I met Ilona on an autumn day in Provincetown around 1992. I was walking down Commercial Street when she fluttered her long orange eyelashes at me and I swear I felt a little breeze! Her trademarks included flaming orange, pixie-cut hair and matching homemade eyelashes she created by cutting her own neon locks. Since that moment I have been hypnotized by her magic.
An artist for most of her life, she decided to try her hand at performing. That’s where I came in. We got together and I played piano for her, and before long the Eyelash Cabaret was born. For many years we performed Dietrich, Piaf, and more to packed houses to benefit the Provincetown Art Association. We became dear friends. Our show always ended with her doing splits—almost right up to her nineties! She captivated an audience and she captivated me.
The daughter of Mordka and Frida (Lubinski) Rosenkranz, Ilona was born on March 27, 1920, in Poland. She studied at the Reimann School of Art in Berlin and later at the Academie Royal des Beaux Arts in Antwerp. In 1938 her family escaped the Nazis by emigrating to the United States, where they changed their name to Royce. At nineteen, now settled in New York City, she married Irving Smithkin, a linotype operator who would perish in World War II. Ilona kept on painting while making a living as a milliner, a factory worker, a painter of glass lantern shades, and a movie theater usher. She eventually taught painting for forty years in Kentucky and South Carolina, where she had her own TV shows and wrote two books on painting. For her work in small towns and villages throughout the state, this future international style icon was given the unlikely honor of being named a Kentucky Colonel.
She first came to Provincetown by train in 1947, where she found a room for three dollars a night. By the 1960s she and Karen Katzel had opened the Karilon Art Gallery, one of the first on the east end of Commercial Street. A third-floor apartment above the gallery on the bay became her Provincetown home. Visiting her there was always like walking back in time. One hundred years’ worth of paintings, colorful clothes, blue bottles, feathered hats, and everything else under the sun. If you were lucky, she’d paint your eye, which felt like a cross between a fortune telling and a therapy session. During the sitting she’d gaze deep into your soul and miraculously catch your true essence on the page. Afterward she served a little cup of vodka in a thimble-sized glass. Over the years, she entertained many visitors and painted the portraits of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ayn Rand, the Kennedy children, and many Provincetown artists and locals. Her paintings are vital and elegant. Sanguine pencil portraits, impressionistic oils of radiant red poppies, and dynamic nudes hung in her tiny studio, each with a story behind it.
In her late eighties, Ilona suddenly found herself an international fashion icon with the release of the 2014 documentary Advanced Style. The New York Post declared her a “style legend.” Irrepressible, she penned two more books in her nineties—Joy Dust: Ilona at 96 and Ninety-Nine: Straight Up, No Chaser . For Ilona, painting, fashion, and performance were all a seamless part of simply being.
Don’t miss the ‘joy dust’ because of the floor dust.
--Ilona Royce Smithkin
She adored Provincetown and Provincetown adored her. She lived to be 101 and painted and created until the very end. She saw all of the marvelous colors in life, the dark and the light, and captured them in her work and in her fashion. I’d often find her painting watercolors of the bay when I visited her. It was her daily practice. Each day as different and important as the next. For a while she was in great pain, yet she still managed to paint daily, capturing images of herself in the mirror, which she called her “Pain Portraits.” During these moments, when she was engrossed in her art, the suffering disappeared. She said this also happened when we performed.
Ilona was ageless, able to connect with young and old alike. She always encouraged me to slow down and pace myself. “You can’t dance at two weddings with only one derriere!” She was full of sage advice and was there for me when my mother died. There was always a line of visitors and telephone callers wanting a piece of her. Even celebrities were enamored. Demi Moore would call for a chat, and I remember David Bowie coming up to her in a restaurant in New York City telling her she was effervescent. He must have seen her shining from across the room. She saw everything —the good and the bad—through the frame of those magical eyelashes. She decided to concentrate on the good and sprinkle joy dust on us all.
Zoë Lewis is an award-winning musician and songwriter who has released ten albums of original material, toured with Judy Collins, the Indigo Girls, Richie Havens, and Nanci Griffith, and opened for Pat Benatar on the ukulele. She’s created two musicals and leads a theatrical 1920s Speakeasy in the summer. Originally from the United Kingdom, she has called Provincetown home for the last thirty years.
Ilona Royce Smithkin's work is available locally at Angela Russo Fine Art.