LBIF Turns 70, Marks Occasion With Party to Honor Blai Legacy

By VICTORIA FORD | Jul 17, 2018
Photo by: Daniella Kerner

Ruth Leventhal and her daughter Sheryl had not been back to visit Long Beach Island since they sold the family house decades ago, until they flew in earlier this month to attend the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences’ 70th Anniversary party, in honor of the organization’s founder: Boris Blai, Ruth’s stepfather and Sheryl’s step-grandfather.

Ruth now lives in Florida; Sheryl in Texas. While on LBI they stayed at the Drifting Sands in Ship Bottom, toured Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, walked along the jetty, ate lobster. They described the visit as special, cathartic and bittersweet, seeing a new house on the property where Sheryl spent her childhood summers.

Blai was born in 1893 in Russia and was an apprentice and assistant to Auguste Rodin. Then in 1948, when Blai was an internationally renowned sculptor and dean of the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia (which he founded in 1935), Blai turned his vision for a vacant piece of land in Loveladies into a reality.

The goals were manifold. The foundation was to serve as a memorial to those killed in the World Wars, as well as a haven for youth and adults to gather, exhibit, learn, or just “sit and dream” (according to founder and trustee Philip Klein). It would have an auditorium, gallery spaces, classrooms and laboratories. It was an Island-wide project that involved vigorous fundraising, at which Blai was adept.

As Ruth explained, the Island was largely barren then – “He could swim in the ocean naked if he wanted to.” He felt the children of fishermen and the wealthy alike needed opportunities for recreational and cultural activities, as well as arts and science education.

(His groundbreaking, four-year integrated curriculum at Tyler used science for teaching art and art for teaching science, the Leventhals explained.)

Having observed the Island had “one movie theater, but a bar on every block,” he wanted to fill what he saw as a void.

“Culture meant so much in the Russian lifestyle,” LBIF Executive Director Daniella Kerner said. “Opera, music, dance, art – those things were so important, and so highly regarded as a sign of education. Those fundamentals were reflected in what he did. It was about creating culture and education for the community.”

Incidentally, Blai also pioneered art therapy in the Psychiatry Department of Temple University Medical School. During World War II, he offered free programs in music, drawing, foreign language and literature to soldiers stationed at Fort Dix, according to the Julie Berkowitz biography of Blai in her 2017 comprehensive archive study, The Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences: A History, 1947-2014.

“His whole philosophy with the kids was, ‘Let them do stuff,’” Sheryl said. Philosopher Noam Chomsky, who was one of Blai’s students, told Sheryl he recalled Blai “gave us free rein, and he would always, always make us feel like we had accomplished something, even if we hadn’t.”

Ruth’s mom, Bertha, a ceramicist, was Blai’s student at Tyler (she went back to college in her 50s), and later became his wife in 1965. They were married until his death in 1985.

“We really became his family,” Ruth recalled. “We were very close for the 20 years they were married.”

Bertha was 20 years younger than he. She was close with him and his family, according to Ruth, and had helped take care of Manya, Blai’s first wife, near the end of her life.

When Ruth gave birth to Sheryl, Blai (though not yet married to Bertha) was the first to arrive at the hospital and the first to hold Sheryl as a newborn.

“He was around until I was about 25,” Sheryl said. At the family house in Loveladies – “we had these big bay windows that faced out to the bay” – Blai would sometimes point to the Causeway Bridge when lighted at night and refer to it as “the elephant.”

“He seemed to think it looked like an elephant,” Ruth said.

Sheryl also recalled he often had apprentices staying with him on the Island and at his home in Melrose Park. “They were always fun to hang out with,” she said. “They ended up being babysitters.”

Blai loved to fish in the ocean, his family remembered. He made a sand cast of a huge fish that washed up on the beach one day; Ruth has it on her wall. But the most treasured piece she owns is the wood-frame mirror he custom made for her as a wedding gift, with 18 flowers on it, and doves, and the word shalom –Hebrew for “peace.”

Sheryl’s favorite Blai piece is “Modern Dance,” a sculpture of a dancer named Mary Wigman, affectionately referred to in the family as “the swastika girl,” because of the positioning of her legs and arms. Sheryl also has the wood bust he did of R. Tait Mackenzie, who was a friend of Blai’s and the one who had urged Blai to come to America.

“Boris had wonderful stories,” Ruth said with a laugh that suggested Blai may have taken some creative liberties with the truth. The one about Wigman: she was one of Hitler’s mistresses, and Hitler wanted the sculpture, but Blai wouldn’t give it to him, and so Blai was banned from Germany.

Many may not know Blai was equally proficient with wood as he was with clay, Ruth said. His work is in museums all over the world. Ruth and her sister Anita established the Bertha and Boris Blai Sculpture Garden at Penn State, Harrisburg when Ruth was provost.

“So a lot of his bigger outdoor pieces are there,” she said.

His style was predominantly classic, but he did sculpt one cubist statue of “the triangle girl,” which was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His largest work, a bronze fountain called “Rhythm of the Sea” featuring a girl and a dolphin, sat outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Blai also created the bust of Gen. George Gordon Meade at the entrance of the walkway to the Lighthouse.

By and large, he scorned modern art. Once, he presented to a panel of art critics a watercolor painting done by his granddaughter Sheryl, then just a toddler – poking fun at the over-intellectualization of art. “He liked a good prank,” she said.

“I always thought of him as ‘the most famous person no one had heard of,’” Sheryl quipped. Among his friends was Frank Lloyd Wright. Blai is fondly recalled as a charismatic ladies man with a larger-than-life personality, in contrast to his stature.

“If you met him, you would never forget him,” Ruth said. He was a handsome guy, she added. “He had a smile that would knock you over. He was charming.”

“Boris looms large,” Kerner said of the spirit that infuses the LBI Arts Foundation today. In his approach to education, he was hands-on. He was there. “He was involved in every detail of Tyler – and here, too.”

To Kerner, the Blai legacy is “almost indescribable” – and especially poignant for her, given a personal connection.

Kerner earned her graduate degree at Tyler and taught there for 41 years. As far as she’s concerned, Tyler is one of the best art schools in the country. It attracted serious artists, aspiring professionals, educators, and was revolutionary in its interdisciplinary degree programs. Her husband, Stanley Lechtzin, started the Jewelry and Metals program there in 1962 and thereafter, crafted the 1965 wedding bands for Boris and Bertha.

“I feel that (the Leventhals) are my family, although we never met until this weekend.”

The party, a sold-out affair that celebrated the organization’s history and honored its founders and contributors, “was more than we could have expected,” Kerner said. It showed how many people are carrying on his legacy and who recognize the importance of returning to his initial vision. Supporters from every decade of the LBIF history were present.

The Leventhals’ presence (arranged with no small effort on Kerner’s part, involving research and many phone calls) “made it so much more joyful and meaningful – more than a party,” Kerner said. It was an opportunity to reflect and to think about the next 70 years. “To me, it’s about family.”

“I feel very thrilled and happy for my mother (Bertha),” Ruth said. “She was his biggest supporter. She would be thrilled that his work is still admired and that he is still appreciated.” Many party guests approached her afterward to tell her Blai “was the heart and soul of (LBIF) and we need to adhere to what he was trying to do,” which was to cultivate something precious and rare.

Stay tuned for details about the next celebration for the 75th anniversary.

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