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The Art Midwife

Barbara Bensoussan

There’s nothing like an art supply store to give a girl the itch to put paint to canvas. Walking into Zelda’s Art World in Flatbush, I find myself overcome with the same frustrated feeling I get walking into a terrific bookstore: so much fun stuff, so little time ...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

I find Zelda in the back of the store. Here the offices and classrooms are located, and it’s a spacious, cheerfully paint-spattered area. In fact, it rather looks as if a Jackson Pollock wannabe broke in during the middle of the night and gleefully tossed buckets of paint all around. The walls, the floors, the chairs, and the tables are all covered with layer upon layer of dripped and grafittied paint, testimony to long and enthusiastic hours of artistic inspiration. I pick my way gingerly down the hall, avoiding brushing against the walls, even though they’re dry.

Today is Sunday, and the classrooms teem with art enthusiasts aged five to ninety-five, who come from all over Brooklyn to pursue their passion. The rooms are filled with children and adults, dressed in their “Sunday worst” (paint-stained smocks and sweatshirts), bent over sketch pads and canvases; the atmosphere hums with the low chatter of the children and the gentle suggestions of well-seasoned teachers.

Mrs. Zelda Weiss, the animating spirit behind all this creative activity, comes forward to give me a warm reception. She’s a Flatbush mother and grandmother whose own love of art led her from giving lessons to children in the basement of her home, to becoming the proprietress of her own art store, and “dean” of her own school. Matter-of-fact about her substantial accomplishments, Zelda is a comfortable-looking woman with the fair coloring of a strawberry blonde, greenish eyes, and an earnest, open expression.

She greets me wearing a grape-colored polo shirt and matching knit skirt, along with a crocheted purple beret. (“Purple is a color that attracts artists,” she says, pointing out that the store’s front and trim are all purple as well.) Like a good Jewish mother, she settles me with a hot tea, then offers cookies and pretzels as we sit down to talk in a back office furnished with old desks and littered with stray canvases and art supplies.

Zelda’s informal yet quietly fulfilled persona imbues the spirit of her store. Her workers come from a variety of backgrounds, and are all there because they love what they do. She and her husband, Ron (who joined the business since retiring from his job as a computer manager several years ago), take genuine pride in calling their store a “Mom and Pop business.” In fact, like many moms, Zelda privately admits she prefers to leave the disciplining to Pop.

“I’m good at knowing what needs to be done, but I’m not so good at making other people do it,” she confesses. “I have a hard time telling someone to go clean the bathroom, when I don’t like doing it myself. But my husband was a manager for many years, and he knows how to ask employees to do things.”

The employees, some of whom have been there long enough to bring a baby to bar mitzvah age, are “like family,” Zelda says, and it’s evident that she’s not only an employer but a confidante when she jokes, “You could probably make a soap opera out of all the stories that have happened with the people in our store!”

I get to meet two of her longtime, indispensable Art World “family” members: Irvin Stafford, who at six feet-plus is a gentle giant of unflagging patience when he teaches kids or helps clients choose just the right frames for their artwork; and Jack Franco, distinguishable by his black beard and ponytail, who can produce construction and graphics as well as high-quality art. Both Irvin and Jack, Zelda points out, are excellent artists with solid credentials.


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