Home is where the art is

Deborah and Philip Zuchman sitting on the kitchen floor. They and their two sons created the intricate mosaic tile floor in bold colors interspersed with wood strips. It was their second mosaic tile project in the house.
Deborah and Philip Zuchman sitting on the kitchen floor. They and their two sons created the intricate mosaic tile floor in bold colors interspersed with wood strips. It was their second mosaic tile project in the house. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 12, 2014

Most of the windows were broken. There were holes in the floors. The sense of an abandoned, unlovely, and unloved place was palpable.

But when two young, newly married artists stepped inside this hulking home in West Philadelphia in 1975, they saw something else.

"I not only saw potential - I knew that someday we would truly come to love this house," Deborah Gross Zuchman remembers.

Today, this four-story twin home, vintage 1892, is the belle of their University City neighborhood, at once grand, graceful, and slightly wild.

There is not one boring space, not one wall that doesn't demand attention, and its owners are, as predicted, in love with this monument to their sweat equity and artistic vision.

For Philip Zuchman - a man who can lay floors, build tables, and sell all the couple's living room furniture on a whim and start over again - the home is a playground, a workplace, and a constant canvas.

Art, they both believe, is not simply a way to earn a living. "It's so beyond a job - it's an entire life calling," says Philip.

The Zuchmans, now both retired from their day jobs, are full-time artists who might be living in Europe, so Continental is their lifestyle.

There is work in the morning, a full, hearty lunch they prepare and eat together, and then an afternoon siesta every day.

Yes, it's a lot of togetherness since they met and fell in love in art classes at the Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia.

But as Philip, 72, explains, "We each have our own studios next to one another upstairs, and hours can go by when we don't see one another. We both get pretty absorbed in what we do, and while our artistic styles are different, our passion for what we do is the same."

Deborah, 66, a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls and Temple University, taught art for 35 years in Philadelphia public schools, and was then project manager for the city's Mural Arts program.

She delights in creating striking papers in lush colors for the equally lush collages she makes with brush and/or palette knife. She also is known for making ceremonial Judaic art for area synagogues, and has written and illustrated Windows Into War, a book of her poems and paintings on that theme.

Philip, who taught at local art schools, including the Art Institute of Philadelphia, until his retirement, creates massive landscape oil paintings, depictions of mountains, forests and deserts where, in his words, "man has not yet subdued nature. I carry memorized scenes in my head, sometimes for years, and they come out when they're ready."

His works have been exhibited nationally and internationally through the U.S State Department's Art in Embassies program.

Home has very special meaning to Philip. After the death of his mother, he left his childhood house in Queens at 14 and lived by his wits, mostly in gritty lofts in New York City. At 18, he built a kayak and traveled more than 1,500 miles to South Carolina's Sea Islands and back.

Philip never graduated from high school - although he was able to enter Long Island University in a special probationary category. That led later to Queens College in New York, where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy, and graduate work beyond that.

But the lack of a high school diploma had always bothered him - until Deborah's special 70th birthday gift for her husband: She got his high school to tender that diploma at the school's graduation ceremony that year, where Philip was invited to deliver a brief address.

The couple's two sons had a far more traditional coming of age, growing up in a home where art was everywhere. Skeletons and sculptures happily coexisted with the walking sticks their father created every summer when the couple retreated to rural New England or Europe for uninterrupted art odysseys.

"Both boys were wrestlers, and despite all the things we accumulated, they still managed not to collide with anything breakable," said their father.

Collecting, like creating art, is a passion, too, admits Philip. "And I try to keep it under control, but I don't succeed," says Deborah. "I guess deep down I'm glad I can't because his taste is wonderful."

Ironically, Deborah can't abide clutter. So there is a certain order to all the objects - everything seems to belong.

Cases in point: The art that lines every space in the family den. Most of it has been given to them by artist friends, and the result is an unlikely mix of modern and abstract, representational and stark, wildly colored and muted, with the total effect somehow one of unity.

Inveterate thrifters, these artists spotted a dining room table at a local bargain shop that they seized like pirate's booty, recognizing its fine lines and grace. On another foray, they found perfect chairs to complement it.

Occasionally, standard retail beckons. One of Deborah's triumphs was in finally finding a chair she had long imagined - one with just the perfect curved contours - in a chain furniture store.

"I'm not above buying that kind of thing. We just do things our way, without rules and no worries about rights and wrongs," she says.

But so much that surrounds the Zuchmans is of their own making. After their second son was born, redoing an upstairs bathroom became a four-month adventure. They created contrasting mosaic tile walls in a Byzantine theme.

Then the Zuchmans repeated the hard labor, this time with the help of their sons, creating an intricate kitchen mosaic tile floor in bold colors interspersed with wood strips.

And just when a visitor thinks there can't be any more to see, the Zuchmans head down to the home's basement, where a winemaking operation produces 400 bottles a year, which they consume and give away to friends.

"I make it because I like to drink it," says Philip. "And if Deborah and I have a lot with lunch, well then, our siesta may last a lot longer."


pinegander@aol.com

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