Back in December 2013 through March this year, the little art gallery at Maplewood Park Place, the residence where my mother lives in Bethesda, Maryland, hosted an exhibit of prints by area printmakers. There were three or four artists whose work was on display, showing perhaps half a dozen prints each. Among the most appealing, both for their subjects and their style, were the linoleum-block prints of Lila Oliver Asher, who also attended the opening for the show. My mother made it a point to be there, too, because it happens that Mom and Lila Asher have been friends since their childhoods, some 80 years ago or so. (Mom and Lila met at Camp Wa-Na-Gi on Lake George, New York, when my mother was a camper and Lila was a counsellor.) Mom’s a New Yorker who grew up in New Jersey and Lila’s a Philadelphian, so the fact that they each ended up in Washington (they both live in the Maryland suburbs now) at the same time is an amazing coincidence, I think. They both arrived in D.C. in 1946—my mom in February and Lila in May—so their husbands could take jobs in the city, Sydney Asher, Jr., as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board and my father as an executive in a local movie-theater corporation. Since I was born in the District at the end of that same year, I’ve known Lila literally all my life.
Lila Estelle Oliver was born in Philadelphia in 1921, where she started drawing as a child, receiving her first set of oil paints as a birthday gift from her parents when she was seven. “I was always aware that I wanted to be an artist,” she wrote later in a biographical sketch. Then Lila went on to study in a children’s program at what became the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial (formerly the Graphics Sketch Club, now affiliated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art). In 1939, the incipient artist received a four-year scholarship to the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). Among the distinguished artists with whom she studied were landscapist Joseph Grossman (1889-1979) and portraitist Franklin B. A. Linton (1871-1943), a protégé of realist painter, photographer, and sculptor Thomas Eakins. Lila also studied with Gonippo Raggi (1875–1959), an Italian-born church muralist, but she started out to be a portrait artist.
Before graduating from PCA in 1943, in the middle of World War II, Lila began sketching wounded GI’s in hospitals for the USO, volunteering with the newly-formed Hospital Sketching Program (1943-1946). The drawings were both entertaining and therapeutic for the invalided servicemen, and Lila was also a good listener, chatting with the boys, so immobilized by their injuries that they couldn’t attend the song-and-dance USO shows being offered nearby, and hearing their tales as she sketched. The young artist was flattered to be asked—some of the other artists recruited were quite established already—and she felt she was putting her artistic ability to use to serve her country; if she’d been a man, she thought, she’d have been drafted to fight, so this was a way of doing her bit. Visiting veterans’ hospitals all over the area, from Philadelphia to Valley Forge and Atlantic City, for as much as six days at a time, to draw and paint the portraits, “I became a one-woman USO show,” she likes to say. “And literally, I sat from bed to bed,” she recalls. “I sat on a bed with a young man and did a sketch,” later collecting many of the 3,500 portraits she created in a book entitled Men I Have Met in Bed (Heritage Books, 2002), which includes the transcripts of many of the often humorous letters she wrote to her wounded subjects. Unable to accept payment for the drawings, though many of her subjects offered, Lila collected the shoulder patches of the GI’s units—so she’d “have an insignia from all the different areas”— assembling the more than 200 emblems into a little quilt which is depicted in the book.
Married in 1946, Lila Asher (she uses her full name, Lila Oliver Asher, professionally) moved to the Nation’s Capital three years after she graduated from PCA and established a studio for painting, sculpture, and printmaking in a $25-a-month space in Northwest Washington. To supplement her art, she took a job illustrating advertisements for Charles Schwartz Jewelers and upscale men’s clothiers Lewis & Thos. Saltz. For Schwartz, she drew pictures of the gems, which the store gave her to take home in a little paper bag.
