The glow of the past, the light of life
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History and artArtist's iconic painting adorns historic building

The glow of the past, the light of life

Shelly Blumenfeld completes a rejuvenation of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement.

Manchester Bidwell Corp. President and CEO Bill Strickland at the entrance of the newly reopened Kaufmann Center, beside Shelly Blumenfeld’s painting “Irene Kaufmann Settlement House” and a salvaged section of the old settlement house pool. (Photo courtesy of Eric Lidji)
Manchester Bidwell Corp. President and CEO Bill Strickland at the entrance of the newly reopened Kaufmann Center, beside Shelly Blumenfeld’s painting “Irene Kaufmann Settlement House” and a salvaged section of the old settlement house pool. (Photo courtesy of Eric Lidji)

The recent reopening of the Kaufmann Center culminated with a tour of the building. The line was long and the foyer was crowded. I inched inside, and as I tried to get out of the way, I found myself facing a painting hung prominently by the door.

Seeing that painting by that door, I heard a pleasing “click” in my mind. It was the wheel of history finishing one of its big, graceful rotations and locking back into place.

The painting is titled “Irene Kaufmann Settlement.” The artist is Shelly Blumenfeld. It shows the old Irene Kaufmann Settlement House amid a buzz of everyday activity — families arriving, friends leaving, kids crowding the balconies, flags waving.

What makes the painting special is its glow. The edges are gray and misty, but the center is illuminated with a strong, soft light that comes from nowhere in the scene itself.

“Irene Kaufmann Settlement” debuted in the spring of 2017, as part of Blumenfeld’s one-woman show at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The show, titled “Hill District Paintings,” was a series of recent paintings she had made based on childhood memories of the Hill District in the 1930s and 1940s.

A few years earlier, Blumenfeld’s eldest grandson had asked her, “Grandma, whatever happened to the cash register?” Blumenfeld’s grandfather Sam Reznik ran a popular dry goods store at 68 Logan Street in the Hill District. By the time she was 9 or 10, Blumenfeld was given a little responsibility at the store. She was allowed to ask customers “Could we help you?” Then she would locate their item in the crowd of inventory, take their payment, and place the money in the register by pressing “No Sale.”

The Reznik store stayed on Logan Street until 1955, when it was demolished in the redevelopment of the lower Hill District. The cash register followed Reznik to lower Fifth Avenue. In time that store closed, too, and Blumenfeld rescued the register.

Artist Shelly Blumenfeld talks about her Hill District paintings.(Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Artist Shelly Blumenfeld talks about her Hill District paintings in 2017.
(Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Decades later, when Blumenfeld’s own grandkids were little, they would come for dinner and spend the evening playing shopkeeper, filling the old register with Monopoly money. After her grandson asked about the register, Blumenfeld went down to her basement to find it. Seeing it there, old and beautiful, the artistic impulse struck. She made a sketch. The sketch became a painting, a glowing cash register titled “No Sale.”

The painting led to another. She made paintings of the Reznik dry goods store and paintings of Logan Street. Paintings of another family store, Fairman Wallpaper & Paint Company, with its dizzying patterns of wallpaper swatches. Paintings of produce stands and bakeries, of wartime parades and victory gardens, paintings of neighbors sitting on their stoops, and the painting of the grand old Irene Kaufmann Settlement House.

All these paintings glow with a calm inner light. Blumenfeld is one of those artists whose style is instantly identifiable. Once you learn to recognize her particular soft luminosity, you start to discover her paintings befriending you all over the community.

From a technical standpoint, the light comes from Samuel Rosenberg. When she was a child, Blumenfeld recalls seeing Rosenberg teaching art classes at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. He was part of a group of legendary instructors and coaches who bestowed the wealth of human culture to the people of the Hill District.

Blumenfeld was too young to attend those classes. She came to know Rosenberg later, as an adult, when she joined his renowned evening workshop for adults at the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association on Bellefield Avenue in Oakland.

In the class, Blumenfeld was surrounded by women who were on their way to becoming legendary — Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Jane Haskell, Lois Kaufman. She was the youngest by a few years, and today she is among the last of that generation of artists.

She caught Rosenberg as he was completing a decades-long transition. His early acclaim in the 1930s came from paintings of street scenes. He conveyed the grimness of daily life in a big, hard city, but he infused each moment with affection and dignity. From there he moved into allegory in the 1940s and then into pure abstraction in the 1950s.

Rosenberg was eager to bring his students along. He taught them underpainting, color theory, texture, and form, as well as how to think. On Thursday nights, he always gave the class a problem to solve visually. Make a painting that shouts. Make a painting that whispers. Paint something that takes the eye in, and then takes the eye out. Through these weekly exercises, Blumenfeld learned how to make her canvases sway and glow.

In many of Blumenfeld’s most iconic paintings, her subject is light — ribbons and banners and needles of light, clustering in vibrant motion. Even her paintings of actual tangible objects, like flowers or dancers or canyons, soon explode into abstraction.

The Hill District paintings are different. To start, they’re figurative. But the difference is more profound. In these paintings, the glow isn’t the light of life. It’s the light of memory, specifically the way certain specific details from the past can remain shockingly crisp in your mind forever and yet swim inside a fog of loose impressions.

These are paintings of return. Blumenfeld returns to the neighborhood of her youth. She returns to the teacher of her youth. She revisits his subject using the skills he taught her, but with the style she herself developed in the lifetime between then and now.

After the JCC show closed, Blumenfeld made one final return. She donated “Irene Kaufmann Settlement” to the Hill House, the literal and spiritual successor to the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. With the migration of the Jewish population away from the Hill District in the 1930s and 1940s, the six-story building gradually transitioned as well, becoming a Black institution. Through a merger in the 1960s, it became the Hill House.

The old building was eventually demolished, replaced with a modern structure by architect Walter L. Roberts. All that remained was the auditorium from the late 1920s.

The Hill House closed in 2019 amid financial troubles. For months, the outlook was uncertain. Would that block remain in service to the communal mission it had served for 119 years — one year shy of Jewish posterity — or it would become another plot in the real estate market. Eventually, the auditorium was transferred to an afterschool arts program called ACH Clear Pathways, which oversaw at $4 million expansion of the site.

As part of that transfer, ACH Clear Pathways was given ownership of all the art owned by the old Hill House, including Blumenfeld’s painting. By hanging the painting at the front door, ACH Clear Pathways Executive Director Tyian Battle made a point.

When you walk through ACH Clear Pathways today, you feel the spirits of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House: kids making art like Rosenberg taught, kids making music like Anna Perlow taught, kids rehearsing plays like Simon Gerson taught.

The Israeli author David Grossman once wrote, “When I first heard about the life cycle of salmon, I felt that there was something very Jewish about it: that inner signal which suddenly resonates in the consciousness of the fish, bidding them to return to the place where they were born, the place where they were formed as a group.” For thousands of Jewish people in Pittsburgh, the Hill District is upstream, a point of return. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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