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Death of Seattle Artist and Activist Selma Waldman

April 17, 2008

“I am an artist . . . enamored of charcoal (the tool that does not lie) and the act of drawing. . . Although both charcoal and pastel can be fragmented, crushed, and reduced to dust in a single arbitrary or careless moment of time, both of these media can project into visual art potent and sensuous powers of endurance that will resonate with the same epic, intimate, universal and demonic obstinacy as life itself.”

Selma Waldman’s work combined artistry and activism in forthright, searing representations of the abuse of power in sexuality, politics, and war, what she called in her last exhibit the “pornography of power.”

Born on February 23, 1931 in Kingsville, Texas, she was an outsider from the start.  Hers was the only Jewish family in a town where the King Ranch was the major employer, with more land than the state of Rhode Island.  Selma escaped to the University of Texas at Austin, where she found a progressive community of like-minded people and earned a Bachelor’s degree in art.  She married architecture student James Adkins, and the couple had a son in 1955.  In 1957, Waldman’s family moved to Seattle, Washington, where she lived for the next 60 years. 

On a Fulbright Fellowship to Berlin in 1959–60, she became “exposed in a visceral, direct way to the Holocaust," her son Rainer Waldman Adkins said later.   She produced a series of drawings she titled “Falling Man,” 25 pieces of which are now on permanent display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  Other drawings by Waldman on the Holocaust theme are in the Terezin Ghetto Museum in the Czech Republic.

Returning to Seattle, Waldman divorced and became an independent art teacher at the University of Washington and Free University.  “She fervently believed anybody could learn to draw,” her son recalled.  She produced eight small books of drawings and writing to document colonial abuse in Kenya and life in South Africa under apartheid.  The Seattle Times wrote, “Politics were as vital to her as art, and she was active all her life in liberation movements around the globe.”  Her last collection, “The Black Book of Aggressors,” condemned President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  Her work can be viewed at Selma Waldman.org.

"She really believed in doing things in a way that she felt had integrity," said Waldman's son. "She was very unswerving in her dedication to the artwork she was doing and to her activism for a better world … When I was growing up, I just assumed to be Jewish was to work for peace and justice.”

Sources: “Selma Waldman,” We Remember; Selma Waldman.org; “Absence/Presence,” University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies; “Selma Waldman, 1931 – 2008: Painter had a ‘unique touch’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer; “Selma Waldman, 77, Seattle artist, better known in Germany,” Seattle Times; “Selma Waldman,” Arts and Politics Now; JT News: The Voice of Jewish Washington.

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Selma Waldman
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Selma Waldman, artist and activist.
Photo: Rainer Waldman Adkins

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of Seattle Artist and Activist Selma Waldman ." (Viewed on December 10, 2017) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/17/2008/death-of-seattle-artist-and-activist-selma-waldman>.

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