Blumenfeld's latest solo exhibition depicts her childhood in the Hill District
Currently on display at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, Rochelle Blumenfeld's latest solo exhibition offers a surprising twist for the petite octogenarian artist known for creating monumental abstract paintings.
The 14 paintings in the exhibit are distinctive for two reasons: one, their scale, being much smaller than the artist's usual work; and two, they are all representational works that tell the story of Blumenfeld's childhood, growing up in the Hill District.
Now 80, Blumenfeld says she was inspired to begin painting this new series about four years ago after telling her grandchildren stories about growing up in a community that was “a true melting pot,” she says.
The first of the series, “No Sale,” depicts the old cash register that came from her grandfather's store, Sam Reznik & Sons, a dry goods store once located at 68 Logan St.
“I always thought it was so beautiful because of the ornamental brass on it,” she says of the cash register, which she still keeps in the basement of her Highland Park home.
Blumenfeld says all five of her grandchildren have played with it over the years, filling it with Monopoly money, playing their own version of store.
Blumenfeld's paternal grandparents, Sam Reznik (1880-1965) and Rachel Reznik (1888-1933), immigrated to Pittsburgh from Russia in 1904 along with Mr. Reznick's younger brother Abe and sister Batia “Bessie.”
Before opening his store, Sam Reznik peddled combs, needles and thread from door to door in the Hill District. Once opened, the store became a second home for the entire family.
“Everybody in the family worked in the store,” Blumenfeld says. “On weekends we knew that that's where we were to be.”
Even Rochelle and her younger brother, Alan, would help out when asked.
The painting “Mother's Day,” for example, depicts a young Rochelle peddling crepe paper flowers in front of the store.
Blumenfeld says she painted the work after seeing August Wilson's play “Seven Guitars.” “In the last scene the women are making crepe paper flowers. I didn't know where they came from. My father would put me out there (on the sidewalk) for Mother's Day, and if somebody wanted to buy one I'd send them into the store.”
Inside the family store, visitors were privy to purchase from all that the Reznicks had available, as Blumenfeld so perfectly portrays in “The Clothes Hung From the Ceiling (Logan St.).” “My grandfather thought that if they didn't see what he had they wouldn't ask for it. So, he wanted everything that he had for sale to be seen. So, they had strings that hung from the ceiling with hangers on them showing all that they had.”
Blumenfeld's maternal grandparents, Harry Fairman (1876-1954) and Sarah Rubinrot Fairman (1878-1931) also owned a store, Fairman Wallpaper and Paint on Fullerton and Center, as depicted in “Wallpaper Store Interior.”
“He was quite an artist in his own right,” Blumenfeld says of her grandfather, Harry Fairman. “He would decorate borders around (the rooms of) people's homes. He would take a stepladder into Squirrel Hill and hand-paint borders for people.”
Even Blumenfeld's father, Lawrence Reznik (1911-2003), had artistic talent. He briefly attended Columbia University before returning to Pittsburgh to take night classes in advertising and design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and to work in the family store.
From about 1934 to 1942, he was also a sign painter for the candy company Reymer & Brothers. Blumenfeld says she believes it was her father who designed the winking lemon for Lemon Blennd, Reymer's lemon-flavored drink. ”He certainly painted it enough,” she says.
He also made signs for the Jewish War Veterans Post 49, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and Israel Bonds, and of course, for the store. “He would make signs on top of the clothes, but he was very neat,” Blumenfeld recalls.
Other works depict places that were once iconic, such as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House (1835 Centre Ave., now part of the Hill House Association) and the Mayflower Bakery, once located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Logan Street. “I used the watch the people's feet through the windows as they walked up the hill,” Blumenfeld says, which is why in the latter work entitled “Bakery” one can see the legs and feet of people walking up a street through windows high above the bakery counter.
“I just really wanted my grandchildren to have an idea of what it was like when I was growing up,” Blumenfeld says as to why she created these paintings. But she hopes others will find meaning and memories in the visual stories they tell as well.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.