Go Deeper

Making Art with Linda Dubin Garfield

Posted August 7th, 2009

Linda Dubin Garfield likes to draw her Philly Fringe audience into the artistic process, even those who haven’t felt artistic since kindergarten. This year the visual artist presents Crowning Glory: Hair Portraits and Stories. This is her fourth Fringe show and the format represents a mix of Linda’s career as a full-time artist, her former career as a counselor, and her doctorate education.

When a dear friend passed away several years ago, she left Linda some money to “do something special.” Linda, recently retired from thirty years as a counselor in the Philadelphia public school system, went on a trip to Mexico with her art teacher. There were twelve other people on the trip, all of whom considered themselves artists. “I was the only one who wasn’t calling myself an artist. I thought, this is crazy,” says Linda. “So when I went home I cleaned out my son’s room and made it into my art studio, and I made card that said: Linda Dubin Garfield, artist.”

Linda, now in her early 60s, was not new to making art, but throughout her 36-year career as a guidance counselor in the Philadelphia public school system she considered herself a hobbyist. Linda grew up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia and attended Germantown High. In 1964 she entered Temple University and began an academic relationship that lasted on and off for 20 years. She earned a B.A. in English, later a Masters in counseling, and returned once more for a Doctorate of Education, which she completed in 1984. Her interest and specialty were in group and social processes and dynamics—watching how people interact in groups, the norms of a group, who has the power in a group. Her thesis was on teacher burnout and stress in the Philadelphia public school system.

Her job was to help kids with social, emotional, and academic problems, and later worked to help kids get into college. During her career as a counselor, she worked at Henry C. Lea School, West Philly High School, and ended up at the High School of Creative and Performing Arts. “I was there for nine years and it was just the best,” Linda enthuses of CAPA, from where she retired in 2002.

Hit more for more of Linda’s work and story.

After making the commitment to becoming a full-time artist, Linda plunged further into the medium she had discovered in the early 1990s—printmaking, particularly creating monotypes. She had worked in photography, sculpture, and painting, but as she puts it, “I fell in love with the press.” Part of what fascinates her is the element of chance creation. “You’re not putting anything directly on paper. I put color on a plate and ink on top of that and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” she continues. “When you roll out the ink there’s this great squishy sound and the surprise comes when you take the paper off. I love the pattern that happens. Of course the five that I hated you’ll never see.”

Her work, which can be seen on seen on, is quite beautiful. One series is inspired by the stunning landscapes she’s visited. Back in her studio, Linda replicates something like a visually emotional response, based in color, to that remembered landscape. This often results in a split between land and sky, though neither is literal, and in many cases both become quite abstracted. In other work she has become fascinated with the textures and patterns of decay, which was first inspired by the rust on Richard Serra’s massive metal sculptures, as well as peeling paint and crumbling walls. She has also veered into collage using photography and digital layering, and in some cases, throwing everything in the pot to produce meditative, yet stirring imagery. (Check out the haunting Scene/Seen, which examines the cityscapes of Eastern Europe and the Jewish community that was erased from it.)

In 2005, after long wanting to, Linda finally attended the Philly Fringe. Her reaction? “I have to be a part of this.” She wanted to do something in the spirit of the festival rather than just a showing of her work. “The print work is private, you’re alone,” she says. “For the Fringe, I wanted to do interaction. I didn’t want an exhibit, I wanted to engage people, make it more Finge-like—something you don’t usually do as an artist.”

One of the things she liked best about her former career was working with others, and people to express their thoughts and feelings. So in 2006 she devised Invisible/Visible: Portraits of Women of a Certain Age. She was getting older and wanted to address how society treats older women. “Society treats older women as invisible—it’s a strange thing, you lose your power.” She asked friends and acquaintances to send stories about when they felt invisible. She used their stories to create 34 portraits, about 8″ x 10″, that she hung on a clothesline across The Book Trader in Old City. Then she set up a workstation with art supplies for visitors to come in, write their own stories, and create portraits of themselves that reflected a time they felt invisible. She found that “people interpret [the theme] in their own way.” That everyone at nearly every age has felt invisible, and has a story to tell.

“What people [the visitors] say is that art is so relaxing,” Linda explains. “I have very non-threatening materials—crayons, magic markers, colored paper, collage materials.” She wants people to enjoy themselves and not feel like it’s work. She also draws a simple outline of a head to help get people started. “I loved the interaction of people, seeing the lives of people who would never otherwise cross,” says Linda.

Since Invisible/Visible, Linda has used the participation format for all her Fringe shows. In 2007, it was We Are What We Carry: Pocketbook Portraits, asking what do you carry? She was inspired by a Tim O’Brien short story about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried,” which brought home the idea that what you carry defines who you are. In 2008, she mounted The Right Foot: Shoe Portraits, with the implication being, where do you stand? What shoe story do you have? With an inviting subject, easy to wraps one’s mind around, Linda sought to draw out the deeper stories and feelings associated with these simple, everyday items. “When things are so basic, there will always be something, some story,” she explains.

This year, for Crowning Glory: Hair Portraits and Stories, she has gathered a number of portraits and stories from acquaintances and workshops. One story recounts, “When I was in third grade I had lice and my mom cut off all my hair. It took care of the lice but I looked like a boy.” Another tells of a girl who was forbidden to play with her silly putty in her bed, but one night she secreted it away upstairs, fell asleep and woke up with the silly putty mashed into her hair. She then told her father, “Oh, Daddy, I have no idea how it got out of its egg.” And in an interesting twist of fashion-consciousness meeting religion, a woman wrote, “For religious reasons I keep my hair covered. Now, no more bad hair days.”

The stories that emerge from Linda’s art experiments range from funny quips to deeply personal, sometimes painful memories, made somehow easier to reveal by the chance to create a visual representation of your story in a group setting. For many, it is the first time they have expressed themselves in a creative manner—a powerful thing at any age.

“I love giving people the opportunity to be creative,” says Linda. “And we talk, and because we are doing art together, the conversation becomes much deeper than small talk.”

–Josh McIlvain.

Crowning Glory: Hair Portraits and Stories will be at The Book Trader (2nd St. + Market) September 6, 7, and 13. Come anytime 3–6pm.

Images from top to bottom: “I wish I had her hair!” (from Crowning Glory); “Earliest Light”; “Reflection”; “The Red Earth”; “Decay 2”; “Really Me” (from Invisible/Visible); “Penny Loafer” (from Shoe Portraits);”Essential Elements” (from We Are What We Carry); Linda by her work. Images courtesy of the artist.