Washington Post: Painter Eagerly Pushed Other D.C.-Based Artists Into Spotlight

September 13, 2009

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
as published in the Washington Post
Sunday, September 13, 2009

One morning a dozen years ago, Seth Rosenberg opened up his Georgetown frame shop and gallery and happened to notice a mysterious vine growing in a planter box near the front door — growing almost before his eyes. He began watering the plant every day, and after two months, it was 24 feet long and still growing.

A neighbor named it “Audrey,” after the voracious plant in the movie-musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”

For several weeks, Mr. Rosenberg, along with his wife and their friends and neighbors, continued to nurture Audrey as she sprouted velvet leaves, tiny buds and peach-colored flowers. Her well-being became a labor of love, even though they had no idea what she was or where she had come from.

Anna Rock, 4 at the time, was in awe. “I saw it in ‘Jack in the Beanstalk, ” she announced. “It’s going to go past the clouds.”

A few days ago, Anna, now 16, sang the Shaker hymn ” ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple” at the funeral of Mr. Rosenberg, who died Sept. 1 in Cleveland after a heart attack.

For Mr. Rosenberg, lavishing care and attention on a wayward plant was entirely in character. He looked out for others — family members; friends, neighbors and fellow artists; a strange plant named Audrey — even when it meant neglecting his own work as an artist.

“He was the most generous person I’ve ever known, especially to his fellow artists,” his wife, Jane Cahoon Rosenberg, recalled one morning last week.

At age 57, he was just coming into his own as a painter. “His work was just exploding,” said Terrie Sultan, former curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Mr. Rosenberg was born in Stamford, Conn. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University in 1975 and a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1979, both in fine arts, he settled in the District. To support his art, he opened a frame shop specializing in fine art and historical documents in a warehouse at 14th and U streets Northwest, in the days before gentrification. In 1997, he and his wife opened District Fine Arts, a contemporary art gallery and framing ship in upper Georgetown.

“He was determined to support D.C.-based artists,” District arts consultant Suzanne Callahan recalled last week. “He talked to buyers, arranged shows, threw parties, got everybody together. He was adamant about not showing his own work. He’d say, ‘This is not a vanity gallery.’ ”

His selflessness became legendary — “much to my frustration at times,” his wife said.

“Rather than focus on himself as an artist, he loved to talk about the artistic process and what people could create,” Callahan said. “It wasn’t, ‘Here’s what I did,’ but rather, ‘Look at what art can do.’ ”

Jane Rosenberg remembered the shop as “a full-time screaming baby.” It took a huge amount of their time. Mr. Rosenberg’s art became secondary to the business and to the needs of other District artists, even though he never gave up painting completely. “Every night, he’d come home, cook dinner and then go into his basement studio and paint into the wee hours,” Jane recalled.

Not long after Audrey the mystery plant started its gargantuan growth, someone in the dark of night came along and ripped it up by the roots. In 2005, the Rosenbergs also were uprooted, although it was their decision to leave Washington after 24 years. With their young son, Eli, they moved to Cleveland, where Jane could be closer to her father, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Other survivors include Mr. Rosenberg’s father, Bernard Rosenberg of Stamford; a brother; and a sister.

Leaving Washington and all their friends was difficult, she said, but for her husband it turned out to be “a dream come true.” With money from the sale of the business and with the disparity in real estate prices between Cleveland and Washington working in their favor, he at last had time to be the artist he always wanted to be.

“He had a real studio downtown with a great view of the city,” Jane said. “We got involved with MOCA [Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art], and we made friends and met fellow artists. Two years into the move, it became transformational for Seth.”

His paintings always had been highly abstract, but in Cleveland he evolved into something of a figurative painter. He began incorporating images associated with the Social Realists of the 1930s, particularly works of Works Progress Administration artists, whom he greatly admired. He combined them with old scientific illustrations, antique graphics and recent photographs into pieces that resembled collages.

“They’re great, strange, weird and wonderful works,” said Sultan, now the director of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, L.I. “He was taking these images into very interesting and provocative places and combining them in such interesting and wonderful ways.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Rosenberg won a $20,000 Creative Workforce Fellowship from the Cleveland Partnership for Arts and Culture.

“He was just delighted at where his work was going,” Jane said.

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