Rochelle Blumenfeld has been exhibiting her art — mostly abstract paintings — since the 1950s, but her most recent show, “Hill District Paintings,” may be the most personal.
The octogenarian has created a nostalgic collection of paintings based on her memories of growing up in the Hill District during the 1930s and 1940s. The original acrylic works are currently on display at the American Jewish Museum, located in the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. The show runs through July 30, 2017.
Blumenfeld, who studied with the renowned Pittsburgh painter Samuel Rosenberg, has earned accolades throughout her six decades of work, winning many awards in art competitions throughout Pittsburgh as well as New York City. She has created Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah cards for Hallmark, and her series of paintings inspired by Alvin Ailey’s ballet “Revelations” appeared in the magazine Ballet Lover’s Guide.
Blumenfeld’s paintings are represented in many private and public collections, including Pittsburgh’s Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute. She has had numerous exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe.
But it was a 2011 conversation she had with her grandson that inspired the artist to use her paintbrush to reach back into the world of her childhood, a neighborhood facing the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II that was rich for its diversity of cultures including Jews, Italians, Irish, Hungarians and African Americans.
“My grandson wanted to know where the cash register was that he used to put his Monopoly money in,” Blumenfeld said in an interview. “That cash register was from my grandfather’s store on Fifth Avenue. It came to my house after the store closed. And that became my first painting [in this series].”
After she painted the cash register, the old memories were triggered.
“Every now and then a scene would come into my head that I wanted to capture,” she said.
The result is a series of paintings that is nostalgic for those visitors who remember the Hill District as it was in those days and charming for those who have only heard the stories.
The paintings highlight the two stores owned by both sides of Blumenfeld’s family, Sam Reznik & Sons — a dry goods store — and Fairman Wallpaper & Paint Company, as well as street scenes depicting the vibrancy of the neighborhood. Several of the works depict scenes from Logan Street, as well as Fifth Avenue.
“Sunday was a busy day on Logan Street,” Blumenfeld told a group of senior citizens who had come to meet the artist and hear about her work last week. “A lot of Jewish merchants were open on Sundays; they were closed on Saturdays.”
Blumenfeld also painted the people from her past — her family, the rebbetzin — as well as those landmarks that still live in her memory.
“There’s one of the saloons I wasn’t allowed to pass,” she said, pointing to a building in one of the paintings. “I had to cross the street to pass it.”
The only building Blumenfeld did not paint from memory was the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House, “where we’d go in the afternoons for activities,” the artist said. “I did research on that building because I didn’t remember the architecture as much as I remembered the stories.”
The final piece in the exhibit is Blumenfeld’s art studio, located in the house where she has lived in Highland Park since 1970.
“My zayde Fairman lived with us when I was growing up,” she recalled. “When I got engaged, and my husband-to-be was being sent to Japan, we went to see my zayde. He called my husband over and said, ‘She always has to have a place to paint.’”
Since Blumenfeld’s exhibit opened on April 13, it has “delighted and jogged the childhood memories” of many of its visitors, according to Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum.
“These paintings have brought to life so much about the Hill District that people haven’t thought about for a long time,” Hiller said. “I’m delighted that Shelly decided to celebrate her 80th birthday by creating a whole new body of work. That speaks to the spirit of the artist.”
The show, Hiller said, has been a “crowd-pleaser.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.