Photography by Greg Benson

Maitin was just a kid of 16 when he started moonlighting as a night student at Penn, 60 years ago this fall. At the time, he was also attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now University of the Arts) on a scholarship.

“I took academic courses at night under the aegis of the fine-arts school,” he recalled in 1987. So many subjects grabbed his interest—zoology, botany, history, art history (even though he described one professor of art history as “semi-fascistic”)—that he accumulated something like 130 credits over a six-year period, nearly enough for a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. “I remembered Dean Coyle calling me in, and saying, ‘Well, you’re on your way to an MA. Do you want an MA?’” he recalled a few years ago. “And I said, ‘God, no,’ and he said, ‘Well, get out of here. You’ve finished your work.’”

Two Penn institutions in particular played an important role for him. One was the Annenberg School for Communi-cation, where he headed the Visual Graphics Communication Laboratory from 1965 to 1972. His playful, heart-cheering polychrome dimensional mural, “Celebration,” fills the entire east wall of the school’s lobby, commissioned 30 years ago by the late Walter Annenberg W’31 Hon’66 and his wife, the Hon. Leonore Annenberg Hon’85. In 2001 the school gave him the Merrill Panitt Citizenship Award for his contributions to the art world and to Penn.

The other was the Christian Association, which he always treasured for its caring tolerance at a time when Jews were not always so warmly welcomed. “As a Jew, I love the CA because it has always frowned on quotas and protected minorities,” he told the Gazette a few years ago.

In 1983, the CA’s executive director, Ralph Moore, commissioned Maitin to paint an 18- x 8-foot mural.

“I went to study the space and the light,” Maitin later recalled. “There was a Penn student standing on one foot, meditating. I realized that this room, which Ralph called the Chapel of Reconciliation, was for everybody.” It took him two years and 100 sketches to paint the mural. During that time he built a sort of trolley in his studio, climbed aboard, and had Lilyan push him back and forth while he painted on the floor. (“I couldn’t have painted it standing up because I wanted to use a wash effect, with no sharp edges,” he explained.)

The mural employs the elements of earth, fire, water, and sky, joined by winged shapes from the Book of Isaiah. Along one side, Maitin wrote in pencil: Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh (Holy, Holy, Holy). After the CA moved out of its longtime home at 36th Street and Locust Walk in 1999, the mural was moved to the Great Room of the CA’s new quarters at 118 S. 37th St., where it remains. Incidentally, when Moore met Maitin some 40 years ago, he was so taken with the convivial artist that he finally burst out: “I must have you as my friend!” Maitin was game, and so began “the remaking of my world,” in Moore’s words.

Maitin’s friendship with the late Louis I. Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71 led, indirectly, to a major windfall for Penn. (It also led to a two-man exhibition at the William Penn Museum in Harrisburg, titled, “Louis I. Kahn, Architect/Sam Maitin, Artist.”) After Kahn’s death, Maitin spent two years petitioning the Pennsylvania legislature to buy up the architect’s drawings and papers. Eventually the Commonwealth ponied up $500,000 for the vast collection, which now resides in and forms the centerpiece of Penn’s Architectural Archives, which are open to the public.

“My father was a man of vision, driven by uncompromising values,” recalled Izak Maitin at the memorial service in January. “He saw things both as they are and as they should be. He instilled in me the value that not only can one person change anything, but also that one person can change everything.”

Although Maitin did not regard himself as a religious person in the conventional sense, he was “spiritually religious,” in the words of Lilyan. “He was probably the most knowledgeable Jewish person I ever knew,” she added. “He knew about the Bible; he knew about Greek mythology. You could see it in a lot of the things he’s done.”

“As I was thinking about this memorial for Sam’s life, the title of a novel by Peter Matthiessen flashed across my mind’s eye,” said actress Jane Moore, Ralph Moore’s wife. “At Play in the Fields of the Lord. I thought, ‘That’s Sam. Sam at play in the woods of Vermont, Sam at play in the studio, and, in recent years, Sam playing on the floor with his beloved grandchildren.’ Life simply poured out of this man, this mensch. He poured himself out, giving, giving, always giving of himself and his art for people.”

Chris Palmer was one of the many “studio alumni” who worked as Maitin’s assistants over the years. Though he was 45 years younger than Maitin, the latter’s youthful outlook and boundless energy made him both a contemporary and a father-figure at the same time. At the memorial service, he spoke of his first days in Maitin’s studio: “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it here. This guy’s intense.’”

“He was proud to know that his studio was such a crucial part of our education,” Palmer said. “We all performed different functions in the studio, and some of us tried to bring some logical order to the mountain of pictures, posters, sculptures, collages, and tools … Assistants tried to get Sam on top of the mountain of paperwork, but he hated it. He would rather scrape shards of colored paper off the floorboards, so they could be recycled into some wonderful series of collages.”

Sometimes Maitin would “get into a fever of creative activity, where he would churn out as many variations of color and shapes as we could provide him materials for,” Palmer recalled.

On other days, visitors would come, and Maitin would call Palmer up to the kitchen and have him join them at the table; the time would sneak by without any work getting done. At that point, Palmer said: “Sam would turn and remind me in that familiar cadence and tone, ‘Time spent with friends is never wasted.’”

I ask Lilyan if she thinks her husband had accomplished what he wanted to. “I think so,” she says after a moment. “I mean, he had such a full life. He touched so many people in so many areas.”

She looks out the window, her hands folded on the kitchen table. “There was such an outpouring of affection,” she adds. “It was as though they had a personal loss. He appealed to people in such a personal way; there was almost a sense of ownership.” She points to a huge stack of letters and cards that she has received. One turns out to be a sprawling hand-made card from artist Don Madden, who once shared a studio space with Maitin, and who, when he heard of his old friend’s illness, drew a wonderfully wise, hallucinatory animal (with shapely hind legs and spiked heels) to look after him.

“Through his art, his spirit will live on,” said Izak Maitin. “This may be the greatest degree of immortality one can achieve. His work will continue to bring joy, as he always intended.”

The night before the memorial service, Ralph Moore drove down from Maine, where he now lives. He described his entrance into the city the next day: “As I came over the bridge last night, and saw Philadelphia after being away for some time, I looked at it again, and I saw it as bursts of light and funny shapes and all the things that Sam knew about. And I said to myself, ‘Philadelphia is safe. Sam has got Philadelphia eternally written in the arts.’”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05

The Art of Life
By Samuel Hughes

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Sculptures at the Annenberg School for Communication (top left) and the Clubhouse at the Enclave (middle); Septa bus poster (bottom left). Side Wall sketch for mural, CHOP (below).