Neighbors, old friends and art patrons milled about Simon Mohr’s ranch home Sunday, admiring not just the painter and his paintings but the paint on the walls behind them.
Mohr, who turns 89 on Tuesday, is one of Maryland’s most respected painters. Yet, until this spring, he lived in a neglected home in Bowie with peeling paint, an overgrown yard and no running water. Prince George’s County and local charities pitched in last month to fix up his property. Sunday’s party was a celebration of their work and his, part open house, part art sale and part birthday party.
“That’s Adams Morgan,” Mohr said, pointing to a vast mural in his cluttered workshop. His finger works its way around the room: “That’s at Catholic University. And that’s the presidents, [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Ronald] Reagan. That’s the Amish. And that’s AIDS. [Nelson] Mandela likes that.”
Mohr has painted for 80 years, rendering scenes that chronicled a life lived in the Bronx, Haiti, Mexico, Amish country and finally Maryland. His works have been discovered and exhibited; one of Sy Mohr’s Amish paintings hangs at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, and a collage of his Annapolis paintings hangs at the harbormaster building in the Maryland capital.
But painting hasn’t made Mohr rich, and he wound up living on Social Security.
Admirers gathered Sunday to reflect on his distinctive style; they share Mohr’s hope that his work will gain due recognition while Mohr is still here to appreciate it.
“I like that his pictures are so full of life and so full of love for everyone and everything,” said Charlotte Nichols, a friend who visited Sunday. “All of the paintings are flat. There’s no perspective. He says it’s because everything is equally important.”
Mohr spent part of the afternoon sitting on a lawn chair in his newly manicured yard, wearing a black cap and a blue sweater. To his right, leaning against the chain-link fence, sat a mural of pink bodies and orange dirt and blue jeans that reveals itself on closer inspection as a painting of Woodstock. Beyond that, propped against a wall, a gaudy and ghostly mural of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.
“The colors pull your eye different directions,” said Shaun Sullivan of Alexandria. “They’re not flat. The colors have a sort of topography to them.”
Sullivan purchased one of Mohr’s paintings, titled “Bahama Market,” because it reminded him of his own Caribbean travels. “I saw things that brought back memories,” he said, “and colors that delighted the eyes, and I couldn’t resist.”
He would not disclose the price because, he said, Mohr had asked him not to.
In the painter’s living room, some neighbors, David and Doris Dasenbrock, stood spellbound by his work. They know Mohr mostly as the kindly old man who waits for the bus to a local mall.
“I had no idea he had such a large collection of work,” Doris Dasenbrock said.
Mohr said he started painting at 9, hewing mostly to themes of harmony and the quest for peace. He talked about making camouflage clothing in the Army and of meeting Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz in New York. He said Stieglitz once told him, “Use your camera, go and take pictures.” For 40 years, Mohr and his wife, now deceased, owned a fabric store and deli in Lancaster, Pa. All the while, he continued to paint.
“It’s folk art, American folk art,” said Sandy Lundahl, a friend seated in the back yard. “He captures nuggets of Americana.”
Inside, Ellen Moyer, retired mayor of Annapolis, padded around Mohr’s workshop with the painter in tow.
“What’s going to happen to all of these?” she asked. “They’re very special. They should be in a special place.”