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Phyllis Seltzermythbuster: Phyllis Seltzer

Artist and Innovator

Date of interview: May 2010

Phyllis Seltzer, whose color-saturated paintings and prints are in collections all over the world, has been a nationally recognized painter and printmaker since she graduated from college in 1952. Indeed, she won her first major award that year.

Interviewed on her 82nd birthday at her studio on Cleveland 's West Side, the petite and energetic artist shared her love of Cleveland — for Seltzer Tree City has it all; her take on what it takes to make it in the art world today; and her views on what successful aging is all about.

When and where were you born and raised?

I was born in Detroit , but I was really raised in Cleveland because I came to Cleveland when I was three.

Tell me about your family and what your parents did.

I was an only child.

My parents were in the grocery business and, later, in the salvage business. Generally it was canned goods that were salvaged, often after a train had been wrecked. My parents would buy the merchandise and bring it to the store. My mother worked in the business from early morning till late at night.

You came of age as World War II was being fought. How do you think growing up in the shadow of the war shaped the person you are today? Or did it ?

I've never really thought about that. I was in junior high when World War II began. So many teachers left.

And then, when I was high school, when all the guys graduated they were going right into the military.

I think there was more impact when I was in college where I was studying with mature men who were in college on the GI Bill. Those fellows were very serious, about education and about art. It was a stroke of luck that I was there when they were so many of them went on to be artists or teachers and it was a stroke of luck that I was in classes, especially Mauricio Lasansky's* workshop, with them. In print making, you are always collaborating with other artists, because with prints you can't do everything by yourself, especially when you are doing large prints. We worked together and we sent works together to shows all over the country. Even in school, we were all professionals. [*Lasansky, now in his 90s, is a world-renowned graphic-arts pioneer.]

You graduated from Cleveland Heights High School. It's obvious that you were good at art in school. What were you not so good at?

Generally I was a good student and I was interested in the sciences as well as culture. And living in Cleveland, there was a lot of "culture," and still is. On school outings we'd go to Severance Hall and Cleveland Museum of Art.

Growing up, I had all these cultural advantages. And they are still here! My husband [Gerard] and I live in the City of Cleveland, and I'm always telling our neighbors about the museums, Severance Hall, the Institute of Music.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

At a very early age. When I was five or six, I was always drawing or copying things from books, one of which was The Book of Knowledge. When I was in elementary school, I was attending the Saturday classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and when I was in junior high school, my mother saw to it that I had a private teacher for painting.

When did you realize that you wanted to focus on print making and what do you think drove that decision to specialize in print making rather than some other form of two dimensional art?

That was a surprise. And it was due to the fact that I choose to go to the University of Iowa, where they had just brought in Mauricio, an Argentinean, to start the graphic arts department.

Initially, I hadn't thought about specializing in print making: I loved painting, too. But eventually I decided to concentrate on color printing because I've always had a love of color. Today, my palette is bright and high pitched.

When you graduated from the University of Iowa in 1952, you had a Master of Fine Arts Degree in print making. Given the fact that art of any kind is a financially dicey career choice, what was your back-up plan ?

I really didn't think about not being able to make it as an artist.

In those days when you got out of school, you looked for a job. A lot of the students I graduated with went to Chicago, which is much more of an art mecca. I came home to Cleveland and got a job at Rorimer-Brooks, working in their textile department doing interiors. The shop was on Euclid Avenue, where CSU is now.

In the evening, I'd take the Carnegie Avenue bus to Karamu on 89th Street to do lithography prints and teach. At that time [the mid-1950s] Karamu's art department was thriving and there were a number of artists working there, teaching printing, stained glass and ceramics.

Is that where you met your husband?

[Chuckles] No, I met him at a square dance at Temple-Tifereth Israel , Rabbi [Abba Hillel] Silver's temple [at Carnegie and E. 105 th Street]. At the time he was doing his internship at City Hospital, which is now MetroHealth Medical Center.

You began exhibiting and making a name for yourself in the art world in the late-'80s. How did that happen?

By then, I knew a lot of dealers, and one of the best in the business, John Szoke, was very supportive of contemporary artists and he was also very interested in cityscapes.

When we'd moved to Michigan for my husband's residency, I'd worked in the Department of Architecture at the University of Michigan teaching graphic art. While I was there I took some architecture classes, too, and started doing a lot of cityscapes. When we came back to Cleveland, I did a lot of Cleveland cityscapes. Those are the prints I took to New York, to John Szoke's gallery. He liked what I did, and commissioned a series of prints New York Cityscapes specifically for his gallery. They did very well

When did you know you'd made it as a print maker, that you could quit your day job?

I was always working other jobs. When we came back from Michigan and my husband set up his office, I worked with him. Then I worked with [architect] Peter Van Dijk and many of the major architecture firms here in Cleveland. Then I opened my own interiors business. But I was always printing, too.

That's one of the reasons I taught, because I could print, too. I've always been a fanatic about it. I'm still trying to figure that out, but I think it's because I love paper, what you can do with paper.