The young artist soon began teaching art at local colleges and universities. She started in Howard University’s Art Department, the oldest academic art department in the Nation’s Capital, from 1947 to 1951, where her students included Romare Bearden (1911-88), among the most distinguished American artists of the 20th century; Franklin White, Jr. (b. 1943), a well-known Washington artist and instructor at the Corcoran School of Art; and David Driskell (b. 1931), an artist and scholar of African-American art. She also taught at Wilson Teachers College, which became part of the District of Columbia Teachers College in 1955 and then incorporated into the University of the District of Columbia when UDC was established in 1977, from 1953 to 1954. Returning in 1961 to Howard, one of the oldest traditionally black colleges in the U.S. and one of the most prestigious, Lila was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1964, to Associate Professor in 1966, and to full Professor in 1971. She has also taught master classes and as artist-in-residence or visiting instructor at schools all over the country and abroad, and has lectured or given workshops around the globe. Since 1991, after almost 44 years of teaching printmaking, watercolor, drawing, and more to students like master printmaker Lou Stovall (b. 1937) and prominent District artist Bill Harris (b. 1943), Lila’s been Professor Emerita at Howard.
“Teaching is very useful to an artist,” Lila declares. “You learn a lot.” To be sure, the artist found passing along her acquired knowledge and expertise to new generations “a true calling,” in the words of LuLen Walker, the Art Collection Curator at Georgetown University Library’s Special Collections Research Center. Former Howard student White said he taught the same “life drawing techniques acquired from Lila Asher” for over thirty years as a painting instructor at the Corcoran, and in the catalogue for a retrospective of Lila’s work at Howard in 1991, the year she retired, her former pupil Driskell, the chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland from 1978 to 1983 and later Distinguished University Professor of Art until his retirement in 1998, wrote that he
remembers poignantly the clarity with which Asher taught, extolling the virtues of keenly observing the beauty of the human figure. The memorable lectures she delivered to a small class of students in the early 1950s have served as a model for those of us who have made teaching a lifelong commitment.
(Sydney Asher, by then a labor judge at NLRB, died of a heart attack at 62 in 1974. Lila and Sydney had two children, a son and a daughter. The artist remarried in 1978, to Kenneth Crawford, who had three children from a previous marriage. Crawford, a one-time Howard colleague of Lila’s and then a language specialist with the National Security Agency, died of cardiac arrest in 2006 at 86. Both men were World War II veterans and, like Lila herself, active in philanthropy, service organizations, and social issues in the Capital community. Though I must have known Sydney Asher, I don’t remember him, but I do remember Ken Crawford as an extremely nice man. Ironically, I only just learned that Ken Crawford and I both studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute—called the Army Language School in his day—in Monterey, California, 25 years apart. It may never have come up because, as an NSA linguist, he probably couldn’t talk about his background; the NSA is far more secretive than Military Intelligence, in which I had served.)
The first class Lila taught at Howard was ceramics, but to get to her studio she had to cross through the print classroom. That’s how she was introduced to printmaking, which became her specialty. Lila’s an internationally acknowledged authority on printmaking, all forms of which she’s studied, made, and taught around the world for decades. She specializes in relief printing, in which the raised surfaces of the printing plate or block are inked while the recessed faces remain ink-free (as distinguished from intaglio printing, which is the exact reverse process); the desired image, therefore, is carved into the block in reverse, like a sort of photographic negative. The paper—Lila selects a handmade paper of a specific texture for the effect she wants—is then pressed or rubbed, which the artist prefers to do by hand with a Japanese baren, onto the incised block to create the image. The artist even went to Japan in 1973 to study the woodblock techniques of Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950; born Hiroshi Ueda), one of the great masters of the art in a country admired for the delicacy and expressiveness of its woodcuts over many centuries. The many nations abroad where she and her work have appeared, often with a demonstration or workshop for local artists—as she did in 1973 and ’74 on a tour of Japan and India under the auspices of the U.S. Information Service (the same agency for which my father worked in Germany a decade earlier)—also include Denmark, Germany, Israel, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Turkey.
