Sarah Silberman, 98; Sculptor, College Benefactor

Sarah Silberman, who was born in czarist Russia, worked as a sculptor for more than 75 years and enriched her abilities with courses at Montgomery College.
Sarah Silberman, who was born in czarist Russia, worked as a sculptor for more than 75 years and enriched her abilities with courses at Montgomery College. (2004 Photo By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

Sarah Gettleman Silberman, a sculptor, mentor to Montgomery College art students and a benefactor of the art gallery at the college's Rockville campus, died May 29 of heart disease at her son's home in Callao, Va. The Silver Spring resident was, she believed, 98.

She was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in what was then czarist Russia, on Sept. 10, 1909 -- maybe. Her birth date was arbitrarily assigned when she and her family immigrated to the United States by way of Brazil when she was young. "I could actually be much older, now couldn't I?" she told The Washington Post in a 2004 profile.

The family settled in Atlantic City, where her parents owned a fur store and where young Sarah used the soft tar of streets near the boardwalk to mold her first sculpture, a Viking wearing a winged helmet.

Before her senior year in high school, she took painting and drawing classes in the summer at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The sculpture instructor invited her to join his class, and she discovered a passion for working with clay.

Mrs. Silberman, who primarily molded large anatomical studies, worked as a sculptor for more than 75 years.

After high school, she continued her education at the fine arts academy, where she won several awards, and exhibited her work throughout the mid-Atlantic area. The academy didn't offer a degree, but she earned a certificate of satisfaction.

In 1941, Mrs. Silberman and her husband, with their two young sons, moved to Washington, where she took art classes at the Corcoran School of Art and Design, sculpted in a studio on Seventh Street NW and gave private art lessons. During World War II, she taught sculpture at the Corcoran and volunteered in the occupational therapy unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In 1950, she began building a studio on seven acres in the Norwood section of Montgomery County, even though she had no formal construction training. Relying on do-it-yourself books, rough sketches and her sons' help, she earned her electrician's license, got a permit and wired the studio herself. She also laid copper pipes under the kitchen tiles, again without formal training.

The studio served as the family home while Mrs. Silberman concocted ambitious plans for a two-story house nearby. She got started on the house but never finished it, so the family stayed in the studio amid Mrs. Silberman's sculptures, completed and otherwise.

After the death of her husband, David Silberman, in 1978, Mrs. Silberman discovered the art program at Montgomery College's Rockville campus. Beginning when she was past 70 and continuing until about three years ago, she took or audited the same courses over and over, more than 170 in all, and also became a resident artist and a mentor to her fellow students.

"Being my age, I'm the grandmother to most of the kids," she said in 2004. "I never interfere with a teacher, and sometimes, if I see something that I think will help the student, I wait until the teacher finally says it."

A son, William C. Silberman, told The Post in 2004 that his mother began attending classes "partly to get away from her children and grandchildren. She escaped to a place where they wouldn't bother her so much. Essentially, she married this place" -- Montgomery College.

In 2004 the Montgomery College Alumni Association recognized Mrs. Silberman with its Milton F. Clogg Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award. Later that year, the college mounted a retrospective of her work, the first solo exhibit by a student at the Rockville campus. The exhibit inspired the college publication of "The Genius of Sarah Silberman: A Lifetime Student of Sculpture" (2005) by John Beshoar, a former adjunct professor at Montgomery College.

Beshoar told The Post in 2004 that he first became aware of her talent some years earlier when she came into class and began working a lump of clay.

"Within minutes, she had put up three small sculptures," he said. "You could see the physicality. This is when I knew she was a genius."

Earlier this year, Montgomery College named its Rockville campus gallery the Sarah Silberman Art Gallery. In addition to donating $500,000 for its complete renovation, she funded two endowed scholarships in ceramics and sculpture.

In addition to her son William, of Leesburg, survivors include another son, David J. Silberman of Callao; six grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

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