Selma Bortner, Aida and the Serpent, c. 1991, collograph on paper, H. 29.25 x W. 32 inches, James A. Michener Art museum. Museum purchase funded by Anne and Joseph Gardocki.
Have you ever thought about being an artist? Selma Bortner said, “For me, being an artist was always a question of survival. I could not survive in this world if I could not do something creative. It’s a commitment that I made when I was a child. I knew from the first time I could think about it that I wanted to be an artist.”
Selma Bortner (1926-2019) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to immigrants from Ukraine. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in art education from Tyler School of Art in 1948. Soon there after, she and her husband, Judge Oscar Bortner, moved to Levittown. Initially Bortner became an oil and watercolor painter, but when she saw an exhibit of work by printmaker Samuel Maitin at her high school reunion, she was fascinated and decided to focus on printmaking instead. Bortner taught locally, spending twenty-three years in the art department at Bucks County Community College. There she taught courses on printmaking and two-dimensional design. In addition to raising her family and teaching, Bortner continued working on her own projects, always seeing herself as a working artist. She won numerous awards for her work and had her work exhibited in solo and group shows in the U.S. and abroad.
Though trained extensively in both painting and printmaking, Bortner had become primarily known for her printed, graphic works. She was familiar with all printmaking techniques but preferred to work with surface techniques such as fine cut, wood cut, and collograph. To create a collograph, she often used cut linoleum or textured fabric adhered to a cardboard support as her printing plate. Bortner was a highly experimental and inventive, often combining different techniques and creating much of her materials, including paper, from scratch. When she lacked access to a printing press early on in her career, Bortner ran over prints with her car; this approach, unfortunately, proved unsuccessful. She often hand-colored and altered her plates between each printing, resulting in a series of unique works.
Bortner was primarily concerned with conveying a specific message or set of personal feelings in her works. According to Bortner, her work can be described as “a pipeline to feelings which cannot be expressed in any other way.” Each picture has a “germ,” a starting point – something in the world, or in her world, that stirs up intense emotions.
In 1986, Bortner was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Up until that point, she was still searching for her style and she wasn’t entirely confident of her direction and technique as an artist. These significant events in her life and marked a turning point in her artistic development. No longer as concerned with developing a particular style, she decided to concentrate on what she wanted to say: “Cancer gave me more than I gave it. It shook me up and made me grow up a little bit. I discovered what was important in my art. That’s when I allowed myself to reveal myself – after the trauma.” In the Aida Series, for instance, Bortner followed her journey and battle with breast cancer through an allegorical set of linoleum prints on paper. In one of these prints, titled Aida and the Mirror (right), we find a nude Aida holding a broken mirror surrounded by animals in a lush natural environment. Though the fractured mirror reflects a broken Aida, and, in turn, Bortner, both the animals and the viewer see the woman as whole and complete.
In addition to personal works like the Aida Series, Bortner’s prints confront challenging issues like domestic abuse, immigration, and international conflict head-on with bold and colorful, graphic imagery that remains relevant and impactful today. See work from the Aida Series and other prints in the exhibition, Selma Bortner: The Journey, opening February 22nd.
- Listen to an interview of Selma Bortner produced by the Senior Artists Initiative.
- See Selma Bortner interview fellow artist Paul Keene, another artist in the Michener’s Collection.
- Learn more about Selma Bortner on the Bucks County Artists’ Database.
- See Aida and the Mirror on Google Arts and Culture.