Sheila Schwid moved into Westbeth with her painter husband and three children in 1970. Although she had studied art, and exhibited her artwork in New York and Ohio, she says she was just an “occasional” artist up until the mid-1990s when she could finally devote herself to painting full-time. Since then, her work has been exhibited in galleries in Provincetown and New York City, including the Carter Burden Gallery. In 2001, Schwid curated the Generations show at Westbeth, which focused on Westbeth family members and their work in the arts. In her current ongoing project, Schwid creates paintings from photographs that she takes through the windows of the 14th Street crosstown bus.
Terry Stoller spoke with Sheila Schwid in May 2018 about her getting married and moving to New York City, her work as a part-time artist, her dedication to raising her children, the misogyny in the art world in the late ’50s and early ’60s, relearning her craft and becoming a full-time artist after retiring as a public school teacher, curating shows at Westbeth, and her latest artworks.
Terry Stoller: You’re from the Midwest.
Sheila Schwid: I’m originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When I was about 8 years old, we moved to Omaha, Nebraska. And I always drew, like all kids draw, and I continued to draw and paint throughout my life. When I was in my very early teens, I started drawing people on the streetcar. I drew them because I liked the people. They were interesting to me. When I came to New York City, I continued drawing on the subway and anytime I went to the beach, a café or the park.
In some of your bios, you say that you work from nature. But now you’re telling me there’s this other component to your work.
I was so excited to pull this all together today. I realized this theme of finding a composition that conveys a deeper meaning or mood or statement goes all the way back. Of course, I always worked from nature. And I got very good instruction in Omaha from various teachers, artists, painters, on still life and landscape. I love drawing from nature.
At what point did you decide that you were going to be an artist?
I always knew I was an artist, but due to the times, when women were not encouraged, it never occurred to me that I would be a full-time painter. Except I wanted to be a commercial artist. I thought I could make my living that way. I did go to commercial art school to do that. You get a lot of figure drawing there. Then I got married and had three children, and all my energy went into that for a long, long time.
You weren’t doing artwork while you were married?
Sometimes I did, but not very much. My main concern was for the kids. It didn’t seem to work out that I would have much time to do my art.
When did you come to New York City?
In 1959. We lived in a loft on the fifth floor. It was wonderful. It had been a sail loft. It was right near the East River. It was on Ferry Street, which no longer exists. The ceilings were so high; it was the top floor and had enormous skylights. One day my husband Jay came home with a pair of homing pigeons, and they flew around the loft. It was quite enormous, and everybody was living there illegally, and we got electricity mysteriously. We weren’t bothered by anybody reading the meter because officially the place didn’t seem to exist.
Why did you come to New York?
I was married to Jay Milder, and that’s where he lived. He came to Omaha, we got engaged, got married and came to New York. Our first child, Rachael, was born in ’60; the second, Rifka, was born in ’62; and our third, Joshua, was born in ’63. We were in Ohio then. We were in Ohio from ’62 to ’64. Jay got a job teaching at the Dayton Art Institute. We lived in Yellow Springs, which was a lovely little village. It had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and was one of the few places where blacks were being treated like human beings. It was very interesting during the civil rights movement. Antioch College is there.
When did you get back to doing art?
Occasionally I would paint, whenever I had the chance. When my youngest was in school all day, I went back to school, and I got my education credits and started teaching art in middle school in the New York City public school system—or I taught whatever they threw at me, English, science, ESL, Spanish, special ed. We moved to Westbeth in 1970. The kids grew up, and I was teaching full time for a while. I didn’t have much time to paint. Sometimes I would paint on the weekends. About twenty years ago, I retired as a schoolteacher. I got my pension, and I was living here, and my family had moved out. I have the duplex, and I made the studio downstairs.
But in 1973, you were in the Women Choose Women show at the New York Cultural Center. You were making art then.
Yes, but it was occasionally, when I could. To me, to be a painter or a sculptor, you’re in there at least four days out of seven. You’re there. You’re doing it. My main idea was to take care of the children. The children meant so much more to me than the paintings. Now that I’m older, my children are there for me.
How did you get into the Women Choose Women show?
The idea of the show was that more established painters would choose younger people. And I was very lucky that Rosalyn Drexler picked me. She knew me. It was exciting to be in the show. And Rosalyn was also picked by the New York Times to write the review.
Your sculpture is mentioned in the review.
Yes. I was lucky twice. She said lovely things about my piece. But, as I said, my main thrust was the children.
So you were a part-time artist at first.
When we were in Ohio, I did some metal work, and I did cement work, and I had a show at Antioch College. But I didn’t feel the way I’ve been feeling since I’ve been alone here in my studio and can really work. I think the series I’m working on now is closest to what was in the back of my mind all this time. I love the figures, the people, their mood. My main thing is always how do you integrate the figure into the composition. I think that’s a real struggle in modern art. I like looking at people and recognizing them as people, and integrating that into a composition. That’s working for me now. I’ve gone so much farther since I’ve been able to work at my own pace.
When you came to Westbeth, you already had friends in the art world.
