The Mockingbird and the Melting Pot

By Harold Porcher

(NOTE: this essay was originally published in association with the exhibition “Two Friends,” presented at the Great Neck Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, June 5-July 14, 2004.)

Any exhibition that shows the works of Esphyr Slobodkina is a tribute to a life well lived, as she was tireless in her efforts to develop her talents in many directions and found success in most. As we made selections for this show, we made an effort to present artworks Esphyr produced that have not had much exposure to the public.

These works are dated from the late 1970s until the end of her life in 2002. Esphyr was a founding member of American Abstract Artists (AAA), a group of artists that was very influential in shifting the public opinion of American abstract painting in the 1930s and 1940s from one of rejection or mere tolerance to acceptance. Unfortunately, the recognition the AAA received for their artistic accomplishments is restricted to works accomplished during those two decades. Though these were important developmental years of American abstraction, artists such as Esphyr Slobodkina went on to develop their ideas in many fascinating directions. Ironically, the artists that eclipsed the AAA group’s prominence after 1949 were the abstract expressionists, who were greatly indebted to these elder abstract painters. Were it not for the steps painters and sculptors of the AAA had taken toward developing an American art identity, abstract expressionism might not have developed as we know it.

If I were to pick one time in American art history that I could go back and witness first hand, it would be the early years of the American Abstract Artists group. The AAA set out to establish an art identity for the modern painter in the United States.

In the beginning, they were criticized and even ignored, but the tireless search for something unique in the world of art culminated in the development of abstract expressionism. Indeed, the abstract expressionist movement shifted the center of the art world from Paris to New York City – where it remains today – and Esphyr and her contemporaries were the torchbearers, establishing abstraction as a viable form of expression in America.

Some people have described early abstraction in this country as derivative of that of the Europeans. The AAA’s early emulation of European artists’ concepts are often described as misinterpretations by naïve artists. This description is valid, as most of the American artists did not have opportunities to travel to Europe to view paintings of their overseas counterparts firsthand. But, many of these interpretations were clever innovations that further developed modernism as a whole. In an attempt to build on modernism – a largely European form of artistic expression – the Americans incorporated elements of what was familiar to them. Esphyr was one of these artists. Her life’s work pulled imagery and objects together into magnificent compositions time and time again. I equate an artist like Esphyr to the American mockingbird. A mockingbird borrows and embellishes the songs of other birds around him. Often he changes the phrasing as he incorporates each element into an orchestration of birdsong.

We cannot know if the mockingbird selectively alters the fragments he takes from other birds or if he simply alters them to suit his composition. Esphyr’s work can be studied in an endeavor to map her sources of artistic style or to determine the original function of some small object in one of her compositions, just as you can also try to break down a mockingbird’s song to discover his sources. But first it is important to simply enjoy the composition.

Much of the post war art that we now see is highly individualistic. Each artist is striking out to find that next great movement. No longer do we have the groups of artists searching for answers as a team. Esphyr was part of the true melting pot of American art. The listing of original members of American Abstract Artists is largely made up of people not born on American soil. Each member brought his or her own set of cultural ideals, biases and passions to the group. Through their meetings, debates and protests, they shaped the art world and each other into a whole that was greater than its parts. They were great examples of the American melting pot. Out of many shards of art concepts, they forged a style of expression that has not tarnished from age.

In 1979, Esphyr moved to Hallandale Florida, a move that symbolized the end of a chapter of her life. But she was far from done creatively. While planning this move, she wrote and illustrated Billy, the Condominium Cat. When I read this book, I get a sense that Esphyr was trying to convince herself that she was at a point in her life where she should slow down and enjoy some leisure time. Billy, the feline character in her story, longs for the high-energy life that he lived in his youth in the northeastern United States. After a visit to his home, he realizes that he is not the cat he once was and learns to appreciate the leisurely life of a condominium cat in the sunny south. If Esphyr was in fact trying to convince herself to slow down, it did not seem to work. She returned to the northeast – where she continued to push herself to create works of beauty until the end of her life.

In 2001, Esphyr could still be found mixing her own paints, banging a hammer and using power tools. Esphyr very often revisited her old themes (like her peacock shapes) and used them in new ways. When tired standing and painting, she would sit and construct or deconstruct; or walk and think; or move to the typewriter. She always had more than one project going simultaneously.

Before Esphyr died, she established a foundation. The foundation’s purpose is to open young people to the many possibilities they possess within themselves. By example, Esphyr can teach future generations to give themselves permission to follow their dreams. Esphyr was a writer, illustrator, painter, sculptor, designer – and more. She had great talent, intelligence and creativity, but most of all she gave herself permission to do anything she wanted to. If the Slobodkina Foundation can encourage one child to grant herself or himself permission to follow her or his dreams, then Esphyr’s greatest gift is delivered.