Last year, Lila was selected to be one of the artists in ART CART: Saving the Legacy, a project which preserves the works of aging artists and connects them with art students in order to prepare to document and archive the older artists’ creative work for posterity. This program, started by Columbia University students in New York and now expanding nationwide with D.C. one of the first cities to be added, also returns Lila to teaching of sorts, or perhaps mentoring is the better word, because the connection between the older, established artist and the younger student artist is intended to pass on the legacy of America’s artistic culture. Meanwhile, at almost 93, Lila continues to create art in her studio in the Bethesda home filled with seven decades’ of paintings, sculptures, and prints, and to exhibit in Washington and around the world. Her process hasn’t changed since she retired, but now “I can do it when I feel like it,” she says. “I sort of don’t know what else to do,” she told a recent interviewer. “This is what I’ve always done.”
The linoleum block, which for Lila is a sheet of linoleum fastened to a block of wood, is the artist’s favorite print medium. “Unlike wood, which has grain you have to go with or fight against,” the artists explains, “linoleum has no grain. You have complete control.” She has used many different media of printing, including silkscreen and woodblock, but she returns to linocut consistently—just as she returns to printmaking when she ventures into other art forms such as watercolor, wire sculpture, terra cotta sculpture, and stained glass. It may say something of how special Lila’s print work is that Mom and I each own an Asher piece, both prints (mine a lino print and Mother’s a woodblock).
Lila is widely renowned for the sensitivity and flow of line in her linoleum block prints, which have been compared to those of Henri Matisse, one of the principal elevators of the form above wallpaper patterns, advertising images, and mere illustration. The artist’s “singular deployment of line” is almost always spotlighted with special praise in reviews of her work. Harold Horowitz of The Washington Print Club Quarterly, comparing her talent to that of “master draftsman” Pablo Picasso, wrote that “the linear elements of the designs are very powerful and are able to both define the forms and suggest the three dimensional properties as well.” Frank Getlein, Washington-area author, journalist, and art critic, declared: ”Our eye follows her line and hears its music, even cues us to join the chorus. Her line sings sweetly, stands strongly, builds like an architect, makes shadow and texture like a weaver, shapes life, like the creator she is.” And in New York, a reviewer for The Villager asserted: “Her line is sharp. It has authority; it has beautiful movement also.”
Lila’s work in other forms is far from ordinary or uninteresting; that’s not what I mean. Her watercolors, which are mostly landscapes and street scenes—the Washington Monument figures prominently in one, too, unsurprisingly, considering her home base—and they’re colorful and endearing, with an impressionistic cast. The scenes of rural France and Germany, as well as the scenes of Washington, are so evocative of the places themselves that I can smell the bread baking in Charcuterie Boucherie, France or feel the mist rolling off the lake in Scotland. The sculptures, which include solid pieces reminiscent of Auguste Rodin and wire figures that remind me of Alexander Calder’s early work before he invented the stabile. The former are impressionistic like the watercolors, suggesting emotion and a narrative behind the poses; the latter pieces are whimsical and amusing and seemingly frivolous—three-D doodles. Lila’s stained glass medallions and panels, meant to be hung in front of a window to catch the light while they sway or spin to change the perspective, are pretty and gay, but more like an experiment in light and color than a fully expressive artwork.
I’ve occasionally said of a friend who writes plays and musicals that his adult fare is good and usually intriguing and unpredictably funny—but his children’s scripts are special, incomparable. (I don’t know if he agrees with me on that, though I’ve told him directly once or twice.) Well, Lila’s prints are like that: as good as all her work in other forms is, and I’d be honored to display any of them in my home, her prints are extraordinary, full of feeling and import which may not all have been her own intent. (Good art makes the viewer feel and see new things. Great art make the viewer feel and see things that the artist herself didn’t plan. There are things in Shakespeare’s plays he never consciously wrote about—but they’re there nonetheless.) As Lila herself makes clear: “The process of printmaking is laborious and involves certain basics but there is always some element of surprise along the way. That is one of the things that make printmaking so fascinating.”
