Sam Maint's Sistine Chapel, continued


    At the building’s formal dedication in February, where Maitin’s sketches for his new mural were on exhibit, the benediction before dinner was given by Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Penn Hillel. “I find Sam and his work inspirational,” said Alpert. “His paintings based on Genesis and the Psalms express the highest aspirations of humanity.”
    Hillel, the Newman Center, and the Christian Association are part of the Interfaith Council on campus, sharing a social-action agenda and participating in several joint projects, such as a Sunday night soup kitchen at Hillel for residents of West Philadelphia; and a Safety Fair, an annual event that attracts more than 1,000 children who come to learn about various personal-safety precautions. “Our joint mission is to raise awareness of spirituality though social action,” said Alpert.
    Dr. Marjeanne Collins, professor emerita of pediatrics at Penn and a chair of the CA’s board, introduced Maitin at the dinner. Collins, who spearheaded the project for the new mural, said: “We love and respect Sam for living his life as he practiced his art. To use Sam’s words, he has always thought that ‘the making of art is a humanizing and sensitizing process, which, unlike most other activities, including formal religion, never isolates, separates, or threatens people.’ Rather, it is an attempt to contribute to society, to people, to civilization, forging bonds where none existed and creating a visual history that serves as an anchor for succeeding generations.”
    Collins pointed out that the integration of Maitin’s philosophy of life and work is clearly shown by his prolific efforts on behalf of SANE, an organization that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s to combat nuclear testing. Maitin created many silkscreen print-posters honoring, among others, broadcaster Taylor Grant, actors Ed Asner and Jane Fonda, and Nobel Peace prize-winner Desmond Tutu. During the 1970s, Maitin also joined a group of artists and poets, including Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, who protested against the war in Vietnam. To that effort he contributed eight “peace posters.” Maitin believes that “poster art can be shared with numerous people because it is non-elitist.”
    Philadelphians are particularly fond of Maitin, said Collins, because his paintings, murals, and sculptures decorate and brighten so many public places and spaces: the Fleisher Art Memorial, where he took painting lessons as a boy; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and other hospitals; Temple University Dental School; the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center in Haverford; the YM-YWHA at Broad and Pine Streets; the Free Library of Philadelphia; the Settlement Music School; the Philadelphia Art Alliance; Wills Eye Hospital; and the rear wall of the Academy of Music. He recently designed posters for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, which held a major retrospective of his art last year.
    Maitin’s latest large-scale work is an 11- x 5-foot polychrome aluminum sculpture for George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which was commissioned by Philadelphia oncologist Dr. Luther W. Brady RES’56, a longtime Maitin benefactor. This spring, after a two-week stint as artist-in-residence at Brevard College in North Carolina, Maitin will resume working on another mural, commissioned by the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Philadelphia, for the new Please Touch Museum, which will be located on the Delaware River waterfront.
    He will also continue working up sketches for the new chapel mural. Maitin envisions two paintings, each 7- x 8-feet, on the east and west walls of the room. One will be in warm, sunny colors, suggesting light; the other in greens, blues, and purples, evoking darkness. “The arc-shaped windows gave me the idea to create similar mural shapes,” says Maitin, who would also like to do a small framed painting for the back wall, as well as a painting for the ceiling, so that when people come to pray they literally will be surrounded by light and color.
    Unlike his earlier mural, Maitin wants the new ones to be a bit more vivid. “The two semi-circular shapes will bring to mind the shape of the world,” he explains. “I am thinking of Genesis, of Creation, as a theme, and I want to weave in the impressions I have of the 104th Psalm. It is one of my favorites. I used to discuss it with Ralph Moore. In a sense, God has finished his, or her, work and looks down at the earth and talks of the roar of the lion from the mountaintop; he cavorts with the leviathan of the sea—a huge sea monster I have always thought of as a whale. I don’t want them to be too literal. I’ll probably incorporate calligraphy, which is typical of me.” Maitin will “get some feedback from the folks at the CA” before executing the final designs. There is no deadline, but he hopes to finish the murals and install them by this fall.
    “Although Sam does not think of himself as a religious man and is suspicious of organized religion, deploring orthodoxy and fanaticism,” says art reviewer and critic Rita Rosen Poley, who attended the dinner, “I believe that he is probably more religious than he thinks.” Poley curated a large show of Maitin’s religious works last year at the Temple Judea Museum at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. The show, which featured a series of biblical watercolors inspired by the 1976 Bar Mitzvah of his son Izak, was titled “The White Monkey Talks With God: Sam Maitin Paints From the Bible.” It included about 70 or 80 works by the “white monkey” (which is how Maitin’s uncle described him when he was born).
    “When we were young, my brothers, my father, and I would have discussions about personalities in the Bible,” Maitin says. Poley thinks that Maitin’s childhood, filled with family conversations about historic, political, literary, and cultural Judaism, left an enduring legacy.
    Like Ralph Moore and Beverly Dale, Maitin believes that music, art, and painting are the spiritual quests of the human heart and soul. “One reason I am doing this,” says Maitin of the murals, “is because I have a great affection for these people. They are truly the great people.” To show his support and appreciation, the artist designed four silkscreen posters, based on his mural designs for the new chapel, and donated them to the CA.
    “We were really overwhelmed by Sam’s generosity,” says Marjeanne Collins. “We will use the posters to promote the Christian Association’s expanded program support for student and community outreach. And, of course, we hope it will attract many people to Sam’s Sistine Chapel.”

Jane Biberman, former editor of Inside magazine, profiled Sam Maitin for the Gazette in 1987. She is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.




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