(NOTE: this essay was originally published in association with the exhibition “Two Friends,” presented at the Great Neck Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, June 5-July 14, 2004.)

Any exhibition that shows the works of Esphyr Slobodkina is a tribute to a life well lived, as she was tireless in her efforts to develop her talents in many directions and found success in most. As we made selections for this show, we made an effort to present artworks Esphyr produced that have not had much exposure to the public.

These works are dated from the late 1970s until the end of her life in 2002. Esphyr was a founding member of American Abstract Artists (AAA), a group of artists that was very influential in shifting the public opinion of American abstract painting in the 1930s and 1940s from one of rejection or mere tolerance to acceptance. Unfortunately, the recognition the AAA received for their artistic accomplishments is restricted to works accomplished during those two decades. Though these were important developmental years of American abstraction, artists such as Esphyr Slobodkina went on to develop their ideas in many fascinating directions. Ironically, the artists that eclipsed the AAA group’s prominence after 1949 were the abstract expressionists, who were greatly indebted to these elder abstract painters. Were it not for the steps painters and sculptors of the AAA had taken toward developing an American art identity, abstract expressionism might not have developed as we know it.

If I were to pick one time in American art history that I could go back and witness first hand, it would be the early years of the American Abstract Artists group. The AAA set out to establish an art identity for the modern painter in the United States.

In the beginning, they were criticized and even ignored, but the tireless search for something unique in the world of art culminated in the development of abstract expressionism. Indeed, the abstract expressionist movement shifted the center of the art world from Paris to New York City – where it remains today – and Esphyr and her contemporaries were the torchbearers, establishing abstraction as a viable form of expression in America.

Some people have described early abstraction in this country as derivative of that of the Europeans. The AAA’s early emulation of European artists’ concepts are often described as misinterpretations by naïve artists. This description is valid, as most of the American artists did not have opportunities to travel to Europe to view paintings of their overseas counterparts firsthand. But, many of these interpretations were clever innovations that further developed modernism as a whole. In an attempt to build on modernism – a largely European form of artistic expression – the Americans incorporated elements of what was familiar to them. Esphyr was one of these artists. Her life’s work pulled imagery and objects together into magnificent compositions time and time again. I equate an artist like Esphyr to the American mockingbird. A mockingbird borrows and embellishes the songs of other birds around him. Often he changes the phrasing as he incorporates each element into an orchestration of birdsong.

We cannot know if the mockingbird selectively alters the fragments he takes from other birds or if he simply alters them to suit his composition. Esphyr’s work can be studied in an endeavor to map her sources of artistic style or to determine the original function of some small object in one of her compositions, just as you can also try to break down a mockingbird’s song to discover his sources. But first it is important to simply enjoy the composition.

Much of the post war art that we now see is highly individualistic. Each artist is striking out to find that next great movement. No longer do we have the groups of artists searching for answers as a team. Esphyr was part of the true melting pot of American art. The listing of original members of American Abstract Artists is largely made up of people not born on American soil. Each member brought his or her own set of cultural ideals, biases and passions to the group. Through their meetings, debates and protests, they shaped the art world and each other into a whole that was greater than its parts. They were great examples of the American melting pot. Out of many shards of art concepts, they forged a style of expression that has not tarnished from age.

In 1979, Esphyr moved to Hallandale Florida, a move that symbolized the end of a chapter of her life. But she was far from done creatively. While planning this move, she wrote and illustrated Billy, the Condominium Cat. When I read this book, I get a sense that Esphyr was trying to convince herself that she was at a point in her life where she should slow down and enjoy some leisure time. Billy, the feline character in her story, longs for the high-energy life that he lived in his youth in the northeastern United States. After a visit to his home, he realizes that he is not the cat he once was and learns to appreciate the leisurely life of a condominium cat in the sunny south. If Esphyr was in fact trying to convince herself to slow down, it did not seem to work. She returned to the northeast – where she continued to push herself to create works of beauty until the end of her life.

In 2001, Esphyr could still be found mixing her own paints, banging a hammer and using power tools. Esphyr very often revisited her old themes (like her peacock shapes) and used them in new ways. When tired standing and painting, she would sit and construct or deconstruct; or walk and think; or move to the typewriter. She always had more than one project going simultaneously.

Before Esphyr died, she established a foundation. The foundation’s purpose is to open young people to the many possibilities they possess within themselves. By example, Esphyr can teach future generations to give themselves permission to follow their dreams. Esphyr was a writer, illustrator, painter, sculptor, designer – and more. She had great talent, intelligence and creativity, but most of all she gave herself permission to do anything she wanted to. If the Slobodkina Foundation can encourage one child to grant herself or himself permission to follow her or his dreams, then Esphyr’s greatest gift is delivered.