When Frankford Avenue came to life with art and culture for the First Friday celebration last week, the spotlight was directed on not just the budding artists of tomorrow, but also on two women who’ve been at the center of the Fishtown arts community for most of their lives.
And they’re both 94.
Michael’s Decorators, 2210 Frankford Ave., is hosting a gallery of work by Mary Blazic and Marie Ulmer, who have amassed a lifetime of impressive works that illustrate their versatility and their lifelong commitment to their trades.
Blazic’s son, Roman, 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 Blazic said of the exhibition.
His mother, 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 during the era of the Great Depression left little opportunity 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 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 Ulmer.
Roman Blazic noted that Ulmer has been a fixture in the Fishtown and Kensington arts communities for years, still living in the house where 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, a University of the Arts professor and curator of last week’s 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 and Blazic largely worked outside of the city’s artistic circles.
“Marie did her work really by herself and never had that network,” Sfakianos 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 was eager to get on board after learning the women’s stories.
“They’re ninety-four 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.”
Tonuci noted that Ulmer attended nearly every Goldfish Gallery show, and Roman Blazic said local residents began to connect the name with the face in the past few years after a blog post featuring Ulmer’s 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, explaining that the Goldfish Gallery show demonstrated the wide range of her work.
He is happy to see the spotlight directed on Ulmer.
ldquo;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.”
Tonuci looked forward to the exhibition as a learning experience for budding artists in the value of perseverance and dedication.
“It’d be nice that younger people can see what ninety-four really means — to see how much work can be accomplished, and to still have a passion for art after all those years is incredible,” Tonuci said. “Ninety-four years is really a whole lot of sunsets.” ••