The art of age and wisdom

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 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.” ••

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