How can one fully express their gratitude for the generosity of spirit embodied by Sylvia L. Rosen? She was a close friend and passionate advocate of craft media arts—especially ceramics. Sylvia was a potter herself, favoring the luxurious qualities of porcelain. After she created vessels on a potter’s wheel, they were textured or decorated by hand, fired in a kiln, and ultimately finished with a clear, delicate, pale green, celadon glaze. Her love of ceramics started at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio with her professor, the renowned ceramicist Arthur Eugene Baggs. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Education in 1941 and continued her ceramics studies in Cleveland with Esther Marshall Sills and her husband, John, in their home studio. (Esther designed and created the pottery; John fired them in kilns he built.) Sylvia was captivated by the art form, admiring the history of ceramics from ancient Asian wares to work by contemporary American masters. There was no mistaking that she derived pleasure in producing ceramic objects, even into her nineties. She found colleagues in the Buffalo Craftsmen, Empire State Crafts Alliance, and other groups.
Society may have had expectations for a woman in her era to aspire solely to be a wife and mother, but Sylvia was too energetic for that. She stood her ground to earn a prominent role in her family’s business despite the male-dominated commercial world. Her independent spirit led her to the teaching profession, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when a resurgence of interest in handmade objects was embraced by the counterculture. The artificiality of the 1950s was dismissed in favor of a “back to nature” aesthetic. Young people rallied for recycling, gardening, caring for the earth, world peace. People became enamored with handmade crafts, such as macrame, basket weaving, enameling, stained glass, woodworking, and ceramics, especially stoneware, raku, and if you had access, porcelain.
I was one of those aspiring craft artists—being an undergraduate ceramics major until I switched to art history. I had a special a relationship with Sylvia because I had been so intimately involved with clay, experienced the sensuousness of porcelain, and delighted in the magical transformation of glazes in the firing process (especially raku). We understood each other. We could talk about ceramics for hours. It was an honor to be involved in the biennial exhibitions that started in 1988, known at first as Craft Art in Western New York, thanks to her and her husband Nathan who founded a craft art endowment in 1987. Sylvia chose the (then named) Burchfield Art Center as the perfect museum to embrace art made of clay, fiber, glass, metal, and wood, in part because of a past commitment to such thematic exhibitions as Language of Wood (1974), Language of Clay (1979), and Language of Fiber (1984). The Sylvia L. Rosen Endowment has made the Burchfield Penney Art Center a major destination for artists through its support of juried exhibitions, illustrated catalogs, the possibility of purchase awards, and inspiring lectures during interim years. Jurors are leaders in their field. Each provides a unique perspective in their selection of the best work by established and emerging artists. Record-breaking audiences come for opening receptions, giving artists a lot of exposure for their newest work. Additional awards have been sponsored by Graphic Controls, Inc., The Floristry, The Margaret E. Mead Endowment, and individuals. What a joy it was to stroll through the exhibitions together, commenting on the marvels, hearing her impressions.
Sylvia’s commitment charmed other major patrons over the years. Specifically citing Sylvia as inspiration, Charles Rand Penney donated his craft art collection of 53 works by 20 artists in 1994. Nancy Belfer, her close friend, fiber artist, and design department colleague, created the Nancy B. Belfer Endowment for Fine Art in the Fiber Media to support exhibitions and acquisitions. In 2008, Rachel King and Mary Kenzie created the Langley H. Kenzie Award to honor their mother, who made hooked rugs, and to recognize an outstanding artist from the biennial, juried exhibition, Art in Craft Media, by funding a solo exhibition in the following year.
Other related philanthropic projects include Clay Olympics that brought together high school and college students in ceramics workshops at Buffalo State College, friendly competitions with peers, specialized tours of the Burchfield Penney, and exhibitions of their works. At her winter home in Boca Raton, Florida, she helped support the ceramics studio at Florida Atlantic University and she created the Nathan D. Rosen Museum Gallery in the Cultural Arts Department of the Adolph & Rose Levis Jewish Community Center, where I saw The Art of Aging exhibition in 2004. The cultural community in Buffalo honored her achievements and philanthropy many times, including the following: The Buffalo State College Foundation gave her a Distinguished Alumni Leadership Award in 1991 and the Individual Philanthropic Leadership Award in 2000, the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies presented her with the Endowment Development Award in 1999, the Association of Fundraising Professionals bestowed her with a National Philanthropy Award in 2003, the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County honored her with the Knox Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, and the Twentieth Century Club presented her with the Charlotte Mulligan Award in 2016. Sylvia’s core principle was helping others. Her humanitarianism supported artists as well as under-recognized professionals, especially women.
One of our great excursions together was a trip to Washington, DC in 1997 for the special exhibition, The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest. The exhibition had premiered at the Columbus Museum of Art, traveled to our museum, and the third stop was Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art. Sylvia invited me to be her travel companion so we could attend the opening reception. Besides this glorious event, we also visited other museums: the Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Phillips Collection, Renwick Gallery, and the newly opened Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. That’s when I learned that Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party was her favorite painting. Seeing it in person was a revelation—it was so much livelier and more dynamically colorful than any illustrations could convey.
On display in my office is one of Sylvia’s unique creations: a celadon covered bowl, inscribed with an abstract organic design on the lid. Sylvia generously gave her artworks to a few individuals per year as a token of her appreciation for their sharing her vision and supporting art in craft media. It is a tangible memento of her kind heart and loving friendship. I share these few examples from among so many that demonstrate what a remarkable woman Sylvia Rosen was. I will miss her with the comforting knowledge that she touched so many lives and truly made a difference.
Burchfield Scholar, Head of Collections & Charles Cary Rumsey Curator
Burchfield Penney Instructor of Museum Studies
Burchfield Penney Art Center, SUNY Buffalo State