Of all my mother’s art—she and my dad started collecting in a small way back in the late ’50s—her Asher woodblock is among my most cherished. It’s Lila’s Medea, depicting the conflicted mythical figure as embracing Mother (in black) juxtaposed with the nearly-identical image (in blood-red) but all aflame, representing the Monster about to engulf her children. It’s a remarkable piece, as simple in composition as any of Lila’s work (or any other artist’s who works in a minimalist vein), but fraught with power and impact. Even as a child—I don’t actually remember my parents not having Lila’s Medea on a wall in any of our homes—I was fascinated by and drawn to this dual image, even before I knew the story of Medea, Jason, and their children. (I vaguely recall my dad telling me the story as we looked at the print, but it wasn’t until I was a little older that I really got into the Greek myths, much less any of the several version of the story dramatized by playwrights from Euripides and Seneca to Pierre Corneille to Jean Anouilh to Robinson Jeffers.)
My own Asher print, a linocut called Silence, is a more serene piece. It shows a young man, nude, a towel draped over his lap, seated in a spoke-back chair in a variation of Rodin’s Thinker pose. A black-and-white figure whose face is buried in his hands, this young man isn’t so much contemplating something deep, as Rodin’s subject is, but suffering some kind of despair. ‘Why’s he so despondent?’ I wonder. ‘What’s the backstory?’ I can guess, of course, but I can’t know. I wonder if Lila knew? I wonder if Lila knew the young man himself, a real person who’d suffered some loss when she captured him? In my bedroom, Silence is displayed on a wall of all black-and-while pieces, an initially accidental composition I deliberately extended when I hung the Asher, and on the other side of my bed hangs another black-and-white portrait of a boy, an untitled pen-and-ink sketch by Spanish artist Rafael Alvarez Ortega of the rear view of a standing nude. Part of a series of line drawings called “Los Niños del Mar” (“Children of the Sea”), it’s a handsome drawing, but it’s emotionless, just an artist’s sketch of a posed model, his left arm hanging by his side and his right arm raised, the back of his wrist laid languidly against his forehead. The boy’s standing on the banks of the sea, but he doesn’t seem to have any interest in the water or the shore—and neither does the artist. In comparison with the Ortega, Lila’s Silence is fraught, emotion-laden, evocative, alive, and hot. In a review of a 2013 exhibit of Lila’s prints, the writer characterized the artist as possessing “a reputation for clarity, grace, and emotional content.” I couldn’t agree more from my own private perspective.
Most of Lila’s prints are monochrome, predominantly black on white like my Silence. (War (mother and child) is rust-brown on white.) She likes to add a spot of color, usually red, in a single object in many pictures—Eve’s apple, for instance, or the torch flame and sun’s rays in Prometheus. (Lila occasionally hand-tints the final print, as in Pictures at an Exhibition.) Almost all of her prints have people in them—unlike the watercolors which are nearly exclusively devoid of human presence. David Driskell observed of Lila’s human figuration: “She works with it with love and passion and endows each form with a realistic aesthetic that is bound in the classical antecedents from which traditional art sprang.” She quips, “I think if I live long enough, I may come into vogue. I think figures are coming back.” Her subjects for the prints—again, as differentiated from the other work—cover a small span: mythological scenes (like the Medea, Prometheus), Biblical stories (Eve II, Noah and the Ark), and scenes of daily life—what Robert Aubry Davis, the host of WETA Arts, a program of the local PBS station in Washington, called “everyday yet lyrical moments” (The Picnic, Hide and Seek III). Among the last group, which Robert Taylor of the Boston Globe says “celebrates the joys of everyday living and the uniqueness of the ‘ordinary,’” are a subset that may be Lila’s most touching vision (and possibly her most personal—Lila’s a mother and stepmother herself): portrayals of the many incarnations of a mother and child (Airport Mother and Child, Mother and Child in a Chair). Another collection of “lyrical, timeless depictions of people enjoying everyday life,” as Davis put it, is Lila’s prints of musicians at work (Saturday Night Gig, At the Harp). LuLen Walker pronounces the artist a “keen observer of the human spirit.”
