The glow of the past, the light of life

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The recent reopening of the Kaufmann Center concluded with a tour of the building. The queue was long and the lobby was crowded. I stepped inside, and as I tried to get out of the way, I found myself staring at a painting that hung prominently near the door.

Seeing this painting near this door, I heard a pleasant “click” in my mind. It was the wheel of history completing one of its great and graceful rotations and rolling back into place.

The painting is titled “Irene Kaufmann Settlement”. The artist is Shelly Blumenfeld. It shows the former Irene Kaufmann settlement house amid a buzz of daily activity – families arriving, friends leaving, children crowding on balconies, flags waving.

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What makes paint special is its sheen. The edges are gray and hazy, but the center is illuminated with a strong, soft light that comes from nowhere in the scene itself.

“Irene Kaufmann Settlement” debuted in the spring of 2017, as part of Blumenfeld’s solo exhibition at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The exhibition, titled “Hill District Paintings”, was a series of recent paintings she had made based on childhood memories of the Hill District in the 1930s and 1940s.

A few years earlier, Blumenfeld’s eldest grandson had asked her, “Grandma, what happened to the cash register?” Blumenfeld’s grandfather, Sam Reznik, ran a popular dry goods store at 68 Logan Street in the Hill District. At the age of 9 or 10, Blumenfeld was given a small responsibility at the store. She was allowed to ask customers “Could we help you?” Then she would locate their item in the inventory crowd, take their payment, and place the money in the ledger by pressing “No Sale”.

The Reznik store remained on Logan Street until 1955, when it was demolished during the redevelopment of the lower Hill neighborhood. The cash register followed Reznik down Fifth Avenue. In time, this store also closed and Blumenfeld saved the cash register.

Artist Shelly Blumenfeld talks about her Hill District paintings in 2017.
(Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Decades later, when Blumenfeld’s own grandchildren were small, they would come to dinner and spend the evening playing shopkeeper, filling the old ledger with Monopoly money. After his grandson asked about the ledger, Blumenfeld went down to his basement to find it. Seeing him there, old and handsome, the artistic impulse struck. She made a sketch. The sketch became a painting, a luminous cash register titled “No Sale”.

Painting led to another. She did paintings of the dry goods store Reznik and paintings of Logan Street. Paintings from another family store, Fairman Wallpaper & Paint Company, with its dizzying patterns of wallpaper samples. Paintings of produce and bakery stalls, war parades and victory gardens, paintings of neighbors sitting on their front steps, and the painting of the grand old Irene Kaufmann settlement house.

All these paintings shine with a calm inner light. Blumenfeld is one of those artists whose style is immediately identifiable. Once you learn to recognize its particular soft luminosity, you begin to discover its paintings which befriend you throughout the community.

From a technical point of view, the light comes from Samuel Rosenberg. As a child, Blumenfeld recalls seeing Rosenberg giving art lessons at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. He was one of a group of legendary instructors and coaches who passed on the richness of human culture to the people of the Hill District.

Blumenfeld was too young to take these courses. She knew Rosenberg later, as an adult, when she joined his famous adult evening workshop at the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association on Bellefield Avenue in Oakland.

In the classroom, Blumenfeld was surrounded by women who were on the verge of becoming legendary – Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Jane Haskell, Lois Kaufman. She was the youngest by a few years, and today she is among the last of this generation of artists.

She caught Rosenberg as he was completing a decades-long transition. His early success in the 1930s came from paintings of street scenes. He conveyed the sadness of everyday life in a harsh big city, but he imbued every moment with affection and dignity. From there, he moved on to allegory in the 1940s and then to pure abstraction in the 1950s.

Rosenberg was eager to bring his students with him. He taught them about underpainting, color theory, texture and form, and how to think. On Thursday evenings, he always gave the class a problem to solve visually. Make a painting that screams. Make a painting that whispers. Paint something that catches the eye, then removes the eye. Through these weekly exercises, Blumenfeld learned how to make his canvases sway and shine.

In many of Blumenfeld’s most iconic paintings, his subject is light – ribbons, banners and needles of light, coming together in vibrant movement. Even his paintings of real tangible objects, like flowers, dancers, or canyons, quickly explode into abstraction.

The Hill District paintings are different. To begin with, they are figurative. But the difference is deeper. In these paintings, the glow is not the light of life. It’s the light of memory, specifically how certain specific details of the past can remain startlingly sharp in your mind forever and yet swim in a haze of loose impressions.

These are return arrays. Blumenfeld returns to the neighborhood of his youth. She finds the teacher of her youth. She revisits her subject using the skills he taught her, but with the style she herself has developed in life by then.

After the JCC show closed, Blumenfeld made one final comeback. She donated “Irene Kaufmann Settlement” to the Hill House, the literal and spiritual successor to the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. With the migration of the Jewish population away from the Hill District in the 1930s and 1940s, the six-story building also gradually evolved, becoming a black institution. Through a merger in the 1960s, it became the Hill House.

The old building was eventually demolished, replaced with a modern structure by architect Walter L. Roberts. Only the late 1920s auditorium remained.

The Hill House closed in 2019 due to financial issues. For months, the outlook was uncertain. Would this block remain in service of the communal mission it had served for 119 years – a year before Jewish posterity – or would it become another conspiracy in the real estate market. Eventually, the auditorium was transferred to an after-school arts program called ACH Clear Pathways, which oversaw the $4 million expansion of the site.

As part of this transfer, ACH Clear Pathways obtained ownership of all artwork belonging to the former Hill House, including Blumenfeld’s painting. Hanging the board on the front door, ACH Clear Pathways Executive Director Tyian Battle made a point.

As you walk through ACH Clear Pathways today, you feel the spirit of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House: children making art as Rosenberg taught, children making music as Anna Perlow taught, children rehearsing plays as Simon Gerson taught.

Israeli author David Grossman once wrote: “When I first heard about the life cycle of the salmon, I felt there was something very Jewish about it: this inner signal which suddenly resonates in the consciousness of the fish, asking it to return to life, the place where they were born, the place where they were formed as a group.” For thousands of Pittsburgh Jews, the Hill District is in upstream, a point of return. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-454-6406.

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