Sarah Silberman stands in the doorway of the house she built with her own hands 50 years ago, her 4-foot-8 frame bent and softened by gravity. Her hearing is almost gone, and her fingers are knotted from years as a sculptor. But at 95, she talks and works as she always has, seemingly unaffected by time -- art, in a way, herself.
She has an exhibit that goes on display tomorrow at Montgomery College, where she is a perpetual student, featuring hundreds of sculptures forged over part of her career. It has an unusually broad sweep for an art exhibit: a 75-year retrospective.
"I don't feel quite as creative as before," Silberman confesses as she talks about all she's done and seen in her life. "I look at all the sculptures, the ones they took away for the college, and I think, what can I make now that I haven't made already?"
She has moved into the kitchen, where she sits on a chair, her chin reaching just over the tabletop. She drinks a cup of Folgers. She has been awake since 3 a.m., which is when she usually gets up. Sculpting, she announces after some reflection, "is like breathing to me. It's natural and normal. It's what I do."
She was born Sarah Gettlesman in Odessa, now Ukraine but then part of czarist Russia, on Sept. 10, 1909 -- or sometime around then, she shrugs, because that birth date was arbitrarily assigned when she and her family immigrated to the United States by way of Brazil when she was a small child. She was born in the fall, when it was cool. That much she knows, she says, "but I could actually be much older, now couldn't I?"
Eventually she and her parents -- her father was a furrier and her mother "a fantastic, delicious, gorgeous woman" -- settled in Atlantic City, looking for the iconic gilded streets but content to find ones near the boardwalk, paved with soft tar, which Silberman scraped up and used to make her earliest sculptures. Her first work, made when she was 6, was a viking wearing a winged helmet.
Her later works, which are largely anatomical studies and representations of the human form, came the same way, molded from her environment, seamless and elemental, as if they'd been shaped that way by weather, atmosphere and time. One on display at Montgomery College's Rockville campus is a female torso formed out of a piece of driftwood that Silberman found floating in the Potomac River, a chip off a boat dock upstream. It is almost possible, while looking at it, to believe that "Torso" came not from more than a decade of work, beginning in the 1970s, but from a girl-shaped western Douglas fir.
At 17, she began training as an artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where she learned anatomy basics from her beloved teacher Albert Laessle.
She married Dave Silberman in 1931 and moved with him to Washington a decade later, when she began graduate study at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
In 1950, she began building a house and studio on seven acres off Norbeck Road in the Norwood section of Montgomery County. She did this without any formal construction training, nor any knowledge about a home electrical system, which she wired herself. She laid copper pipes under the kitchen tiles so the floor would be warm in the winter, she says, again without formal training. She never finished the house, but eventually moved into the studio with her husband and two sons.
"The pioneers didn't even have hardware stores, so I figured I could handle this," she says. "I'm like a pioneer."
She still lives in the house, amid the outdated appliances and the baby food jars filled with hard candy and the sculptures ubiquitous, making it difficult to walk around. The small living room is more livable for the time being, though, and will be until Oct. 22, when the college exhibit closes and all the artwork comes home.
Until then, rather than pausing to enjoy the extra space, she sculpts. It has been a lifelong compulsion, she says. And now, late into the morning, it's time to get back to work. "My hands," she says, looking at them, "they itch to build things."
Starting tomorrow, Silberman's work will be on display at Montgomery College's Rockville campus Art Gallery, on the second floor of the Paul Peck Art Building on Mannakee Street, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 6 to 8 Tuesday and Thursday evenings and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.