Early in Lila’s career, the Washington Star’s Benjamin Forgey noted that “the hallmark of her art . . . is an extreme clarity of idea and style.” If it’s not too hyperbolic to state it (and even if it is), every one of her prints is warm with life, vibrant, and emotionally loaded. Sometimes it’s joy, sometimes love, sometimes anger, sometimes playfulness—but it’s always life and living. “Evoking the figures on black figure vase painting but distilled in the aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints,” writes Walker, “Asher’s classically charged imagery is a lyrical delineation of the human form in quiet celebration of life and humanity.” What Lila gets out of a flat surface, a rigid medium (in the sense that a block of wood or linoleum isn’t as manipulable as a brush, a pen, or even a palette knife), and a limited color palette is remarkable and inspiring. (As a writer, I wish I could do with words what Lila does with ink.) She said that upon discovering printmaking in that long-ago passage to her ceramics studio that she “fell in love with line.” Well, the “sensitive and flowing line” of her prints reciprocated and has responded to Lila’s urgings and manipulations with astonishing expressiveness, conveying “profound human emotion with universal themes.” In New York City’s Park East, reviewer Dorothy Hall remarked that her print images “attest not only to the artist's proficiency in draftsmanship but also to her great warmth and sensitivity.”
Some of Lila’s prints are remarkable even among her extraordinary body of work. In Noah and the Ark, for example, she not only uses multiple colors (which in print work means a separate rubbing of the paper and often a separate incised block for each color), but she achieves a wonderful effect by combining print media. The olive-colored boat with Noah and the animal figures on the deck is printed from a linoleum block, but the blue sea, with the waves and the ark’s wake, is created by the grain of plywood. “The wood is scorched with a torch and then worked over with a wire brush,” the artist explained. “This wears down the softer part of the grain and the harder part remains higher for inking,” creating the lighter and darker areas of ink that give the effect of eddies and swirls in the water. In addition to this mixed-media printing, the white dove in the right foreground is cut out of the wood with a jigsaw, leaving open space that lets the white paper show through the surrounding blue ink. (Just to increase to the complexity of Noah, Lila adds a red stripe around the ark’s gunwales. The dove is outlined in the same olive ink of the boat, has a red eye, and carries a green olive branch in its beak. Each of these small details requires its own block and pressing.)
The musical performances are sometimes multiple images, usually to show motion or dynamism. Piano Concerto, another print incorporating both linocut and woodblock printing, depicts a woman playing a grand piano. (The grainy wood appears as the wall of the auditorium with a ghostly conductor barely visible behind one of the piano player’s images. The woodcut is printed in brown to contrast with the black-inked musician.) The pianist is printed three times in slightly variant poses, each image overlapping the previous one in a minutely different size with her hands and head in different attitudes, creating the impression of both movement and artistic intensity. For Jazz Piano, a multi-colored linocut, Lila portrays the musical rhythms of the pianist by repeating his image, identical in silhouette this time, in five different colors (black, teal, mustard, orange, and red) in an arc from the lower-left foreground curving up right center and back left again in the upper quadrant of the paper. I’m not a jazz aficionado (though my father was a huge fan), but to my eye, Jazz Piano replicates visually the energy of a jazz musician jamming in improvised variations on a theme.
