Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Montgomery College dedicates art gallery to alumna

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Sarah Silberman, 98, of Silver Spring and her great-granddaughter Rosalee Kelly, 6, share an embrace during the dedication in Silberman’s honor of the newly renovated art gallery at Montgomery College in Rockville. Behind the pair are Silberman’s son Bill (left) and granddaughter Rebecca.
Ninety-eight-year-old Sarah Silberman said she felt ‘‘overwhelmed” as she sat in front of the art gallery named after her, surrounded by family, friends and Montgomery College faculty and students.

Silberman did not give a speech during the Feb. 19 dedication ceremony at the college’s Rockville campus for the gallery to which she donated $500,000 to renovate, but she was not shy about speaking up from her wheelchair while others said good things about her, even though she could not hear them.

‘‘We mustn’t forget Montgomery College, the center of all of our lives,” Silberman said, interrupting Montgomery College President Brian K. Johnson’s speech.

Old age has left Silberman nearly deaf and a heart attack the weekend before the dedication put her in a wheelchair. But on this afternoon, none of that got in Silberman’s way as she posed for photos, conducted interviews by reading questions on a dry erase board and reminisced about her sculptures on display in glass cases.

Silberman, a lifelong learner, began taking art classes at Montgomery College when she was 71 and continued taking the same classes over and over for 25 years. She stopped taking classes in 2004 because she could no longer drive to the campus from her home in Silver Spring.

In addition to the money she donated for the gallery renovations, Silberman has also funded art scholarships for students at the college.

Two scholarship recipients met Silberman for the first time at the ceremony and thanked her publicly for aiding their education.

Alexandria Clinton, 19, of College Park said the endowment allowed her to stay in school as her family prepared to send her two younger brothers to college.

Sophia Angelakis, 23, of Washington, D.C., said her gratitude to Silberman goes beyond financial support.

‘‘Getting the scholarship gave me the confidence to pursue what I love,” Angelakis said. ‘‘With all my heart, thank you so much.

Silberman is modest and selfless, said her son Bill Silberman, 71, who is portrayed in sculpture in the display. For years she funded the scholarships anonymously, he said. When told they would name the gallery after her, Silberman suggested naming it after the Silberman family instead.

‘‘She would like to give it and not have her name on anything,” Bill Silberman said.

The bust of Bill Silberman portrays him at age 11. Silberman said she began sketching and having her children pose for her when they were born.

‘‘By the time they were 11, they posed nicely,” she said.

The subjects of her sculptures vary from human figures to abstract pieces made of various media, including clay, wood and plaster.

A favorite of many — and one that some say is Silberman’s masterpiece — is a sculpture made of alabaster detailing a mother crouching on her knees, holding her newborn child as he touches her face, titled ‘‘Mother with Newborn Child.”

‘‘I did all the little toes,” Silberman said, referring to the baby’s toes, which can only been seen by looking closely underneath the mother.

Bill Silberman leaned over and whispered the baby was also anatomically correct.

Silberman lives in an unfinished home and studio (some say her largest sculpture to date) on Norbeck Road. She built it in 1950 with the help of her two sons. Bill Silberman said his mother read a book on how to build a house, got an electrician’s license and wired the house herself.

‘‘It’s a piece of art all its own,” he said.

In 1997, Silberman became the first Montgomery College student to have a solo art show in the gallery that now bears her name. And in 2004, she was one of six recipients of the college’s Outstanding Alumni Award.

Montgomery College means ‘‘everything” to Silberman, she said.

‘‘What would you do if there was no knowledge?” Silberman asked. ‘‘I don’t have to be the highest or the best; I’m climbing all the time.”

When asked what advice she would give to aspiring young artists, Silberman urged them not to worry about making mistakes and to master different areas of art.

‘‘It’s like an adventure,” she said.