A painter seeks to lift spirits
- Published: October 27, 2011
This is the second in a periodic series of profiles of residents of Friends Care Community.
Friends Care Community is home to many elders with interesting and singular histories. But it would be hard to find someone with a more unique story than that of Elizabeth (Beth) Hertz, a painter well known in the Dayton area for more than four decades. Having lived in Yellow Springs off and on over those years, Hertz now resides in the FCC Assisted Living center, where the walls of her room, not surprisingly, show off what’s likely the center’s most sophisticated art collection.
Most prominent are prints by Hertz’s beloved teacher William Zorach, a well-known painter and sculptor described as “one of the premiere artists to introduce European modernist style” to this country when he arrived from his native Lithuania in the early part of the 20th century. Zorach was teaching at the Art Students League in New York City when Hertz studied with him as a young woman. The older artist and his family took a shine to the young painter from Iowa, and they remained lifelong friends, Hertz said.
Her mainly large canvases seem to shimmer with the tension created between a painting’s deep colors and its organic or linear shapes.
Hertz, 90, never wavered from abstraction, a style she adopted in the 1940s and continued until she stopped painting a few years ago.
“Someone who’s trying to explore a certain aspect of things stays with it as long as it’s rewarding,” she said in a recent interview. “I felt I was getting a good result on the canvas.”
Others agreed. Dayton art critic Jud Yalkut cited Hertz’s “spiritual abstractions” as among the highlights of the decade in a Dayton City Paper article he wrote about the area arts scene in 2010. Yalkut was referencing Hertz’s work in a four-woman 2010 exhibit at the Dayton Visual Arts Center.
And Yellow Springers can see Hertz’s work when the FCC’s new rehabilitation wing opens soon. With walls decorated by mainly local art, Hertz has contributed a large abstract, “Blue Riser.”
“I was looking for a bouyant feeling,” Hertz told a visitor recently while looking at “Blue Riser.” “It’s about sustaining life.”
The paintings’s predominant blues are unusual for Hertz, who usually chose rich yellows, reds and orange. But this painting called for a softer palette, she said.
“Sometimes a painting seemed to paint itself,” she said. “Like this one.”
Color never lost its power over her, according to Hertz, who had started out as a sculptor.
“But I soon found out about the magic of color. It opened my eyes.”
She started a painting with “a vague idea of a feeling I wanted to convey,” Hertz said, stating those feelings were mainly positive ones. “I wanted to lift the spirits, not depress them.”
A lifetime spent creating abstract paintings was an unlikely future for the young woman from the rural Iowa town who attended Iowa State University in the late 1930’s. There she met her future husband, Ray, a chemical engineer who, because he couldn’t find a job in engineering, took a graduate fellowship in bacteriology. Beth, a home economics major, was working her way through school — funded by FDR’s National Youth Association, or NYA— in that department, where she met her future husband.
When this country geared up to enter World War II, Ray was sent to New York University for training in aeronautical engineering. From there the Air Force sent him to Newfoundland to help maintain planes there, then to flying school. He then became a pilot flying B17s stationed in England, where he ended up as a command pilot responsible for more than 100 planes flying sorties over Germany, and sometimes flying them himself. It was a dangerous assignment, and Beth sometimes worried.
But she was also experiencing the life of a young painter deep into the New York City art scene, which she had entered when her husband was sent to NYU. It was a heady time to be in the city, she said, and aside from worries about her husband, she became deeply immersed in the artist’s life.
“There were all the galleries, the museums, the Met,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss a good show. And I could do it all on foot.”
When she became pregnant, Hertz went home to her family in Iowa. Her husband then came home from the war and the couple, with their first son, lived for the first time in Yellow Springs, renting space in the home of the local sculptor Amos Massolini.
After the war, Ray Hertz became interested in nuclear engineering, and worked in Portsmouth, Ohio, before returning to the area to work at the Mound nuclear facility in Miamisburg. There, he received a patent for his discovery of polonium, an element that helped to put a satellite into orbit. The couple, now with two boys, first lived in Kettering and then moved back to the village, this time to Mercer Court.
As her boys grew, Beth Hertz took what time she could find to paint. After the boys left home, she was able to paint on a daily basis. When the couple moved back to Yellow Springs to the FCC Independent Living units about a decade ago, she kept a studio on Herman Street, to which she walked most days. Many of Hertz’s paintings remain in the studio.
But in recent years, as walking became more difficult, and her husband’s ill health required her presence, Beth Hertz gradually gave up painting. Ray Hertz died last winter, and since that time Beth has lived in an Assisted Living apartment.
She misses her husband greatly, Hertz said, describing her marriage as a happy one between two independent spirits.
“I was self sufficient in my field, and he was too,” she said.
Her sons live on either coast, with one in Oregon and the other in the Washington, D.C. area, so she doesn’t see them often, and at her age, she’s lost many friends. But Hertz treasures the old friendships she maintains, including with artist Winnie Fiedler, who lives in Kettering.
While she no longer paints, Beth Hertz still loves talking about painting. Recently, she went through a box with dozens of prints of paintings she had completed from the early 60s to 2003. While she was sorry that the colors, due to the printing process, were sometimes not true, Hertz had no trouble remembering each one, and the process of its creation.
“When I see them, I get the feeling I had when I was painting it,” she said.