Hill artist alive because father escaped from Nazis

by Len Lear
Posted 6/21/23

Sarah Gutwirth, an acclaimed Chestnut Hill artist, has an interesting story about how she wound up in her job.

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Hill artist alive because father escaped from Nazis


Many people have interesting, unusual or offbeat stories about how they wound up with a particular job. Sarah Gutwirth, an acclaimed Chestnut Hill artist whose work has appeared in more than 50 exhibits across the U.S., certainly has one that would appeal to any romantic.

“I got married in 1995 [to professor and writer Peter Kelly], and my husband and I were both teaching at different institutions,” she said last week. “It’s a long story, but we were trying to figure out a way we could live near each other, and he was on the job market and was hired at Murray State University (in Murray, Kentucky) to chair the Department of English.

“I was teaching at Potsdam State (in Potsdam, New York). We figured he should take the job, and I would see what was available in the area. When we drove down to find him a place to live, I brought my CV and slides of my work, thinking I might ask about adjunct teaching. But while Peter was being given an orientation by the outgoing chair, he was asked about his wife’s profession. When he said I was teaching painting, he was told that there was a position open in the art department and by some miracle, it turned out to be for a painter. They asked me to apply and quickly hired me.”

Gutwirth, who grew up in Haverford and attended Friends Select School, has lived in Chestnut Hill since the summer of 2017. She graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, jointly with the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1978, with a bachelor’s degree in art and a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting. In 1985, she earned a master of fine arts degree in painting, with a minor in art history, from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

She waitressed for five years before graduate school, then started picking up adjunct teaching for two years around New Haven, Connecticut. In 1987 she was hired into a tenure-track position teaching painting and drawing at Georgia State University, but left in 1989 to move to another painting position at SUNY Potsdam, where she was tenured in 1994. She took the job at Murray State in 1998 and became tenured in 2002, eventually retiring as a full professor in 2017.

Since she would not be alive otherwise, Gutwirth has always been profoundly grateful for the fact that her Jewish father and grandfather were able to escape from France at the beginning of World War II.

“My grandfather’s plan of escape involved his Belgian business partner, a gentile man named Mijnheer Coppens, who had a large car,” she recounted last week. “Three days into the invasion they set off for the French border. In the car were Coppens, my grandfather, his two children and his son-in-law. My grandmother, too ill to travel, had to be left at a Catholic hospital, where she was sheltered by the nuns and survived the war.

“My father said of this moment that he felt helpless and ashamed, but surely those words do not convey the emotion of that horrible Hobson’s choice. Although they did not know the ultimate danger, my family fled the war, unable to travel with a sick relative. They desperately hoped she would remain safe; others too were left behind for lack of a place in the car.

“German troops were arriving, and we could hear them exchanging salutations with their Spanish Fascist counterparts. After a tense wait in Bilbao, the American secretary of state sent a last ship to rescue stranded American citizens from Europe … My father, American solely by virtue of his father’s citizenship, was on board and on his way to discover his new country.”

Gutwirth's said her art is “really about the history of ideas, about deciphering hidden or obvious connections between our natural world and our echoing of nature, through our created world of art and objects. We have always sought to understand the world by trying to decipher how things are connected to other things.”

Her work will next be showing at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists Gallery, 237 S. 18th St., and at the Cosmopolitan Club, 1616 Latimer St. Dates are not yet final.

For more information, visit sarahgutwirth.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.