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Award for Excellence in the Arts: Martha Mayer Erlebacher

Award for Excellence in the Arts: Martha Mayer Erlebacher

Last night my husband Sabin Howard & I attended the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center event honoring Martha Erlebacher. Martha is a realist painter and teacher. She taught Sabin twenty-seven years ago at the Philadelphia College of Art, and Sabin credits Martha and her deceased husband Walter Erlebacher for giving him the tools with which to create beautiful classical art with a powerful modern sensibility.

It was a wonderful, heart-warming evening. Sabin and I picked Martha up at her hotel to take her to the Lotos Club. In the taxi, I asked about Sabin as a young art student. He had, at one point, sported a gigantic thatch of a beard that would have made ZZ Top proud. Martha laughed, told me that in all her decades of teaching, there were maybe 5 students who had serious, big talent as artists. Sabin was one of them.

She and Sabin fell into a conversation about the draughtsmanship of drapery. I shut up and listened. When two artists of the caliber of Martha Erlebacher and Sabin Howard are discussing drawing, Leonardo, and the play of light, I want to hear every word that comes out of their mouths.

Martha and Walter had to re-invent the Renaissance system of proportions and of how to structure the figure. Walter Erlebacher had been a darling of the art world when he was an abstract expressionist showing at the Whitney Biennial; when he turned to the figure, to the human body, they dropped him. Sad commentary on the lack of taste and vision in the art haute-monde.

No one was doing realism and the figure back in the 60’s, when Walter and Martha understood that the human body is the greatest expression of truth, beauty, and narrative that human beings have. Against a condescending environment in the art world and a disembodied academia that had forgotten the perceptual power of art in favor of heady conceptual babble, they reinvented the proportional system. Martha was the painter and Walter was the sculptor.

“The sculpture of human form is the metaphor for the human desire to live forever,” Martha told me, as we spoke later in the evening. She was telling me how her husband was a genius.

“Don’t underestimate yourself and your contributions,” I said, gently. She shrugged. But this evening was about her. Sabin introduced her, and it was an intense moment for him, because he got to publicly express his gratitude to someone who had, literally, changed his life. Who had set him on the path he lives. “Martha gave us the manual on how to make awesome, powerful, visceral classical art!” he said, with tears in his eyes.

Noah Buchanan, a painter with a big following in California, also spoke. Noah related some funny anecdotes about Martha’s classes, how her words had stayed in the heads of her students who went on to be teachers themselves.

It was a joy to behold the praise being given to a woman who has made such a quiet, fierce contribution to the world, to both the joy and the discipline of art. She’s also a beautiful painter. The painting shown above is her “Dream of Eden.”

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