Esphyr Slobodkina: Artist, Author, Illustrator (1908-2002)
Esphyr Slobodkina (ess-FEER sloh-BOD-kee-nah) was born in Siberia on September 22nd, 1908. In 1917 during the Russian Revolution, she escaped with her family to Harbin, Manchuria (China) where she studied art and architecture. Esphyr immigrated to the United States at the age of 29. She enrolled at the National Academy of design, and in the 1930s worked painting lamp shades and soon after murals for the WPA (Work Projects Administration).
It was there that she met her future husband, Russian born, Ilya Bolotowsky. Along with Ilya, Esphyr was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, which began amid controversy in 1936. Like other Russian modernists, surrounded by ancient icons and a rich craft tradition, Slobodkina
developed a lifelong appreciation of clear, rich colors, and stylized forms. Through the 1930s Esphyr developed her unique method of working in oils; a flattened, abstracted style that incorporated line, suspended or interlocking forms. But by the late 30s and 40s Esphyr was using a variety of techniques and materials. Many of her works are collages and constructions- integrating paint, wood, plastic, and metal with everyday objects such as parts of disassembled typewriters and computers, into amusing and often great art. Slobodkina’s work eventually received high acclaim.
According to Harold Porcher (Sage Fine Art), authority on the artworks of Esphyr Slobodkina, “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. 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.”
Esphyr illustrated many children’s stories for Margaret Wise Brown, including “Sleepy ABC” and the “Big and Little” series, while still continuing her work as an abstract artist. Among her 24 published works “Caps for Sale” has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Today it is considered a children’s book classic.
In the last years of the 20th century, Slobodkina continued her productivity, alternating -serious work on abstract paintings with more relaxing activities of creating sculpture, wall hangings, multimedia constructions, dolls and jewelry, often made out of old typewriter and computer parts. She completed an 1100 page autobiography replete with photos and letters spanning a century.
Anne Cohen DePietro, Chief Curator and Director for the Newsday Center for Dove/Torr Studies at the Heckscher Museum of Art, said of Esphyr, “Traversing nearly a century of inspiration, it is Slobodkina’s enduring delight in the creative act and her single-minded pursuit of her aesthetic vision in a multiplicity of media that continues to enchant.”
In April of 2000, at age 90, artist/author/illustrator Esphyr Slobodkina established The Slobodkina Foundation, dedicated to the conservation, preservation, and exhibition of art. The Slobodkina Foundation was designed to educate the public about the work of Ms. Slobodkina and encourage others to pursue their dreams through awareness of Esphyr’s accomplishments.
Before her death in 2002, Esphyr redesigned her home on Long Island, NY, as a mini-museum and reading room for children and a place where guests would view more than 500 works of art and get a chance to meet Slobodkina. The Slobodkina house was sold after Slobodkina’s sister passed at age 104 in 2011.
Esphyr Slobodkina was a celebrated avant garde artist and feminist in the early part of the last century. Her paintings, sculptures and literary works are part of the collections of The Metropolitan Museum in NY, The Smithsonian, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum in NY, and more.