Veteran Feminists of America



March 2011

Photo: James Arzente

I was born in New York City 1944. My sister Rita Ann Schwalb was born in 1946. My dad, Morris Schwalb was a lawyer and then a judge; my mom Evelyn Rosenhain Schwalb was an artist. She worked in ceramics and jewelry and painted in oils. When I was around ten she went back to school to get a teaching license and taught art and metal shop in the Junior High School in Riverdale and other schools. She even had her own gallery in our Riverdale apartment building where I had my first solo show while in college.

I wanted to be an artist since I was five years old. My first art classes were in an after-school program at PS 86. I still have the first oil painting I made--an idealized landscape of an imaginary mountain, a lake, some fir trees, a small house and a setting sun.

While in junior high school I began studying with the painter Anna Meltzer whose work evolved from realism to a personal abstraction related to cubism. She had a skylight studio at 50 West 57 St. and every Saturday I took the subway to my classes. I drew still-lifes in charcoal and tried to draw figures and portraits. I was building a portfolio to apply to the High School of Music and Art. My JHS 115 (Elizabeth Barrett Browning JHS) had terrible art classes; there were sewing classes but no craft classes; the all-girls school was training us to become secretaries and mothers.

After two tries I was accepted to Music and Art. It was a long commute, but M&A was a sanctuary for me and I felt like an artist; those three years were the happiest of my life. I exhibited works in the Semi-Annual Exhibition and even had a solo show of paintings in the hallway, a big

"Using the arc and the circle representing the universe and the earth, Schwalb creates vividly colored works that combine silverpoint, gold leaf …. Here the artist contemplates spiritual existence, using brilliant sky blues, steel blues, waves of sepia, deep wine reds, and subtle filigree of silver lines…."
— Cassandra Langer, Women Artists News, Fall 1990

deal at the time. We had amazing teachers including the well-known painter May Stevens. One of my favorite teachers was the printmaking instructor, Miss Pferdt.

When I applied to art school I wanted to leave New York City. Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) seemed like the perfect place, with a campus in Pittsburgh. I studied graphic design and fine-art classes. After graduation I came back to New York and found a job at Dell Publishing as a book-jacket designer. I had to look under “help wanted male” as there were no jobs listed under “help wanted female,” and I was the first woman in the art department except for the secretary; however my salary was less than the male designer.

I began to share an apartment in Manhattan with my sister and life seemed to hold exciting promises. One month after we moved in together she was diagnosed with melanoma and two years later she died. It took me over five years to recover from this loss. I joined the Vietnam anti-war movement and made posters and buttons for demonstrations. By then I was working as a freelance designer, hardly making a living, but somehow able to afford my little rent-control apartment.

In the summer of 1971, I lived on Cape Cod trying to reconnect to my own artwork. My first works were pen-and-ink watercolor drawings based on dreams and imaginary landscapes. In 1973 I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony. These were transforming experiences, working in large studios, three meals a day and no distractions.

At VCCA I met the feminist writer Elizabeth Fisher and became art director for her literary magazine Aphra. I found my way to Women in the Arts and I was hooked. Soon I volunteered to be the designer of the first WIA newsletter, working with Cynthia Navaretta (who is still my friend today). WIA held numerous actions to change

“Susan Schwalb’s metalpoint and smoke Tablets and Headdresses explore the effects of fire as a symbol of dynamic transmutation of matter into energy. She probes changes of state, the limits of life and death, destroying part of the art work itself in a moment of the burning, the ephemeral moment in which the essential radiance inherent in all matter is perceived.”
— Gloria Orenstein, "Evocative Images," Arts Magazine, May 1980

the status of women artists, at one we demonstrated at galleries that didn’t show the work of women. I remember picketing Pace Gallery on 57 St with Cynthia. Patrons there were astonished to learn there were any women artists at all.

In 1974 while sharing a house in the Hamptons with artist friends I discovered silverpoint and within a year it had become my primary medium. My first series of metalpoint drawings was on the theme of the Orchid (1974-78). For the first year I drew from one dried flower exclusively, seeing it from many points of view. Meant to evoke sexual as well as spiritual themes, the orchid was a symbol for me and for women. Relatively small drawings though later enlarged, in 1977 they were shown in a solo exhibition at the Women’s Series at Rutgers University and then toured to several other universities.