Jay knew so many people. We’d go to the Cedar bar. He knew everybody, including de Kooning and Kline, all those people.
Benny Andrews and your husband Jay Milder were both in the Rhino Horn group. That was mostly a guy group.
Terry, where were you in the late ’50s, early ’60s? The word was misogyny. It was unbelievable. Martha Edelheit, a respected feminist artist, came back from Sweden for the Inventing Downtown show at Grey Gallery last year, and she and I looked at each other and grinned: Remember the misogyny? The men had come home from World War II, and they were the heroes. And the next generation wanted to be heroes too. They would swagger around like the real heroes, but they didn’t have anything to be heroic about, so they turned on women. They put them down in public; they put them down in private. I was told, Women can’t paint. I was told that I should make pastels of Jay’s paintings. That would be very feminine and wifely. I was told, You want to make money? You should string beads. I’d think, What? I graduated from college. I’d been to the Art Center School in Los Angeles. What was going on here? I would be the hostess, and the men would come over, and they’d sit around and talk. I’d be serving them wine and food, and no one would even talk to me. I was a waitress.
Things changed, thank god. The Women Choose Women show was very nice for me. That was a breakthrough. I was in some of those protests in front of MoMA and in front of the Met. Of course, that aligned itself with the civil rights movement too. The men in the civil rights movement were misogynists also. But Benny Andrews was not. Benny was lovely. We ran into him once—he was doing a protest for blacks in front of the Met, and we joined him. But the times were bad for women; it was emotionally and culturally and socially and certainly artistically unbelievably misogynistic. Then we got into the women’s movement in the ’70s.
You were in a dance class at Westbeth with Sally Gross.
Sally’s class started in 1960, as I remember. It was nothing to do with Westbeth. It’s just that a lot of us ended up being in Westbeth. I went to the very second class. It was at the Educational Alliance. And I stayed with the group, except when we lived in Ohio for two years. Sally saved me because I didn’t know anything about my body. She introduced me to my body. She was marvelous. And I think she helped my eldest, who is a choreographer. Just being around her, Rachael knew you don’t have to ask anyone permission, you don’t have to go to a special school. You can just go ahead and dance and be a choreographer. It was a good influence.
Do you think being part of that class helped you when you decided that you were going to devote yourself to being an artist?
It didn’t hurt. But if I had never met Sally, I still would have been a painter. You know how you surround yourself with things that help you. Sally and the people I met through her have always been very inspiring and wonderful.
What did you begin working on when you turned your full attention to artwork?
I had to start from scratch. I went to life class, to Minerva’s. Everybody has to go to Minerva’s Spring Studio. Minerva Durham has the best life class in the world. The model is completely professional. You can go morning, noon, and night, and pay for each session. I used to go to Minerva’s so I could remember how to draw the figure. Of course, I had already gone to school for that. I’d been going to life class since I was 15. But I had to go back. I had to start over. And then I set up still lifes. And I went and painted outside. And I learned how to paint again. I did a lot of paintings in the courtyard from life—mostly from the beautiful plantings in the center. And I would take the watercolors into my studio, and from them I would make abstract oil paintings. I would abstract the main shapes. What I was doing was teaching myself what the abstract shapes mean. How you use them. What color. What shape. Where are they? Are they heavy? Are they light? What happens when they collide? I was going from the realism, painting from life to using all the abstract rules of painting. I was learning more and more about composition, so that I didn’t have to think about it. It became internal. By the time I got to my latest project, the people, the composition became something that I could use easily.
Were your paintings of Alaska and Hawaii [2008-10] part of this process?
Yes. In those cases, I took photographs, especially in Alaska and Hawaii. I didn’t have time to sit and draw and paint. From the photographs, I simplified and abstracted. Some of those paintings look semi-abstract and semi-realistic.
Your series “Reflections on 14th Street” dates to 2012.
In 2011 I got the idea, and Marlena Vaccaro, the director of the Carter Burden Gallery, came and looked at my work. At that time I was doing abstract work, and she was willing to show that. I said, Marlena, I’ve got this great idea. And I told her about it. I didn’t even show her a photograph. And she said, OK, go ahead. That gave me about three and a half months to do my first series of paintings from the photographs of the people through the windows of the 14th Street crosstown bus, and the reflections and the strange shapes that come in these photographs. Sometimes they’re smoky; sometimes they’re solid—and these shapes obliterate most of the figure or maybe they look like they’re going straight through like lightning. Sometimes they cut off the head, which is kind of scary. They make a big arrow into the head. To me, these shapes are symbols of the obstructions in our lives. They represent the noise in the street, the bright lights. They represent the other people interfering—the sirens, the clashes, Con Edison. And I noticed people keep walking through these obstructions. It’s not just the noise. It’s also the lies, the propaganda, the tricks that people play on the average person.
You have also curated shows here at Westbeth.
