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.”••