A 1946 painting by Sylvia Ludins. Photo: Peter Jacobson
A 1946 painting by Sylvia Ludins, part of an exhibition at the Graduate Theological Union. Photo: Justin Cronkite
A 1946 painting by Sylvia Ludins, part of an exhibition at the Graduate Theological Union. Photo: Justin Cronkite

When Justin Cronkite arrived at an Elmwood home last year to check out a dresser he had seen on Craigslist, he found more than a piece of furniture. In the garage, coated in decades’ worth of dust, was a stunning collection of paintings.

There were watercolors, oil paintings, sketches, and even 8-foot murals, most in vivid colors. Cronkite estimates that there were almost 300 pieces, some depicting evocative scenes of political turmoil and hardship, and others abstract.

The owner of the home and the dresser, Jon Katz, told Cronkite that most of the paintings were by his aunt, Sylvia Ludins, who died in 1965. Some were by Ludins’ sister, Katz’s mother Florence Ludins-Katz. Katz has been in possession of the collection since his father died in 2008. He showed and sold most of his mother’s work and always had it in the back of his mind to do something with his aunt’s.

Cronkite, a filmmaker and perennial go-getter, asked Katz if he could help him bring Ludins’ art into the world. Katz said he would consider it. The two parted ways, but Cronkite couldn’t stop thinking about the art. A few months later, he got an email from Katz granting him permission to pursue exhibiting it. Cronkite jumped into action, dusting the paintings and setting up a makeshift gallery in his home.

By a stroke of luck, Cronkite was introduced to Peter Selz, the renowned art historian and founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum. Selz, who is in his 90s and lives in Berkeley, took a look at Sylvia Ludins’ paintings and was astounded.

“I was amazed to see work like this reappear after all these years,” Selz said, “and from an artist who was really very skilled.”

Florence Ludins-Katz (left) and Sylvia Ludins paint a mural. Photo: Courtesy Jon Katz

Selz identified her work as firmly in the tradition of social realism, a movement of leftist artists, often based in New York, whose art depicted the working class. They were influenced by the progressive Mexican muralists.

The Sylvia Ludins Exhibition is now on view at Graduate Theological Union Library in Berkeley, where Selz sits on the Board of Trustees exhibit committee. The show, curated by Nicholas Ukraniac, is the public’s first opportunity to see Ludins’ work since the 1940s.

Ludins, born in 1909, was the daughter of progressive Russian Jewish immigrants. She earned a master’s of fine arts from Teachers College and became part of a group of young Jewish artists, mostly communists, in Greenwich Village in the 1930s and 1940s. Ludins’ politics and background are reflected in the exhibited work.

In one watercolor, called Lady Liberty Divided, the statue of liberty is split in two. On one side her fist is raised in front of rolling hills and happy workers. On the other, the spikes on her crown are swastikas and burning buildings provide the backdrop to her skeletal arm.

Peter Selz admires the paintings of Sylvia Ludins on view at the Graduate Theological Union Library. Photo: Justin Cronkite
Peter Selz admires the paintings of Sylvia Ludins on view at the Graduate Theological Union Library. Photo: Justin Cronkite

In another watercolor a laborer sits with head in hands under a WPA sign. Colorful oil paintings with titles like Concentration Camp and Perilous Voyage show Jews toiling and fleeing Europe, and soldiers carrying coffins against a blood-red sky.

After World War II, the Ludins moved to California. It was the height of the McCarthy era, which put an end to overtly political art. It was also the start of an abstract art movement in California, Selz said. The work of both Ludins sisters from the 1950s is largely abstract. A few of Ludins-Katz’s pieces are on view at the Graduate Theological Union as well.

The sisters settled in Marin County in 1951, where they opened an art-supply shop in San Rafael and taught art to developmentally disabled students. Ludins-Katz would later found Creative Growth, a nonprofit arts education center in Berkeley for developmentally disabled adults. It has since relocated to Oakland.

After Ludins died suddenly in 1965, her sister moved her family, with her then young son Katz, to the Elmwood home, where the painting collection was tucked away in the garage.

A watercolor by Sylvia Ludins. Photo: Justin Cronkite
A watercolor by Sylvia Ludins. Photo: Justin Cronkite

“The idea of having a garage with a car in it was totally alien to us,” Katz says in a video made by Cronkite. “A garage was for storing art. But unfortunately most of this work hasn’t been seen since.”

Katz, 71, now operates the house at 2839 Ashby Avenue as an artist collective. He splits his time between Berkeley and the Dominican Republic, where he has established a hydroelectric system in rural villages. His nonprofit work, as well as financial issues regarding the Elmwood house, will all play into the decision of whether to simply exhibit or sell his aunt’s art.

“I’d like to see Sylvia’s work go out into the world,” Katz wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “But I certainly could use some money!”

For now, however, he is thrilled by the developments and by Selz’s recognition of the quality of the paintings.

A painting by Sylvia Ludins. Photo: Justin Cronkite
A painting by Sylvia Ludins. Photo: Justin Cronkite

“Peter comes from the same generation and cultural milieu as Sylvia and Florence and really understands the work, in a way that would be difficult for a younger person,” Katz wrote.

Selz is in early talks with a couple of galleries that may be interested in showing the paintings.

Included in the current exhibit are flyers from some of the few shows Ludins had in New York, including at a prominent gallery and the Brooklyn Public Library. Katz describes his aunt as soft-spoken and modest, possibly the reason she didn’t become well-known.

Cronkite, always the entrepreneur, has grand plans to turn Ludins into the world-famous artist they all believe she deserved to be. He is working on a documentary about Ludins and her art.

“I’m going to make her huge,” he said.

At the very least, Cronkite himself will have no trouble remembering Ludins. The vintage dresser he bought from Katz that fortuitous day used to belong to the artist.

The Sylvia Ludins Exhibition is at the Graduate Theological Union Library at 2400 Ridge Road through the end of August. The exhibit is open during library hours.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...