Artistic elders of the river wards

Fishtown artists Mar­ie Ulmer and Mary Bla­zic, both 94, will be honored with an art­work show­case at Mi­chael’s Dec­or­at­ors on Frank­ford Av­en­ue.

Kens­ing­ton artist Mar­ie Ulmer, 94, sits in her liv­ing room sur­roun­ded by a life­time of her art, as well as some pieces she’s pur­chased along the way. Ulmer will be honored along with fel­low artist Mary Bla­zic, 95, in a First Fri­day ex­hib­i­tion “The First Ladies of Fishtown/Kens­ing­ton†at The Gold­fish Gal­lery on Septem­ber 2.

When Frank­ford Av­en­ue comes to life with art and cul­ture for the First Fri­day cel­eb­ra­tion this week, the spot­light will not be shown just on the artists of to­mor­row, but also on two wo­men who’ve been at the cen­ter of the Fishtown arts com­munity for al­most a cen­tury.

Mi­chael’s Dec­or­at­ors, 2210 Frank­ford Ave., will host a gal­lery of work by Mary Bla­zic and Mar­ie Ulmer, both 94, from 5-9 p.m. Sept. 2. The “First Ladies of Fishtown and Kens­ing­ton” will show­case a life­time of work from the two eld­er artists, il­lus­trat­ing their ver­sat­il­ity and lifelong com­mit­ment to their trades.

Ulmer is ex­pec­ted to be on hand for the event, but Bla­zic, who suf­fers from Alzheimer’s, likely will not be able to at­tend.

Her son, Ro­man Bla­zic, first con­ceived of the idea for the ex­hib­i­tion, and mo­mentum quickly built as he pitched it to oth­er com­munity mem­bers.

“It’s really a way of say­ing thanks,” Ro­man said of the ex­hib­i­tion.

Bla­zic, a first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­ic­an, was the second-born of 13 chil­dren. Her love of all things art — mu­sic, po­etry, paint­ings — blos­somed at a young age but, grow­ing up in the Great De­pres­sion era left little room for artist­ic out­lets.

However, she fused her pas­sion with prac­tic­al­ity, craft­ing slip­cov­ers, lace and cloth­ing, tech­niques that came in handy when she got mar­ried and had her three sons.

“No mat­ter what, des­pite the obstacles of rais­ing a fam­ily and hav­ing to go to a dol­lars-and-cents job to bring in in­come, she nev­er gave up,” Ro­man said. “She didn’t have a lot of time to work on things, but she found what time she could and kept at it.”

Later in life, Bla­zic in­ves­ted her artist­ic en­ergy in oil and wa­ter­col­or paint­ings and even taught her­self how to read mu­sic and play the pi­ano. After re­tir­ing, she vo­lun­teered her skills as an art teach­er at the Luther­an Set­tle­ment Home, where she worked un­til age 80.

Her time at Luther­an al­lowed her to strike up a friend­ship with fel­low arts afi­cion­ado with Ulmer.

Ro­man noted that Ulmer has been a fix­ture in the Fishtown and Kens­ing­ton arts com­munit­ies for years, still liv­ing in the house in which she was raised.

Ulmer is a 1941 gradu­ate of the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum School of In­dus­tri­al Art, the pre­de­cessor to the Uni­versity of the Arts, and worked for 30 years as a cur­at­or at the Free Lib­rary of Phil­adelphia.

Ulmer’s own tal­ent mani­fes­ted in a large body of work, said Irene Sfaki­anos, Uni­versity of the Arts pro­fess­or who is cur­at­ing the up­com­ing First Fri­day ex­hib­it.

“She’s just a re­mark­able artist,” Sfaki­anos said. “She nev­er stopped paint­ing, draw­ing, silk­screen­ing, mak­ing jew­elry, ceram­ics.”

While Sfaki­anos noted that Ulmer was, and still is, a pro­lif­ic artist, she, along with Bla­zic, largely worked out­side of the city’s artist­ic circles.

“Mar­ie did her work really by her­self and nev­er had that net­work,” she said. “They both were

very in­de­pend­ent wo­men who were strong enough to keep do­ing what they did on their own.”

Ro­man said he had been hop­ing to stage a show­case of his moth­er’s work for some time but had trouble find­ing a loc­ale, since he was not selling her work and, thus, a ven­ue would not make a profit from the event.

Enter Mi­chael’s Dec­or­at­ors.

The re­u­phol­ster shop has staged a num­ber of ex­hib­i­tions in part­ner­ship with Sfaki­anos’ Gold­fish Gal­lery and, while the shows have slowed down re­cently, store own­er Mi­chael To­nuci said he was eager to get on board after learn­ing the wo­men’s stor­ies.

“They’re 94 years old, and when I heard that age, I just couldn’t res­ist,” To­nuci said. “They’ve been do­ing art most of their lives and de­serve to have their own show like this.”

This week, To­nuci’s shop is in the pro­cess of be­ing cleared out to make way for the paint­ings, silk­screens and oth­er works be­ing in­stalled by Sfaki­anos.

To­nuci noted that Ulmer at­ten­ded nearly every Gold­fish Gal­lery show, and Ro­man said loc­al res­id­ents began to con­nect the name with the face in the past few years after a blog post fea­tur­ing her photo.

“Every­one knew her be­cause she was really at every arts event but people have star­ted to learn more about her own work,” Ro­man said. “She’s had ex­hib­i­tions of her work but this show really will let her show how wide the range of her work is and all the dif­fer­ent things she can do. She just lives and breathes art.”

Some of Ulmer’s work will be for sale, while Bla­zic’s will not.

In ad­di­tion to shar­ing their work with the com­munity, the com­munity will take the time to thank the artists for their con­tri­bu­tions at the event.

State Rep. Mike O’Bri­en and City Coun­cil­man Dar­rell Clarke will both be in at­tend­ance to present Ulmer and Bla­zic’s fam­ily with le­gis­lat­ive cita­tions.

“I know Mar­ie’s really go­ing to get a kick out of it. I tease her that she’s a su­per­star now,” Ro­man joked. “But it’s a way of telling her that people ap­pre­ci­ate that she’s still act­ive, she’s still mak­ing art and she’s show­ing people that that’s pos­sible. And for my fam­ily, my moth­er was also the de facto head of the fam­ily, and this is really a re­mem­brance of what she’s meant to so many people. Our fam­ily was taken by sur­prise by how much this has snow­balled, but I think it’s go­ing to be a great way to hon­or them both.”

To­nuci noted that the ex­hib­i­tion will be a learn­ing ex­per­i­ence for bud­ding artists in the value of per­sever­ance and ded­ic­a­tion.

“It’d be nice that young­er people will be able to see what 94 really means — to see how much work can be ac­com­plished and to still have a pas­sion for art after all those years is in­cred­ible. Ninety-four years is really a whole lot of sun­sets.”

And while the work spans dec­ades, Sfaki­anos noted it il­lus­trates both artists’ un­waver­ing and

unique artist­ic prowess.

“They didn’t suc­cumb to styles or fads,” she said. “Be­ing true to your­self is really the most im­port­ant thing. That’s artist­ic in­teg­rity.”••

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