Having my own [interior design] business subsidized my printing. When I could, and that was in the late 1980s, I gave up my "day job" and went full-time into printing.

When and where was your first studio? When did you open your current studio?

It was on W. 10th Street, close to where Sammy's is now. I moved here [W. 75th Street ] in 1994. When I moved into the building it was almost all artists. Now I'm the only artist.

Not only are you an skilled artist, you are also an excellent businesswoman. Where and when did you hone your business and entrepreneurial skills?

That was in the 1980s, when I was going back and forth to New York City to see what was happening in the art world. New York is the mecca [for art], so I'm still doing that, but the economy has changed. All artists are struggling today.

But my success is due to more than just knowing the market, and despite the economy, there is one. I'm able to describe what I'm doing, talk to others about what I'm doing. And I'm a realist. I'm good at analyzing and organizing things. I'm aggressive. When I was still in college, I did a print Stage of Life and there was a competitive show at the Brooklyn Museum. I sent the print there's something about me, I'll do something like that on my own and my print won first prize. And the museum bought it.

My work is grounded and it's narrative not abstract and it's a lot of fun to study and look at.

And I love what I'm doing. The wonderful thing about the process I'm using today* is that I'm creating a variety of images that can be put together in multiple ways, so I can make so much happen in a print. [*Electrostatic-copier/heat transfer using Canon copiers and special paper and ink]

Art is a stressful, competitive occupation. Over the years, what have you been doing to balance work stress and the rest of your life?

First of all, I don't think of the work I do as being stressful. It's total pleasure to tell stories in two-dimensions. My work is the balance for the rest of my life. I'm always having a good time when I'm working.

[Chuckles] For me, stress is the things that are taking place outside the studio.

You are working in an art medium heat transfer printing that is truly unique and labor intensive, too. Who are you mentoring and training to pass along your skills so your technique doesn't just disappear with you?

I have an assistant, who is like a daughter. But other than that, no one has picked up on this technique. And no one has come to me for training. And that's a mystery to me. Occasionally I'll get an e-mail, but they ask simple questions and I never hear from them again. People don't seem willing to spend the time needed to master it.

How did you learn it, then?

Because of the work I was doing with architects, I'd already had some experience with heat transfer printing with ozalid printers, which are the printers that architects were using then to produce their blueprints. Then Russ Aitken did a workshop at NOVA [New Organization for the Visual Arts] on how to do small heat transfer prints with color copiers.

I realized I could do big prints with something like that and started doing research [on copiers, papers, inks, etc.]. And I also started going to AC Color Lab on Superior, with these huge canvases, to print on their Canon color copier, using heat transfer paper. That's how I got started.

How do you stay mentally and creatively fresh, current, on top of things in your work?

Every morning when I get up I'm planning what I'm going to do. And I enjoy every day.

And I stay informed. I read everything I can related to the arts. And I'm constantly going back and forth to New York and to galleries where I'm showing Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, etc. And, every other year I'm at the Venice Biennale [art exhibit] where artists from all over the world are exhibiting, so I'm seeing everything two years, at least, before ideas hit the US.

At 82, you are trim and petite and have the body (and style!) of a woman years younger. What do you do to stay so fit and energetic?

I'm a high-energy person and always have been. My mother was the same way.

I exercise every day. Every morning I roll out of bed at 5 a.m. and do 20 minutes to a half hour of something. I stretch. I do weights. And I work out to videos. Twice a week I do aerobics. [Chuckles] I love to jump around. And I swim.

I'm the good one. My husband doesn't believe in exercise, at all.

What about diet?

I love to eat like anyone else. My husband, since he's retired, does all the shopping and all the cooking. And he loves it and I'm so glad.

When you aren't in your studio, what are you doing? What are your hobbies? Your other passions?

My husband and I do a lot of traveling. We have a second home in Venice , Italy , and we are here twice a year. This summer, we are going to Belgium. You learn a lot when you are in another country.

And I'm a reader. I read the New York Times daily and I love mysteries. I'm always listening to books on tape when I'm working. My favorite authors right now are Dean Koontz he really thinks things through and Sebastian Younger. [Chuckles] I just finished Snow [by Robert Damien Malfi] and thought it was awful.

MythBusters is all about successful aging. In a nutshell, what's your advice for successful aging?

I realize you can't tell people what to do, but the reality is that if you want to age successfully you have to enjoy living. You have to be aware of the world around you and you have to be interested in what's around you. Here in Cleveland we are lucky. There is a lot in this community to interest people people of every age.

Successful aging and life is about growth. As long as your brain functioning you are going to be able to grow. But you have to make that choice, that decision. I don't understand people who sit around all day and play cards. And that's not just because I have trouble sitting still.

One of the concerns about aging is memory. So many people are worried about that that they can't call up someone's name or where they left something when the fact is they weren't the kind of person who remembered names or where they'd put things. [Chuckles] I've never been able to remember names. On the other hand, I never forget a face.

What did I not ask that I should have?

About telling your age. When I was younger, I never told anyone my age. Now I don't care.

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