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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | Naima Rauam is known for her eloquent paintings and drawings of the Fulton Fish Market, which she started to chronicle more than 40 years ago. Even after the Fish Market left the South Street Seaport, Rauam continued to paint what she saw there. She currently exhibits and sells her art on Sundays at the Fulton Stall Market on South Street.
You have an unusual name. Tell me about it.
It’s Estonian. When I was in school in Washington, I didn’t like my name. Everyone else was Mary and Bob and Joan. Nobody could pronounce my name. I came from people who didn’t speak English. My grandmother never learned English so I was dragged around as an interpreter. I could speak Estonian but I never learned to read or write it. I can barely even speak it now.
When you graduated from high school, did you immediately decide you were an artist or did you do something else first?
No. I immediately made a beeline for New York. Prior to graduating from high school, I had taken some art lessons from an artist in Georgetown. He had gone to the Art Students League in New York, so that was my destination. I made my getaway. I was 18 years old when my mother let me get on a train to New York City. She was going to pay my tuition at the Art Students League, but I would have to pay for everything else. I walked the streets of Manhattan and searched the papers, looking for a place to live and a part-time job. I found a place to live in Greenwich Village, of all places! Sixth Avenue off Waverly Place! It was an incredibly expensive one-bedroom apartment for $165 a month, which I shared with a friend of a friend. I paid $50 as my share of the rent. I found part-time jobs and took morning and evening classes at the Art Students League for five years. I loved New York. I felt very much at home here. I always felt that I was a native New Yorker who was denied a Brooklyn childhood. I thought the stork mixed me up with another baby. When I came here for visits when I was eight or ten, I immediately took to the city, so when I came here to live, it was like this was Nirvana.
As an adult, have you always lived in New York City?
No. I married a person I met at the Art Students League and we moved to Maine. He was also an artist. We could live for $2,000 a year in Maine – the two of us. I was a little skeptical about leaving New York, which I loved, but I could see the practical, financial aspects, and I did want to spend my time making art. I saw people who had day jobs and their art never really fully materialized. We stayed in Maine 12 winters. I got my pilot’s license in those years. That’s something I had wanted since I was 11 years old and went on a sightseeing flight. I swore I would learn how to do it. We owned a Beachcraft Sport airplane. I wanted a motorcycle, too, but my husband discouraged it.
Why did you move back to New York?
We moved back to New York when he became ill with lung cancer. In 1983, he died.
After you moved back to New York, you started painting the Fish Market again. What was it that fascinated you about it?
The Fish Market had everything an artist ever wanted. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I was attracted by the intense activity of the men moving the fish and the trucks trying to weave through everything. And then there was the color. I found everything so colorful – the fish, the boxes – and it all sparkled because of the wet ice and the water on the ground. And then when I came down here in the middle of the night, the city was dark and there was this sky full of stars and the moon now and then. It was almost like a secret place. When I came down here, I was stepping into an unusual world that I became privy to. It was old, but it wasn’t a museum. It was being used. It was real life.