the painter Roman Kujawa who hired him, along with a group of Polish artists, to paint baroque murals at Château Ridge, the fashion designer Vince Camuto’s mansion in Greenwich, Conn.

Mr. Rutkowski’s original plan was to be a full-time artist working in academia teaching traditional painting. His illness and familial obligations kept him from that plan.

In 1989, he had a son and needing more stability, landed a job as a commercial night porter enabling him to get medical insurance through 32BJ, where he also took additional classes in English as a second language and got licensed to operate a boiler. He first worked as a super in a building on the Upper West Side and then moved on to a building in Scarsdale, N, Y., where he worked for 20 years, until he lost his job and apartment when new owners came in.

He was then 50 and decided to pursue his passion, winning a partial scholarship to attend Westchester Community College. He later graduated with an associate degree in visual arts. He lived off savings and loans to do it, still proudly reciting his G.P.A., 3.8, almost perfect, if it hadn’t been for math class.

Then in 2016, Pinewood came calling and Mr. Rutkowski had another steady gig — a big one. Pinewood has five buildings, which means five boilers, five roofs, five laundry rooms.

But first things first. As the sun rose on that Tuesday, he went outside to cut purple hydrangeas from a tenant’s plant to see if it could offset the golden sheen of the gooseberries. But then he couldn’t decide if the hydrangeas matched the tableau so he decided to pause and move on with his day of a smoothie for breakfast and getting to his weekly to-do list.

He drew red dots and circles next to items on his list. “Red circle means ‘do it today.’ The red dot means ‘what are you waiting for? It was supposed to be done already.’” The rest of that day, he snaked gutters to find the source of water leaks and phoned plumbers.

Pinewood tenants are grateful for his organizational skills though some complain he takes too long when painting residentially, applying an artist’s precision to his super job. Ensuring straight lines and smooth surfaces requires patience to let paint dry before putting on a new coat. “Hey, listen, I can’t rush, OK? This has to be done right. That paint on the wall has to dry until tomorrow before I put on a second coat,” Mr. Rutkowski said.

Working and living in the same place for seven years, however, he has made more friends than complainers.

“Hector!” Mr. Rutkowski’s face lit up when he saw Hector Serrano, a retired IT manager who has lived in the building since 2019, on a recent Friday in one of the laundry rooms.

Mr. Serrano, 69, grew up in the Bronx with a father who worked as a super in Manhattan, and helps Mr. Rutkowski with everything from renovating the complex’s playground to painting yellow parking lanes.

The pair met when Mr. Rutkowski fixed Mr. Serrano’s shower rod. Mr. Rutkowski later sent him a Christmas card, featuring a holiday-themed still life he had painted. “I found out he paints the picture first and then gets it printed. I was like ‘Get outta here,’” Mr. Serrano said.

The super/artist said he didn’t paint portraits, but Mr. Serrano spotted two and gave Mr. Rutkowski a photo of his two grandchildren to capture.

“I’m still waiting,” Mr. Serrano warned in a half-joking tone.

Mr. Rutkowski didn’t respond. He was busy removing layers of grime from the shelves with Tub O’ Towels, citrus-scented heavy-duty cleaning wipes. He started putting laundry supplies back how they were.

Mr. Serrano jumped in to help. “I don’t know where that goes,” he said, pointing to a dusty jug of Downy.

“I have a photo,” Mr. Rutkowski said, as he explained how he snapped a picture before moving shelves.

“Of course, you do,” Mr. Serrano said.

The dented Tide belonged to 1A. The Snuggle dryer sheets to 3B. The Shout to 3C.

They argued over whether they got it right (is it the dark orange bottle in 4A or the red one?).

“Is anyone going to notice?” Mr. Serrano asked.

While other tenants do not volunteer to help in the laundry room, they do ask Mr. Rutkowski for art lessons (one tenant became his student in mid-November) and paintings.

In 2019, lightning struck a tree in the front yard of the building where Tomas Saez and Felicia Wilson live. Planted over 70 years ago when each building was flanked by pines, the tree was dying, and Mr. Rutkowski knew Ms. Wilson, 62, would be upset to discover it had to go.

After conferring with an arborist, he called her on vacation to give her the bad news, but told her he planned to take a branch home to paint a picture. Ms. Wilson, who works in tech and has lived in the building for 30 years, asked if she could buy it when he was done. He sold “In the Pines” to her for $600.

As the workday wound down on Friday, Mr. Rutkowski visited the apartment of Mr. Saez, 64, a retired chef. Mr. Rutkowski scanned the apartment for “In the Pines” and couldn’t find it.

“Where is my painting? I am about to call 911,” he joked.

He found it framed and hanging up in the hallway outside the kitchen.

At home, Mr. Rutkowski can now talk art with his mother, who moved in with him in 2021. She had been living in Florida with Mr. Rutkowski’s sister. After his sister died, he became full-time caregiver. Mr. Rutkowski, who is married but separated, moved his closet to his office and his studio became his bedroom. His bedroom became his mom’s room.

Ms. Rutkowska has glaucoma and relies on her son to drive her to appointments, cook for her, and clean. He also puts eyedrops in her eyes each night in preparation for cataract surgery. While Mr. Rutkowski won’t eat Polish dumplings or pierogies anymore because of a strict Paleo diet, he visits a local Polish deli to pick up black sausage for her.

“Thank God he’s alive and I could be somewhere. You know, when you’re old, you’re not independent,” said Ms. Rutkowska, 80, as her eyes welled with tears and the kitchen fell quiet except for the sound of the knife hitting the cutting board.

“Peter knows everything. How to cook. How to paint. I love how he paints,” Ms. Rutkowska said as Peter meal-prepped a heap of roasted root vegetables for the week ahead as he does every Friday night.

“She actually notices my mistakes. She’s the first to go and say, ‘Hey, this is a different color,’” he said. “‘Oh, this doesn’t look like what I see in the shadowbox.’”

But she also dotes, he said, “a little too much.”

The painting Mr. Rutkowski began on Tuesday was mostly finished by Friday, but not before he added Persian daisies from Pinewood’s Garden in a vase.

His mother told him, “Oh, this is so beautiful.”

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