Growing up in Detroit during the Great Depression, renowned folk artist Malcah Zeldis didn’t think her dream of becoming a painter would ever be realized. And for decades it wasn’t—until she set up shop in Brooklyn.
She describes her parents—a housewife mother and window washer father—as loving and kind, but admits that they didn’t encourage her artistic inclinations. At the same time, both adults instilled a love of beauty in their daughter.
“My father was a Sunday painter,” Zeldis begins, “so there were always paints in the house which I tried to use. We frequently went to the Detroit Institute of Art where I saw early Flemish paintings that were done on boards. I also saw the Diego Rivera murals. I liked anything that was not too realistic, I guess because when I saw it, it seemed as if I could do something similar.”
Zeldis also recalls pouring over the Encyclopedia Britannica and studying illustrations of classic Renaissance paintings. What’s more, she repeatedly read the Old Testament as a child, and says that she found the drama and pathos of the stories enthralling.
Small wonder that her bold and colorful paintings and sculpture often harken back to these epic tales. While contemporary themes—from the murder of Amadou Diallo, to 9/11, to Abu Graib; from the Nazi Holocaust, to the My Lai massacre, to the execution of Daniel Pearl–-can be found in her work, Biblical characters are especially prominent. Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah; Adam and Eve; Queen Esther—all find a place in the art Zeldis has produced for the past 40 years.
Despite Zeldis’s considerable professional success, the transition from working class kid to artist required patience, fortitude, and luck. Being female in the Motor City, she continues, meant that neither college nor art school were options. “In those days women like me finished high school and got married. I met the man who would become my husband when I was 16. Hiram had gone to Israel and when I was 17, after graduation, I followed him to a kibbutz. We came back to the U.S. for our wedding, then returned to Israel and lived there for nine years.”
Although Zeldis had two children during this period—artist David Zeldis was born in 1952 and writer Yona Zeldis McDonough in 1957—she continued to dabble in art. “I’d taken brushes and paints with me to Israel,” she says. “I painted whenever I could.”
Then an odd thing happened, “There was an artist on the kibbutz who was a painter and the community wanted to send him to study. Someone from the Cultural Committee of the Government had to come to see his work before this could happen. The government artist was Aaron Giladi [1907-1993] and since he was on the kibbutz over Shabbat and had some time, he came to my room because someone had told him that I was a painter. I had a cold but I talked and talked and I remember that he took my painting seriously and called me an artist. I had never studied art so I thought to myself, ‘I can’t be an artist. How can he call me one?’ But Giladi liked my work so much that that night when he gave a lecture to the kibbutzniks he said wonderful things about my painting.”
Surprisingly, this did not kick-start the fledgling artist’s career, but instead had the opposite effect: it stunned Zeldis into putting down her paintbrush. “I was 20 and felt that I’d put one over on him since I’d never studied art history or painting or drawing technique. I couldn’t take the praise in. I was overwhelmed by Giladi’s response. I was in shock.”
In fact, Zeldis was so incredulous that she gave Giladi a painting, for free. “I didn’t know from money,” she laughs. “I really was naïve, wasn’t I?”
Indeed, Zeldis still seems stunned that she has become an artist and admits that, even at age 78, her creativity begets intense activity. “I can never believe I’m doing a painting and I’m never sure I’ll be able to do it again, so I work quickly and don’t mix colors much,” she quips. “I always say, ‘Next time I’ll take my time,’ but it never happens.”
Zeldis’s ascent was far from seamless. “I began to paint again when my family returned to the United States, settling in Brooklyn in 1958. I painted for a little while, then stopped. Maybe I needed encouragement and didn’t get it. Maybe I didn’t like the work. I don’t know.”
She finally began painting in earnest in 1970 when she decided to create something to decorate her daughter’s Ocean Parkway bedroom. The 30 by 30-inch piece—it is the largest work she has ever produced—was done at the kitchen table and Zeldis remembers being startled by the outcome. “It was so detailed, so complicated. I really liked it,” she grins.
One thing led to another and later that year, Zeldis learned about a special Baccalaureate program for adults that was being offered by Brooklyn College. Summoning her courage, Zeldis took the entrance exam and passed.
“I got accepted and brought in my paintings to show people, hoping I’d get some life experience credit for them. I was sent to see Professor Lawrence Campbell [1914-1998] and he looked at my paintings and told me not to major in art but to study art education. So I got a degree in Art Ed. I was 38 years old when I started. I continued to paint at the kitchen table and would bring my work in and get credit for it. Campbell later sent me to the Brooklyn Museum, which was holding something called a Fence Show. Anyone could enter this competition and submissions were displayed in their community gallery. I entered and won an award.”
In short order, Herbert “Bert” Hemphill, one of the founders of the American Folk Art Museum, learned of Zeldis and included one of her pieces in his 1976 book, Folk Sculpture USA.
“That put me on the map,” Zeldis says. “Suddenly people, dealers, wanted to show my work.” Hemphill later introduced Zeldis to Phyllis Kind who had opened an “outsider art” gallery in Chicago several years earlier. Kind gave Zeldis her first one-woman show and continues to exhibit her work from the New York City salon she opened in 1975.
If it sounds like a fairy tale, it wasn’t. Zeldis is quick to point out that despite her meteoric rise, life threw her some curveballs, including a mid-1970s divorce and a bout with colon cancer.
Now fully recovered, Zeldis continues to create, painting, making dolls, and concocting whimsical sculptures from found objects. Her studio remains in her home—a spacious Tribeca two-bedroom. She has illustrated 11 books, many of them written by her daughter, about people the duo admire: Anne Frank, Benjamin Franklin, Hank Greenberg, and Nelson Mandela, among others. Her paintings—done in oil or gouache—are in numerous permanent collections including The American Folk Art Museum, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, The Jewish Museum, and the Smithsonian.
As for her inspiration, Zeldis likes to depict people she sees as heroic. “After my divorce I was despondent,” she says. “Then I started painting people I admire, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Biblical women, and it uplifted me. I thought, ‘Wow, I can bring people who inspire me into my world.’ I found that so exhilarating.”
Viewers—both critics and regular folk—agree, calling Zeldis’s work exuberant, life-affirming, and spirited.
Several of Malcah Zeldis’s paintings will be on display at the Lincoln Square Gallery, American Folk Art Museum, from October 20, 2009 to October 18, 2010.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.