Malcah Zeldis: A Life Traveled in Painting



When I walked into the Tribeca home and studio of folk artist Malcah Zeldis, my immediate impression was that I had physically entered a storybook. A large selection of paintings covered the walls with vibrantly colored narratives that enveloped me as I surveyed the space.

At nearly 80 years old, Zeldis appears young and engaging. She speaks vividly about her life and how it has continuously infiltrated her work. In conversation, years and decades fly by easily — and in a couple of hours we cover much ground. We touch on Zeldis’ upbringing in Detroit, her Russian-Jewish heritage, as well as on her life as a young wife and mother on a kibbutz in Israel (where she lived from 1948 to 1958). As we get more familiar, she mentions her painful divorce a few years after her family had settled back in the United States and ponders how in retrospect she feels that her work had enabled her to fill the void that the loss of her marital bond had left.

The night of our visit, she had just completed a small canvas featuring Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd and was happy to share it. The small portrait was inspired by the work of William Mumler — a spirit photographer in the mid-1900s who, like Zeldis, portrayed Mary Todd as she is embraced by the ghost of her deceased husband. Rather than eerie, the scene is peaceful, showing the mourning sitter with the faintest touch of a smile. Zeldis does not usually work from photographs and her interest in this particular subject went beyond Mumler’s original. She had read Mary Todd’s biography and knew much about her struggles and illnesses, talking about her with compassion. All of the people Zeldis has painted over the years have moved her deeply. In that sense, her work is free of superficialities. The level of her emotional response requires a deep knowledge of her subjects.

On the 30th floor with views of the city, Zeldis lives surrounded by her works. Sparked by different memories and stories, her paintings manifest as intimate illustrations of her experiences, dreams and eclectic interests. Zeldis’ work was begun primarily for her own enjoyment. She never imagined having a career as an artist, and yet she has always experienced an inner need for expressing herself creatively.

When her work finally began to gain professional attention (without her actively seeking any), she was so shocked that she stopped painting. The realization that others were suddenly looking at her work took away from her natural and carefree approach.  She began to fear that the work suffered from her trying to make too many conscious decisions. Since shedding these concerns and picking up where she had left off, Zeldis has created a body of work that nobody could deem inauthentic. It is her story told in her language to herself first — but accessible to others. Her work possesses the unique ability to allow many to find themselves in it.

Born in 1931 in the Bronx, Malcah Zeldis looks back at decades’ worth of work. Her preferences of palette and compositional density might have changed (her earlier works were darker and more spacious), but her approach and manner have remained consistent. In recent years, she has added three-dimensional works to her practice, working on figurines made of found materials. Her oeuvre falls under the genre of contemporary folk art, implying that Zeldis is completely self-taught and remains outside of any mainstream art movements. Her style evokes a sense of naïve simplicity, which conveys a purity of feeling.

While Zeldis remains outside of the buzzing art scene, she hardly suffers from a lack of recognition. Her work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Terra Museum of Art in Chicago, the New York State Historical Society, the Yeshiva University Museum and the Katonah Museum of Art, among others. In addition, she has illustrated several children’s books (some in collaboration with her daughter) on Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln, for example. A Jewish Celebrations calendar for 2011 can be bought in stores and online.

Most importantly, Zeldis’ work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the American Folk Art Museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum of Folk Art in Vermont, the Akron Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, as well as the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, to only name a few. This past fall, Zeldis had a well-received solo exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York and, until February 25, her work is featured at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Back in her studio, Zeldis always works while sitting down. She starts by drawing on a white surface — usually canvas or board, which she subsequently colorizes with oil paint (or gouache if working on paper).

Her subjects range from biblical and social themes, to family celebrations, everyday events and portraits of people who have had an emotional impact on her. The latter can in particular include her mother — who was an accomplished ballet dancer in Russia but had to give up her passion when she married — as well as her brother who was deemed fatally ill as a child and was hence forced to spend most of his childhood in bed. As a result, elegant dancers frequently appear in Zeldis’ compositions, and she has worked on many baseball scenes, which hark back to memories of her brother, with whom she could not play but would join in listening to baseball games.

One touching painting shows Zeldis and her bedridden brother, who is wearing a baseball cap. They are listening intently to the radio, while above them, in an almost surrealist bubble of the imagination, a baseball game unfolds inside a packed stadium. The contrast between the two children and the jubilant crowd is heart-wrenching and yet, there is a clear sense of hope and beauty in this intimate moment, revealing the bond between two siblings.   

However, Zeldis’ childhood memories are by no means all happy ones. Her parents had lost children before she and her brother were born and her father, a window washer, struggled to make ends meet. He was a Sunday painter fascinated with Flemish realism, but was a strict father and remained unimpressed by his daughter’s artistic aspirations. It is sad to think that neither her father nor her husband ever encouraged Zeldis to paint (she avoided making the same mistake with her own children; her daughter Yona Zeldis McDonough is an established writer and her son David Zeldis is an accomplished artist). Despite the hardships, there are simple details that did enchant her as a child, and they continue to weave through her work. A birdbath and an arch made of rose bushes, both beloved features in her mother’s lush garden, appear frequently and function as a visual Talisman of sorts.

Besides members of her family, Zeldis devotes much of her attention to prominent figures of the 20th century. Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Beethoven, for example are people she admires and they have become profound staples in her work. All of them appear repeatedly, at times alone and then together, joining in a montage-like accumulation of admirable accomplishments. But Zeldis does not simply engage in the act of idolization. Instead, she depicts them as her trusted and admired friends. In a work entitled “Homage to Anne Frank” (2004) Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Anne Frank, Gandhi and others join Zeldis’ alter ego (depicted with a painter’s palette in hand) around a grand piano, on which Beethoven is just about to play. The scene is astonishingly familiar and casual, letting it appear like a warm Sunday tea party.

Zeldis also extensively explores the dark sides of humanity, its horrid wars and crimes. But even when depicting historic figures or shocking events, such as the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Zeldis’ works subconsciously always reveal much of herself. They manifest as a meditation on her emotional response to the subject, which was chosen consciously, but captured while lost in thought.

As a New Yorker, Zeldis has not shied away from addressing such a delicate subject as September 11 or the political climate surrounding it. She has painted several tough compositions, featuring the day itself, as well as abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the execution of Daniel Pearl, for example. The paintings are forthright and do not lack in unconcealed brutality. They all pose one blatant question: of what horrors is humanity actually capable?

While some of Zeldis’ works might provide us with a kind of charming escapism, works like these show her as a critical and sensitive commentator of her time. She is at once a dreamer and a realist. Continuing to trespass across boundaries, Zeldis does not intend to tie herself to a specific timeline and continues to travel seamlessly between current and past events, be they rooted in reality or her imagination.