Running with Wolves

The front-page picture in The New York Times shows a group of people standing on a balcony in Iraq. Flanked by colorful cloths, the men, women and children are looking down to the street, where there has just been an explosion.

Langhorne, Pa., printmaker Selma Bortner clips pictures like these from newspapers and magazines and pastes them into a journal. There’s another picture of a woman pulling her dead husband out of a car that has just exploded, and one of a young boy who just detonated a bomb, holding his fingers up in “V” signs. The pictures focus on the reactions of people to these atrocities. From the photos, Ms. Bortner makes sketches in the journal.

Ms. Bortner is one of a group of artists whose work makes up Art Speaks at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.

“I’m working on a car-bomb series about the war in Iraq,”  Ms. Bortner related several years ago. “I interpret these scenes just as I’m falling asleep, or as I’m waking up… I’m at the enviable point in my life where I can speak out, although I’ve always been outspoken.”

Having taught printmaking for 23 years at Bucks County Community College, Ms. Bortner is well-versed in printmaking techniques and can call up the medium – collograph, linoleum or woodcut – that will best express what she is trying to convey.

In her work, some themes are relationships women have with their bodies; abuse; and breast cancer.

Ms. Bortner kvells over her first grandchild, Chloe, recently adopted from China. It’s hard to reconcile this warm, white-haired, Florida-going woman who dotes on her Russian Blue cat – allowed to walk on the glass dining-room table and sidle up to a stone sculpture at its center – with the surreal images she creates.

Three of the prints are based on Guiseppi Verdi’s opera Aida, which Ms. Bortner saw while traveling in Italy. The opera is about an Egyptian army captain who must chose between Pharoah’s daughter, to whom he is engaged, and Aida, the Ethiopian Princess he loves. Forced to choose between love or power, he chooses the former, and tragedy ensues.
Ms. Bortner used the tale to help combat her own battle with breast cancer more than 20 years ago. “It was comforting to sit and carve linoleum, and I thought it might be my last chance,” she says.

Ms. Bortner is capable of making pleasing images out of painful events by using bright colors, fanciful animals and soft shapes. Yet the demons are still there.

In “Aida and the Mirror,” we see a goddess-like woman in high-heeled boots with a monkey at her breast. A striped animal with a long snout and pointy incisors looks on as she gazes into a hand-held mirror that reflects a Picasso-esque distortion.

“The woman is looking into a cracked mirror, but she is still beautiful,” says Ms. Bortner, making the analogy to a woman who has lost a breast but can still be attractive and whole. “The animals are symbolic of her children who still love her.”

In “Aida and the Serpent,” the same goddess embraces a glittery scaly blue serpent. The eye of the serpent rolls back in its head, like an infant drunk on its mother’s milk.

“The serpent is symbolic of cancer. They each have each other by the neck, but he has sparkles because a serpent is something you can deal with,” she says. “It’s a standoff between friendly enemies in battle.”

In “Aida Queen of the Jungle,” the goddess is wearing nothing but pink cowboy boots (“I love shoes,” says Ms. Bortner). She rides a speckled blue four-legged creature and is surrounded by a tropical paradise. Ms. Bortner and her husband, Judge Oscar Bortner, had just bought a condominium in Florida, which inspired the Rousseau-like tropical setting.

“That’s me in my pink boots,” says the artist. “The boots are for courage as I’m riding into the unknown jungly world of Florida. “It was the first time my inner life connected to my fingers and created these instinctively,” she continues. “This work represents joy. I love doing it, it’s fun and playful.”

She makes her labor-intensive prints in editions of three and four. “They take more time than some painters take on a painting,” she says. “Each collograph is different and the editions are unique.”

Some of the collographs include bits of fabrics and stitching. Ms. Bortner is paying homage to her family’s history of sewing.

“Both my parents sewed,” she says, as did her couturier aunts. “They left Russia after the first World War and went to work in the garment industry in Philadelphia. They met at the Academy of Music – they were highly cultured and loved music and theater.”

When Ms. Bortner was 5, she “had a seminal moment in my life where I knew I was an artist.” Living in Cleveland during the Depression, Ms. Bortner’s father had lost his grocery store. “He was in touch with a group of Jewish and Italian intellectuals,” she says. “The government was offering cheap land in Michigan that had previous been used to grow peppermint for the Wrigley company.”

Ms. Bortner’s father and his friends established Sunrise Cooperative Farm, where concerts, poetry readings and plays were presented on a working farm. Martha Graham came and taught at Sunrise, Ms. Bortner recollects.

“We managed to survive a dreadful winter, living in sharecropper cabins with coal stoves and the children living in dormitories and educated in a one-room schoolhouse,” she says of those times. “What kept us going were the concerts, plays and murals of activities on the farm. I hung around and they let me paint grass because that’s how tall I was.”

The lifestyle lasted only a year, until Ford reopened its assembly line and the people could go back to their old jobs. Ms. Bortner and her family moved to Philadelphia, where she was raised.

She studied at Tyler School of Art and Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and chaired the department of fine arts at Bucks County Community College until the mid-1990s, when she retired to concentrate on her own work.

That was when the Michener invited her into a five-woman show about abuse. Some of the prints created for the Michener  included  “The Red Boat” and “Goodnight Sweetheart.”

In the former, an upside-down woman lies in a red rowboat with a tea set between her legs. She is wearing signature Selma Bortner high heels. The boat is surround by a blue-green sea, and the yellow oars are floating away. She has been abandoned, says the artist. Her partner has left her with the remnants of a domestic life between her legs. Lost at sea, she grasps onto the boat’s gunnels for dear life. “The security of the relationship has gone out the window,” Ms. Bortner says.

In “Goodnight Sweetheart,” we see two demon-like figures tucking a girl into bed. The mother appears to be hiding, and the little girl looks terrified. The actual image size is small compared to the large, striking, red textured border. “The mother is turning her head away so she doesn’t have to acknowledge what is going on,” says Ms. Bortner.” A few years ago while in Florida, Ms. Bortner came up with the idea for “Trouble in Paradise,” perhaps the most dreamlike image in the show. “It just came to me in a trance, I was so loose,” she says. “Through the years I’m becoming more connected with my inner life and it’s coming out without any effort. ‘Trouble in Paradise’ is full of demons and angels and mystical happenings.”

The colorful beings and a pink flying infant appear against a yellow and black jungle, and surreal animals rise up on their hind legs, as if sensing danger. A demonic face fills the upper left-hand corner where a sun might be shining in a true paradise.

Ms. Bortner says she’s not exactly sure what this image means, but she relates it to the arrival of her granddaughter – symbolized by the flying pink baby. “My daughter and son-in-law worked very hard and made tremendous sacrifices to get this baby,” she says. “They had hardships to overcome. My daughter had to go to therapy to get over her fear of flying so she could go to China to get this baby. An angel is watching over them, but in the background is trouble – you have to be careful.”

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