Zelda Edelson’s solo exhibition in November at the Old City Jewish Art Center wasn’t the first time that she’s showed her paintings to the world.
In fact, the 89-year-old West Philadelphia native has had her work displayed in Ardmore and in her one-time home of Woodbridge, Conn. But this show was certainly her most unique.
“It’s really meaningful,” Edelson said. “It gave me a view of my paintings that I never experienced before, simply because you don’t have enough space to show stuff in most places.” (Edelson often paints on 30-inch-by-40-inch canvases, emulating the scale of some of her favorite painters.)
It would be accurate, in some sense, to say that it all started when one of her sons, Jon, along with his wife, Rachel, decided that Edelson’s abstract work deserved to be seen by a wider audience. Rachel Edelson’s research led her to Art for the Cash Poor, an exhibition where two of Edelson’s paintings were displayed, and one was even sold. Following that, it was decided that her work merited a full show, and Edelson was connected with local curator Amie Potsic.
It would, however, be more accurate to say that it all started in 1947, when Edelson (then Zelda Toll) was a senior in high school.
Her father was in the wholesale grain business, working for a pair of race-horse owning Quakers who wanted to find a way to get cheap grain; her mother, born outside of Odessa, Ukraine was a homemaker (they belonged to a synagogue in Wynnefield-Overbrook, but Judaism was not central to their lives, Edelson said). Together with her two older brothers and her younger sister, Edelson lived on Millick Street, near 60th and Market streets, and attended the Girls’ High School of Philadelphia when it was still located at 17th and Spring Garden streets.
It was there that she and her sister were introduced to the world of art.
Edelson took a course from experimental artist Jack Bookbinder, prominent in Philadelphia in his day. Her lifelong love of art was sparked by his education, and encouraged by her mother — who herself always remained bitter over being forced to leave school at a young age — Edelson attended the University of Chicago, majoring in English literature. Soon after, she married Marshall Edelson, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University who shared her love of literature, if not her passion for painting.
Together, they had three children, and Edelson juggled taking care of them with her career as an editor. At first, she edited the magazine Discovery, and then served as editor and head of print publications at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History for more than 20 years. Her connection to painting during this time was more appreciation than practice, though she occasionally took courses at night while her children were growing up.
It was not until her retirement in 1995 that she began to paint seriously. After years as an editor, she wanted something more public-facing.
“I wanted to do something that was my own thing,” she said.
She took courses in New Haven in drawing and painting, but as her tastes grew more abstract, she struck out on her own. During this time, her work was occasionally displayed in local galleries.
She lists artists like Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock as some of her primary influences, but notes that for her, like for any artist, it’s not simply other works that inspire her.
“I feel a lot of influences, not necessarily those names,” she said. “Painting is not just what comes out of your hand or arm, it’s what’s in your brain, and that’s the ultimate decisive part of the experience of painting.”
In 2005, her husband died, and Edelson decided to return to Philadelphia; today, she lives in a retirement community in Haverford, along with her sister (her brothers have both died). And she continues to produce work at a steady clip, even since the conclusion of her exhibition.
As for plans for another exhibition in the future?
“Yeah, if anybody wants to do one,” Edelson laughed. “I’m very prolific.” l
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