Monday, July 16, 2012

My Friend Seymour

Three years ago this summer I lost a friend.  I first encountered Seymour about sixteen years ago when I moved into his neighborhood.  I saw him often on the street during the late afternoons while I was out planting flowers, weeding, washing windows or polishing the old brass knocker on our front door.  He’d come trudging around the corner in all sorts of weather wearing what looked like old military pants and some type of well-worn shirt or untidy jacket – most often with a tattered rucksack on his back. 
Although his house was just three doors down from mine, I didn’t initially realize he was my neighbor with that three-day scruff of beard, his statement clothing and disinclination to make eye contact or smile.  I think having another house on the block fall to cheerful, industrious yuppies made him cranky.  Who were we to waltz in making our grand improvements and driving up the cost of houses and taxes in the neighborhood?  We hadn’t braved the prostitutes and drug dealers and robberies of decades past – we hadn’t earned our right to recognition…yet.

There is a tiny apartment building at the end of our street – next door to what was Seymour’s house – that has space on its first floor for a small business.  My husband and I finally began to earn our “cred” with Seymour when a series of unsuitable businesses tried to rent the space.  It wasn’t zoned for those businesses, but unless someone kicked up a fuss and organized the block, they probably would have come in.  Having the most on the line, Seymour went door to door gathering support to block the tenancy and we were happy to support him – and so finally move up a notch in his estimation.

A few more years passed and we continued to come together in support of, or opposition to, one neighborhood issue or another and I now had a vague idea that Seymour had done something in his career with art restoration or graphics or something.  I was aware that at one point he had worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so whatever it was he did, or used to do, he must be, or have been, pretty good at it. 

Wandering around the city one weekend in June I came across the Rittenhouse Square Art show for the first time.  It’s quite an event.  The entire park is lined with talented artists from around the country - selling their work over the course of three days.  As I wandered from one slick, tented display to another, I was distracted by the most exquisite little paintings that were displayed clothespinned to a rope and strung between two trees.  The paintings were a combination of elegant still life works and gritty street scenes of disappearing neighborhoods.  They were rich and detailed with the sort of colors that bring to mind Modigliani or Vermeer.  Then a movement caught my eye and I noticed the artist.  It was Seymour.  I stood with my mouth open in complete and utter astonishment and then demanded to know whether this was, indeed, his work.  He ducked his head, jammed his hands into his pockets and kicked at the grass with one foot, looking exactly like a six year old accused of filching a piece of the cherry pie you were saving for dessert.  He blushed and muttered something to indicate a “yes” and the words “Seymour, who knew you were hiding the heart and soul of a true romantic behind that gruff exterior?” flew right out of my mouth.  He turned a deeper shade of blush-red and we bonded for life right there on the spot.

Each year found one or two more of Seymour’s lovely paintings added to our collection.  He made me promise I would never pay more to frame one of his pieces than I’d paid for the art.  Something of a challenge considering the cost of framing and the fact that he always insisted on charging a “friends and neighbors” price he seemed to make up on the spot depending on how well he knew you or whether or not you were a starving student.

Seymour stopped entering Art in the Park several years before his death.  Maybe the rigors of setting up for the show got to be too much, but I suspect the exacting hoops he was required to jump through to re-enter each year (though he’d been a participant for many, many years) demoralized him.  What had begun in 1932 with a small group of Philadelphia art students as “The Clothesline Show” had now morphed into the chic Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, something alien to Seymour’s egalitarian soul I'd guess.

His son has been in touch recently…with a request that I photograph several of our Seymour Rotman paintings for a project he’s working on.  I’m happy to help -- it’s given me the opportunity to remember my friend and look closely at our paintings once again.  One of my very favorites is a small self portrait I nearly had to fight him to buy.  Seymour couldn’t understand what I might possibly want with such a thing – but it perfectly captures the qualities I saw in him – depth and intelligence, some unknown pain or sadness and a crankiness tempered by kindness and generosity.  

As I return home each day from these sometimes gritty Philadelphia streets, I am met by the steady gaze of Seymour’s self portrait.  I am grateful for its artistry as well as its reminder not to judge a book by its cover – but instead, to take some time to read more deeply into one another's story and find something within to treasure.

SEYMOUR ROTMAN 1929 - 2009
"Every year when I exhibited at the annual Rittenhouse Art exhibition, a lovely petite lady would arrive at my booth and painstakingly look through each and every one of my paintings. After a very long time during which not a word passed between us, she would look at me and smile broadly with approval. I later learned that she was Violette deMazia, the longtime curator of the Barnes Foundation."
Seymour Rotman, a North Philadelphia native, fought in the Korean War as a young man.  Upon his return home, he was awarded a full scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in recognition of his artistic talent.  As a student at PAFA, he won a series of traveling fellowships that allowed him to refine his artistic skills in Mexico and Europe.  His talent has been recognized and honored throughout his career by colleagues, mentors and teachers.

For an history of what I call Art in the Park, click here


  1. Susan, I love that self portrait by Seymour and I am so glad it hangs in your house. What a wonderful blog post and tribute to a great neighbor!

  2. well told, beautiful story. made my night!

  3. What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Touching tribute. I'm glad Seymour let you buy the self-portrait! I think portraits are extremely intimate and hold lots of the subject's soul on the canvas.

    Great post.

  5. Susan:
    Thanks so much for writing this. So great to hear that folks still remember him!