In 1977 a group of us from WIA went to Albany to choose delegates for the National Women’s Year Conference to be held in Houston, and tried to elect someone to represent women artists there. I became the elected delegate, while a few others were appointed later on. I remember Gloria Steinem standing on a chair with a bullhorn encouraging us to stay in lines for hours before we could cast our votes for slates for pro-choice and pro-ERA women. Back in New York I networked with writers and artists so there could be an art space at the Houston conference. During this conference I heard about the next international UN conference planned for 1980 and decided that women artists coming from all over the world had to be represented.

It is a long story of how I was able to get this conference to come into being, including a trip to Denmark to secure support from a major museum and a meeting with a group of women artists in Copenhagen. This was long before email and the internet, and I would call Denmark from the offices of a UN official. Daily I received 50-100 letters and packages from women who wanted to participate. In a wonderful book, “Women Artists of the World” edited by Cindy Lyle, Sylvia Moore and Cynthia Navaretta about the first International Festival for Women Artists, I describe how I was able to form a committee of over 100 women in the US to bring this conference into existence.

It was a heady time, and in July 1980 the conference opened at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum. We had slides, posters, books and original art from more than 30 countries, and women artists from over 20 countries held readings, performances, and panel discussions. Numerous museums and churches in Copenhagen held

“In Schwalb’s ethereal silverpoint drawings streams of whispery lines — surely it is impossible to make thinner lines than these — cascade downward. They form sliding, blossoming organic shapes so close to touching you can feel the heat between them. Schwalb achieves great tension between formal delicacy and sensuous, even erotic, content.”
— Christine Temin, The Boston Globe, 2/26/1987

special exhibitions and for the first time The State Museum of Art showed 19th and 20th Century Danish women artists from its permanent collection.

I have no idea how I made art during the year I worked on this conference and taught part-time at City College, but there are a surprising number of works dated from 1979 and 1980. By this time I was combining silverpoint drawings with fire and smoke and creating box sculptures. These works have a more abstract quality, but evoke the same sensuality and spirituality. I scratched and tore into the paper as well as used smoke and burning with silverpoint. The works were like a ritual act and in some cases the drawings seem to exist only for a moment. My Headdresses and Parchments speak of a lost space being reclaimed by women. I used burning and tearing as part of my technique until the mid-1980’s.

In the summer of 1981 I was accepted at Yaddo. I was back working in my small apartment. but the summer changed my work as well as my personal life. I met the composer Martin Boykan who taught at Brandeis University and lived in Newton, MA. Within a year I was dividing my time between Boston and New York, something I do to this day. In Boston I searched for a network of women artists. I helped found the Boston chapter of the Women’s Caucus for Art, its first open meeting in my husband’s living room. My husband and I married in 1983. I taught part time at Mass College of Art and continued my involvement with national WCA and College Art Association conferences.

In my work of 1988-90 the female body remained as a source in such works as “Emblem” and “Spiritus Mundi.” A large drawing from this series was included in “Power, Pleasure, Pain: Contemporary Women Artists and the Female Body” at the Fogg Art Museum in 1994.

Since 1996 I moved further into minimal abstraction and have continued to push the limits of silverpoint. My current work is the most reductive to date. I now make works that fuse painting and drawing. I have an additional network of much younger women artists in New York, a supportive husband and since 1990 have been able to devote myself to my work on a full-time basis. I make a living as an artist and have work in many important museums collections around the world including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery, Washington D.C., The British Museum, London, The Brooklyn Museum, NY, Kupferstichkabinett - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England.

Recently I joined facebook and am looking forward to continuing the work for women’s rights through the internet.

My solo exhibition “A Gathering Quiet: Metalpoint Paintings and Drawings” is currently up until March 12, 2011 at Galerie Mourlot, 16 East 79 St, NYC.

Comments: and

Susan Schwalb is one of the foremost figures in the revival of the ancient technique of silverpoint drawing in America. Most of the contemporary artists who draw with a metal stylus continue the tradition of Leonardo and Durer by using the soft, delicate line for figurative imagery. By contrast, Schwalb’s work is resolutely abstract, and her handling of the technique is extremely innovative. Paper is torn and burned to provide an emotionally free and dramatic contrast to the precise linearity of silverpoint. In other works, silverpoint is combined with flat expanses of acrylic paint or gold leaf. Sometimes, subtle shifts of tone and color emerge from the juxtaposition of a wide variety of metals. In recent works, Schwalb abandons the stylus altogether in favor of wide metal bands that achieve a shimmering atmosphere reminiscent of the luminous transparency of watercolor.

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