Martha Mayer Erlebacher
Still Life #1 • Print / Lithograph on Paper 22" x 29"
Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection • Purchased by the Canton Museum of Art, 77.56
For 36 years the two perfectionist artists shared an immaculate home. Together Walter and Martha Erlebacher made the journey against the flow of modern art, moving from abstraction to realism rather than the opposite, more beaten, path. He was a scientist before turning to sculpture where he applied his mathematics training to create precisely scaled and detailed human figures. His search was for eternal truths. The human figure became his guide. She followed.
In 1989, three years before Walter’s death, Martha Mayer Erlebacher painted a self-portrait, her eyes totally obscured beneath the wide brim of her straw hat because, “The eyes are the windows to the soul. I didn’t want to be that exposed.”
For 20 years after Walter’s death, Martha walked alone. She continued teaching at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where they had both taught. Eventually she moved to New York to teach at the Academy of Art. Eventually her impeccable sense of humor returned. Eventually she continued the search for life’s enduring truths. She stayed on the artistic path she and Walter shared. “Walter sought to express universal emotional conditions – what it means to live. My work was much more subjective and emotionally motivated. I’m a gal, after all.”
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Then, in 2013, she stood in front of a group of friends, family and fellow artists at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. She was there to accept the Grand Prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a yearly tribute to the idea that a “portrait can communicate much more than a likeness.” Her winning entry was a stark self-portrait. She wore the same severe black turtleneck as in her 1989 self-portrait. This time she stared directly at the viewer through the wire-rimmed glasses of an older woman. The stylish straw hat was gone, exposing her full head, bald from chemotherapy. Her eyes were clear, bright, and knowing … at long last, the windows into her soul were open. Three months later, Martha Mayer Erlebacher died.
She is remembered for her lifelong search. “I try to make art, which reaffirms that there is value in human life. It should give the sense that one is not alone, and is part of a group with similar needs, longings, hopes, dreams, fears and desires which transcend time.”
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“She loved trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) drawings and paintings of hyper-realistic still lives that were, themselves, fool the eye pieces of wood or plastic. Fool the eye once shame on you. Fool it twice, shame on me.”
“Her husband was a famed realistic sculptor. Together they used the human figure to explore eternal truths about life and death. It’s said their family conversations were, interesting.”
“Many of her subjects were posed in backgrounds reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Ancient literature and myths were often her inspiration.”
“She believed that metaphor was critical to art. Although, perhaps she was speaking metaphorically.”