The art of living among artworks

Posted: May 21, 2010

One step into the foyer of Selma and Sam Savitz's Bala Cynwyd home, and you're surrounded. Art enlivens every wall, filling the home with color and life. And they can tell the story of each piece, because each one matters dearly.

"We've run out of walls, but not out of love for the visual arts," says Selma.

This visual feast, which can't be absorbed in a blink, begins right in the foyer, with gates that set off the entry from the living room. Made completely of nuts and bolts and created by Bucks County designer/artist Murrie Gayman, the decorative metal gates are instant showstoppers.

"The house needed pepping up and character," says Selma, "and Murrie helped us to create drama that we might never have imagined."

A focal point of the living room is a painting by contemporary artist Janet Fish, known for her still lifes in vibrant colors. As it happened, Sam saw the work amid several others in a Philadelphia gallery and asked his wife to go check them out.

"I was positive she wouldn't like this one but, sure enough, she actually selected it instantly, not knowing that it was my first choice," says Sam. "Then, I knew it was meant to be ours." Called simply Eggs and Nuts, the 1984 work, a full 50 inches by 50 inches, is arresting in its palette - rich rusts, golds, blues and greens - and in its depiction of simple objects.

The couple's art collection includes a focus on Pennsylvania artists, particularly those of the New Hope School, who painted along the Delaware River from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. Represented in the Bala Cynwyd home are works by John Fulton Folinsbee and Edward Willis Redfield, among others.

The contemporary living room, with its handsome off-white sofas, features a six-foot floor lamp, also created by Gayman, in a pyramid shape emblazoned with other geometric shapes. One of the room's superstars, it is linked to a unique window valance, also with geometric references.

The theme continues in another contribution from the Bucks County designer, this one a coffee table with an intricate metal base that holds cloisonn and glass treasures. One of their home's most cherished possessions, especially for Selma, is the handsome satin-finish ebony piano that has a place of honor in the living room.

"I was 50 before I got a piano of my own, and I spotted this one in the old Wanamakers Department Store music department," says Selma. "It kind of spoke to me, and I do love it." She is the pianist and director for the New Horizons Senior Glee Club, a troupe of senior singers, 55 to 90, who have performed at the Kimmel Center, the National Liberty Museum, and for area schools, community centers and nursing homes.

Sam, the retired founder and chairman of the Savitz Organization, an actuarial and employee benefit consulting firm, is a member of the executive committee of the Philadelphia Orchestra and chair emeritus of the Philly Pops. He shares his wife's devotion to music, and together they are well-known patrons of the arts who serve on cultural and philanthropic boards around the city.

Home is where they take time out from hectic schedules that often have Sam attending meetings of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts and the National Liberty Museum, and Selma heading to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and the Curtis Institute of Music.

When the couple bought their home in Bala Cynwyd in 1966, they were its first owners. "We'd come from an old twin house in Wynnefield, and everything here was brand new and amazing to us," recalls Selma. "We felt like we'd arrived in paradise!"

All those years later, these high school sweethearts, who have been married now for 52 years, can't claim that "brand new" feeling about their home any longer. But they can lay claim to many happy years in their home and to the fabled art collection that they began that very first year with a single rented painting from the Philadelphia Museum of Art that they ultimately purchased.

The couple also collect glass, including several treasures from Dale Chihuly, recognized for the light quality of his dramatic, complex sculptures in brilliant colors. One, reflecting ambers and golds, rests on a lighted pedestal in the living room. "We love his work in general, and this piece in particular," says Sam.

The Savitz's dining room, also rich in art, is dominated by the dining table. Created by Mira Nakashima, the daughter and disciple of the late celebrated Japanese-American wood artist George Nakashima, the table consists of a single piece of gleaming wood with knotholes intact.

"Our grandparents would have wondered what in the world we were doing with holes in our dining room table," says Selma. "To them, this would have been a terrible mistake!"

Elegant in its absolute simplicity, the table is a piece of architectural art, and the simple, slat-back chairs perfectly complement it. The Savitzes have placed a graceful, slender glass vase on its side, resting on a woven fabric, as the table's centerpiece.

Paintings in the dining room, which hang on mellow golden-bronze walls, include a striking portrait of a robed woman by Japanese artist Ben Kamihira, and an impressionistic portrait of Sam by noted modern artist Sidney Goodman. Another by Goodman called Man in Transition, hangs on a nearby dining room wall and is open to interpretations - from a joyful leap to a frightening or overwhelming one.

"And isn't that what art is about?" muses Selma. "I love the idea that you can look at one piece for years and still see new things in it."

When the couple settled into the Bala Cynwyd home, they honored Sam's longing for at least one rustic space, the kind of ski lodge/kick-back room that seems to invite leisure. They claimed it in the beamed-ceilinged den, complete with fireplace, cozy chairs and yes, more art.

The attention-grabbers in this room are two portraits, one of a man, the other of a woman, both rendered in black and white, painted on old doors and purchased at a student art show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Resting against the fireplace are several pieces of sculpture, Sam's own contributions. When he retired several years ago, he studied art and sculpture at the University of Pennsylvania, and while he is modest about his works, they are impressive and graceful. Some are scattered among the shrubs in the home's private garden, complete with a free-form arbor.

While their three children are grown and gone, this couple are not rushing into a smaller space, or making the odyssey from suburbs into city, as many of their contemporaries have done.

"We're happy here and willing to climb the stairs to our bedroom, at least for now," says Selma, who, like her husband, seems to have energy and vitality to spare. "We have our art, I have my piano, and we have room for our clutter! What more can we ask?"

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