What happened was Jack Dowling was running the gallery, and he put up a sign that they needed painters to make shows for the gallery. I said, What? In New York City, they’re looking for painters? I called him right away. He had already booked the first show, and I curated the second show at the gallery after Jack took over. I put myself in, of course, and Spencer Holst and his wife, Beate Wheeler. Then my daughter’s best girlfriend’s mother was coming over from Spain, and she was a painter. We had a four-person show. Jack was so thoughtful, so knowledgeable, so helpful. I hadn’t done any of this stuff before. Jack was there for me, and I would assist him from then on. I was on his committee, and I suggested the idea of the Generations show. I said, It has to be at least two generations, and they’re both in the arts—but they don’t have to be painters. Jack said, OK, that’s a great idea. Go ahead.
I had to do the whole thing. I thought we would be working as a team. But I got so excited by the idea, and it worked out so well. It brought Westbeth people together more than anything else had since the rent strikes. In my case, my eldest, the choreographer, organized a dance weekend. The first weekend we had dance in the community room. And we had a six-week-long show in the gallery of art. In some cases, it would be two generations of painters. My second daughter, Rifka, was in it. I was in it as a painter. My ex-husband, Jay Milder, who had lived here, put a piece in. And my son, Joshua Milder, played tapes and CDs of his original music, along with Josh Ethan, John Gamble, and Thom Manno. Joshua composes and plays rock ’n’ roll. At first nobody paid any attention to the posters inviting participants. Then all of a sudden, one person decided, I’d like to be in it, and I’d like to have my children in it. It turned around, and everybody wanted to be in it. And I opened it up to past people too. And people became acquainted. The painters became acquainted. We had two weekends of writers in the community room, and they organized themselves. It was great once I caught on that I didn’t have to do everything. The musicians said, Just tell us the date. By that time, Gil Evans had died, and his wife Anita had a fabulous movie about him, and she showed that. And Vin Diesel shared his demo tape. We had actors, we had playwrights, we did readings. We filled six weekends.
That was in spring 2001.
And I put together a book and told all the participants in the Generations show, you can write your biography, a story, a poem, criticism—whatever you want. I got the most marvelous stories.
To go back to your Reflections series, you’ve been exploring what life is like for people in the big city, and you give your paintings titles. Some are observational, and some are making a point. Are you making a political point through your work?
I’m a very political person, and this way of painting gives me an excellent chance to express it without hitting you on the head. Hopefully, somebody who’s conservative might be seduced into looking at one of these paintings. If you’re for people, it shouldn’t be political, but in our present situation it seems to be considered political if you like the average person. I find that upsetting. I learned a lot when I was teaching in the New York City public school system. I got out of my middle-class bubble and my art bubble, and I saw what was going on in the city with—in many cases—victims. My heart went out to these children and their parents. I love these people. They’re strong and wonderful. I didn’t realize the work was political until I had an open house about a month ago. People came in, some new and some friends, and they really liked my work. Gwen Fabricant said, Oh, it’s political. And I said, You are right. I hadn’t put it into words until she said it.
One of your earlier titles is The Women of Haiti Came Forward to Get
Food for Their Children.
It shouldn’t be political that somebody is giving food to their children. Shouldn’t that be universal?
In the recent print show in the Westbeth gallery, you explored the Reflections theme in dry point prints. Could you talk about that process and why you chose it?
First of all, I have not had proper training in printing. Printing requires proper training more than a lot of other processes. I have a close friend who’s a master printer, and knowing him made me respect the process even more. It happens that dry point is the only thing I actually learned in college. I tried a few monoprints when I joined the workshop here, and for me they weren’t anything. I went back to dry point, which is just scratching into a plate. It’s like drawing, except there are certain things that don’t work so well if you treat it just like drawing. You have to learn a few tricks of the trade. I also cheat because I do it in plastic, and you should do it in metal. I did one or two metal plates. The result is gorgeous, and the plate lasts for so long. At my age, I don’t have the energy to do it anymore. I can get a few prints from my plastic, and I find it quite a challenge: first I choose one of my photographs; then I make a plate; then I print it. It’s a whole different process, but I learn a lot from it.
You’re having a show at AMP: Art Market Provincetown, in late May through early June. What will you be showing there?
The same paintings that I showed at the Carter Burden Gallery. I sold three there. I’m not going to show those again. I don’t have that much chutzpah.
Is that a group show?
I’ve noticed that a lot of galleries are showing two, three, four painters or sculptors at a time. When I first joined Carter Burden, if you had a show, that was your show, but she had a very small place. Then they got this larger place, and for the latest show I had a whole a room to myself, the back room. In the past I’ve been in the main room, but I shared it with my daughter Rifka Milder. That was great. I love to share with her. In Provincetown, I’m going to show eight paintings, and the people that the gallery director, Debbie Nadolney, has lined up with me are very interesting.
Will you be continuing with the Reflections paintings?
No doubt. I have found this new subject, people fractured with reflections. The theme is empathy—my empathy for strangers, some kind of truth having to do with feelings and other people and how they are treated. I imagine I get to know a little about them as I paint them. I can respect their privacy and still share something with them. I haven’t begun to find all the possibilities. It has to do with stepping off the cliff and painting in a way you don’t know—using energy that you don’t know where it came from, but knowing you have to finish.
All images courtesy of Sheila Schwid.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2018 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council