by Stacia Friedman
I hadn’t seen my cousin Hilda Friedman in over 30 years and was surprised to discover that at 92, she was still in the same Penn Wynne house where she has lived since the 1950s. On her own. Without a companion or housekeeper. Her blonde hair is white now. Her gait, a little unsteady. But I had no trouble recognizing the bright, petite woman who had been the exception among the women of my parents’ generation. They identified themselves as “homemakers.” Hilda was an artist.
When she first took up painting in 1954, no one in the family took her seriously. She was an abstract expressionist at a time when painting-by-numbers and realism were popular. “Better she should learn how to cook for her husband and two young daughters than aspire to the likes of Picasso and Matisse,” they said. To her credit, Hilda never turned on the stove. And she never stopped painting.
“Excuse the mess,” she said, leading me into her studio. It didn’t look messy to me. It looked glorious, filled with canvases, paints, paper, brushes. The tools of an artist still actively engaged in her work. Every room of her home was filled with her art. On the walls, piled on tables, leaning one against the other. I could think of only one place that created this overwhelming sensory intensity.
I took a shot, “Hilda, have you been to the new Barnes?” She hadn’t. Later that week, I invited her to go to the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway. “I don’t like it,” Hilda said of the modern facade. “It’s too cold. The paintings aren’t happy here.”
However, she was delighted to renew her acquaintance with works of art she hadn’t seen in decades. Sitting enthralled in front of Matisse’s “The Riffian,” a large painting of a Moroccan tribesman, Hilda said, “This has always been one of my favorites. But I’m seeing things I never noticed before, like all those green verticals.”
When her audio headset inexplicably went from English to Spanish, Hilda refused to get a new one. “I don’t need it,” she said and struck up a conversation with a stranger, a professional artist from Delaware half her age. They talked “shop,” comparing the mediums in which they work and subject matter. Hilda appeared to be enlivened by this chance meeting with a fellow artist.
In one of the galleries, Hilda looked around the room anxiously. “There’s supposed to be a painting of a canal in that corner,” she said. While the new Barnes was commissioned to reproduce the galleries exactly as they had been organized at their former location in Merion, Hilda sensed something was wrong. Two galleries later, she sighed, “There it is!”
The missing painting was “Houseboat” by Monet. “Look at how he painted the reflection in the water,” she said, “As if the boat is actually traveling away from the you.” I had seen the famous painting innumerable times but now, through Hilda’s eyes, I saw the boat move.
We took a break for lunch and never got to the Barnes’ second floor galleries.
I learned that my cousin started painting in 1954, studying with Itzhak Sankowsky at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Sankowsky didn’t put up with any nonsense,” said Hilda. “If you were there for therapy, he’d kick you right out. He did not permit us to work from life or from photos. Only from memory. At first, I didn’t know what to do.”
Something in Sankowsky’s method clicked for Hilda. She continued to study with him for over a decade. Like many members of the Philadelphia art establishment, Sankowsky did not subscribe to Barnes’ formulaic “philosophy” based on the writings of John Dewey. He discouraged Hilda from attending Barnes’ two-year program in Merion. Hilda, ever the independent, free-thinking rebel, applied anyway in the 1960s.
She recalled her nervousness at being interviewed at the home of the imperious, mysterious Violette De Mazia, who oversaw the Barnes Educational Program. “Her house was filled with masterpieces,” said Hilda, “She was rumored to be one of Barnes’ mistresses.” (When De Mazia’s art collection was auctioned at Christie’s in 1989, it brought in over $8 million.)
“They had very strict rules. You could not miss a session and had to do all of the assignments and readings,” said Hilda. She was relieved when her instructor for the second year of the Barnes program was Angelo Di Pinto, who was “a complete contrast” to Violette De Mazia’s dogmatic style. “It was amazing,” said Hilda, explaining that the course gave her intimate access to masterpieces that at the time were not available to the public.
I hadn’t known that my cousin taught children’s classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Wayne Art Center and Main Line Art Center. Or that she was among the first to experiment with etching on steel and that her etchings are part of the collection of the Shea Eye Institute. I also learned that Hilda has, like most people her age, serious health challenges, but unlike many of her peers, does not dwell on the subject.
She prefers talking about art. The rewards of the creative life. The joy she takes in her children, grandchildren and great grandkids. In doing so, my cousin gave me a glimpse into a future I hadn’t imagined. The knowledge that growing older doesn’t have to be about shutting down and loss. Aging can be a fine art if, like Hilda, you approach each day as a blank canvas with infinite possibilities.