‘Art for JEVS,’ Lee Casper’s collection at Old City Jewish Art Center

A mitzvah in Old City

Art for JEVS grew from friendship among artists, and a desire to do good. The exhibition and sale includes work from Wilmot Heitland, Mac Fisher, and Lee Casper, as well as other artist friends of JEVS Human Services (Jewish Employment and Vocational Service). Proceeds will benefit the Philadelphia-based nonsectarian social service agency.

Swells in despair: Wilmot Heitland illustrated short fiction for women’s magazines in the 1930s and and ‘40s. (Photo by Pamela J. Forsythe)

The exhibition is held in memory of Lee Casper, a longtime JEVS board member who owned the work of Heitland and Fisher. Casper wanted to use the sale to raise funds for the organization, but did not live to see the project’s fruition: He died in July at age 91.

Heitland: Known for magazine illustration

Wilmot Emerton Heitland (1893-1969) was an illustrator and painter trained at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), where he was a student of noted Impressionist painter Daniel Garber. Heitland came into his own in the 1920s and 1930s, providing illustrations for fiction published in popular women’s magazines: Collier’s, Women’s Home Companion, Cosmopolitan, Liberty Magazine, and McCall’s. Though not seen publicly for decades, the drawings are in excellent condition, rare for periodical art.

Heitland depicted climatic moments in the short stories in a three-color (white and  black with one accent shade) Art Deco style. His men and women wear dramatic expressions, and the fashionable clothing and glamorous décor set time and place. Nightclubs and drawing rooms populated by tuxedo-clad waiters and aristocrats feature prominently.

Later, Heitland moved on to paint and teach. His work included landscapes, deftly rendered gardens, and churchyards. One memorable canvas portrays an abandoned backyard, with an idle tricycle beside a disintegrating hairpin fence.

Fisher: Beloved teacher

Mac Fisher is the friend linking Heitland and Casper, who never met. Fisher was Heitland’s student at PAFA, becoming such a close friend that Heitland left him many of his works. Fisher subsequently taught and befriended Casper, eventually bequeathing him Heitland’s sketches and paintings. Casper said Fisher asked him to “do the best thing I could with them. All of the work has been unpublicized and dormant until now.”

Like his mentor Heitland, Fisher painted natural settings. There are two particularly interesting images in the show. The first is a winter seaside scene, with cottages edged in snow. In the foreground, brown stalks flutter with tiny leaves like sandpipers waiting for spring. The view in the second image looks across a river to the opposite bank, where an unnaturally bright yellow powder is piled so close to the edge that its reflection shimmers off the surface of the water. Sprawling along the far horizon are low industrial buildings, smokestacks poking into the sky. Is Fisher showing us an environmental accident in the making? Perhaps, but there is beauty in the threat.

Beloved teachers, loyal students

Casper’s gallery notes describe Fisher’s experience as an artist-in-residence at Overbrook High School. He was one of six artists in the country chosen by the National Endowment of the Arts to teach in urban high schools, and at the time, traveled in a Volkswagen van that doubled as his studio, and was loaded with art supplies. During the residency, Fisher was hit by a car and hospitalized for weeks, leaving the van vulnerable to neighborhood vandals. So beloved had Fisher become at Overbrook that the students took it upon themselves to watch over his van until their teacher was well enough to return.

Lee Casper was an enthusiastic watercolor painter into his 90s. (Photo by Pamela J. Forsythe)
Lee Casper was an enthusiastic watercolor painter into his 90s. (Photo by Pamela J. Forsythe)

Casper: Lifelong commitment to art and good works

Casper painted for most of his life, squeezing classes into a busy business and volunteer schedule. He built affordable housing and engaged in philanthropic work with the Reinvestment Fund, dedicated to the rehabilitation of neighborhoods, the Hope Partnership for Education, and JEVS, serving as a director since 1985. Casper was still taking a class at Main Line Art Center at the time of his death, and a few of his vivid watercolors are on exhibit, in addition to contributions from artists Mina Smith, Ellen Wasserson, Ben Zuckerman, and others who’ve placed their creativity in service of the wider community. 

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