I've been meaning to write a post about one of my favorite folk artists, Malcah Zeldis, for quite some time. Yesterday I came across this video posted on the American Folk Art Museum's Facebook page and it reminded me of this intention. It appeared in a blog about older people and their contributions and talents; a wonderful way to see any number of folk artists. But for me, having known Malcah for many years, it was a shock to think of her as older. It was also a reminder that I need to get back in touch with her the next time I am in New York.
Advanced Style Presents: Malcah Zeldis from teenage peanut video productions on Vimeo.
Malcah's story is unusual and inspiring. She was born Mildred Brightman in the Bornx in 1931, and grew up in Detroit. Her father was a jack of all trades, a fruit peddler and window washer as well as a Sunday painter. He appears often in her paintings with his T-shaped squeegies ready to brighten the city with clean, clear windows.
Malcah became an ardent Zionist, and traveled to Isreal in her youth to live in a Kibbutz. The experience affected her deeply. She still recalls the brilliant colors and exotic ways of the Arab peoples she encountered. And, on one occasion, the Isreali artist Aaron Giladi saw some early paintings of hers on a visit to the community and pronounced "There is a great artist living in this Kibbutz."
Upon her return to America, Malcah (the name is Hebrew for Queen) married and had two children and settled in Brooklyn. It was only after her divorce in the 1970s that she finally had the time to devote herself to painting. When she did, the results were astonishing.
Her work is bold and colorful, like the bedouin people she so admired. It is unabashedly autobiographical, and includes many images of herself and her loved ones. Malcah also memorializes her heroes, everyone from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. to Anne Frank to the women of the Old Testament. Peace and harmony rein supreme in the world of Malcah Zeldis. We are fortunate to have, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, one of Malcah's great autobiographical works, a homage to the Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg (above), set in the Detroit of her youth. She appears in this work as the young girl sitting on the front step with her doll while her family listens to the ballgame on the radio. Greenberg towers over the scene at the top, larger than life.
I visited her often in her New York City apartment, and she is an incredibly gracious hostess. Once, while visiting her during Hannukah, she let my daughter light the Mennorah. The apartment is, as you can see from the video, loaded with beautiful paintings that Malcah loves to explain as you walk through the rooms with her. It is a world of brilliant color and dynamic people -- both famous and obscure -- who have made the world a better place.
Off in one room, at the back of the apartment, the keen eye might notice something small and plain in one corner. It is a T-shaped squeegie, the very one used by Malcah's father so many years ago. I believe it is a reminder to the artist that so many people, in the course of their daily work, create beauty in their own way.