But just as dynamic as these images are, Lila captures the serene figures with another kind of emotional impact, but one no less evocative. Paul Richard, the art reviewer of the Washington Post, comparing her work to that of Henri Matisse for its “weight and warmth of flesh,” declared, “Lila Oliver Asher’s prints are the finest when most simple, strongest when gentle.” The simplicity of childhood, say in the comfort expressed in the red-black-and-white Cup of Milk (I swear I had a striped shirt just like that kid when I was his age—or maybe I just think I did because of Lila’s image) or the uncomplicated joy of Hopscotch, both of which harken to a less fraught age (probably when my brother and I and Lila’s children were growing up in suburban Washington). The artist’s “stunningly tender portrayal of lovers” are images of pure devotion, whether simply embracing (The Window) or in motion together (Skaters Waltz). And her mother-and-child pictures celebrate the universal and undying maternal love in terms that defy the familiarity of the subject. They are simultaneously sentimental and elemental, depicting the symbiosis of the mother-child relationship at a glance. In the Washington Post, writer Jo Ann Lewis maintained that Lila’s best prints “are rendered with a single graceful arabesque, or series of arabesques, that somehow convey . . . the tenderness of an embrace, a gesture or touch . . . .” In an apt summation of the artist’s art, Georgetown University’s Walker concludes that the artist’s prints “reflect her optimistic outlook on life in the creation of timeless, life-affirming prints that encourage thoughtful reflection and admiration.”
[Some one-artist exhibitions of Lila’s work include: Barnett Aden Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1951; William C. Blood Gallery, Philadelphia, Pa..., 1955; Arts Club, Washington, 1957, 2010; Collectors Gallery, Washington, 1959; Garrett Park Public Library, Garrett Park, Md., 1960; Burr Galleries, New York, N.Y., 1963; Gallery Two Twenty Two, El Paso, Tex., 1965; Thomson Gallery, New York, 1968; B'nai B'rith Headquarters, Washington, 1969; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va., 1970, 1988;; Green-Field Gallery, El Paso, 1972; Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City, Mich., 1972; Franz Bader Gallery, Washington, 1972; American Club, Tokyo, 1973; USIS Bombay, 1974; Iran-America Society, Teheran, 1974; Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., 1974; USIS Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, India, 1975; USIS Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, Pakistan, 1975; USIS Ankara and Adana, Turkey, 1976; Via Gambaro Gallery, Washington, 1976; Gallery Kormendy, Alexandria, Va. 1978; Howard University, Washington, 1978, 1991; Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, 1979; Northeastern University, Boston, Mass. 1980; National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan, 1982; Kastrupgårdsamlingen Kunst Museum, Kastrup, Denmark, 1982; Gallaudet University, Washington, 1985; Mickelson Gallery, Washington, 1986; UCLA, Los Angeles, Cal., 1986; Cosmos Club, Washington, 1992, 1998, 2004; Rockville Art Mansion, Rockville, Md., 1992; Georgetown University, Washington, 1992; Hood College, Frederick, Md., 1992. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., 1993, 1997; Goldman Gallery, Jewish Community Center, Rockville, 1997; Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, Prince Georges County, Md., 1999. Strathmore Hall Arts Center, North Bethesda, Md., 2001; Washington Printmakers Gallery, Washington, 2006; Landon School, Bethesda, 2006; Henry J. Simson Center, International Institute of Peace and Security, Washington, 2009; Ratner Museum, Bethesda, 2010; Washington Printmakers Gallery, Silver Spring, Md., 2011, 2013; Maplewood Park Place Art Gallery, Bethesda, 2014.
[The artist’s work is also part of numerous collections, including: National Museum of American Art, Washington; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington; Barnett Aden Collection, Tampa, Fla.; University of Virginia; Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, Va.; B'nai B'rith, Washington; City of Wolfsburg, Germany; David Lloyd Kreeger Collection, Washington; Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Washington; Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Washington; Center for Research in Education of the Disadvantaged, Jerusalem, Israel; Embassy of the United States, Tel Aviv, Israel; Embassy of the United States, Mexico City, Mexico; Fisk University; Montgomery County Collection of Contemporary Prints, Montgomery County, Md.; National Council on Art in Jewish Life; American Jewish Congress, New York; Georgetown University; National Museum of History, Taipei; Kastrupgårdsamlingen Kunst Museum; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington; Jundt Museum, Gonzaga University, Spokane, Wash.; and many private collections in the U.S. (including my mother’s and mine!) and abroad.]