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    Ceramic sculptures by little-known Phila. artist Frances Serber

    The two ceramic figures were undeniably African-copied. They were strikingly similar to masks I had seen before, but I wasn’t quite sure what peoples had made them – the Benin, perhaps?

    Turning to the bottom of one, I found it hollow inside, but it was signed “F. Serber.” I knew it would be tough to find out anything about the artist without a first name. The other sculpture was no help because it was not signed at all. With little to go on, I left them on the table at the auction house and proceeded with my preview of items at the sale.

    Then two tables down, I spotted another ceramic piece – a small but heavy trinket box in cobalt blue with the face of what looked like an African woman on its cover. I found no inscription on the bottom so I lifted the top to see inside. There in cursive lettering under the cover was a full name: Francis Serber.

    frances serber trinket box

    A cobalt blue ceramic trinket box made by Frances Serber.

    So I Googled, because I really wanted to know more about the artist. The name was not Francis, I learned, but Frances Serber, a female ceramicist. Unfortunately, I could find little about her life.

    Her  major accomplishment was a ceramic tile mural installed in the lobby of the elegant and stylish 2601 Parkway House apartment building in Philadelphia in 1940. With New York painter Nicholas Marsicano, she created tiles for a mural titled “History of Shelter.” Both were members of the United American Artists, an artists’ union, according to information accompany the murals on the walls of the apartment building.

    The Fairmount Park Art Commission asked Serber, who was living in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, in a 1973 letter to choose which of her sculptures to use in a book it was compiling. Serber wrote that she’d like the Parkway House sculpture to represent her. “It is my favorite,” she said.

    This commission was her first and largest, she added, at 144 feet long and 4½ feet wide. She had six months to complete the mural, and enlisted Marsicano to assist her.

    frances serber mural

    One part of the Frances Serber tile mural at the 2601 Parkway House.

    “I wanted a feeling of stained glass,” she wrote. “The tiles were not cut at random. We wanted some sort of design. After working twenty hours a day for six months the mural was finished on the promised date. The mural was born!

    “It was the first of its kind (in Philadelphia) and it began to lift ceramics from Craft into Art form. It was the first time a woman undertook such a commission, and it was the first mural of its kind. Picasso, years later as you know, began to do ceramics and of course that definitely put ceramics in its Art form.”

    panel from Frances Serber's mural

    A panel from the Frances Serber mural at the 2601 Parkway House.

    “Ceramics is difficult,” she wrote, “but I love it.”

    Here’s what I was able to piece together about her:

    She was a listed artist; her name was mentioned in several online art directories. She was an early 20th-century ceramics artist who was active in Pennsylvania, according to askArt. She was known for having transferred the paintings of artist Robert Gwathmey to ceramic plates, including two of his works from the 1940s, “Hoeing” and “End of Day.” Both are images of African Americans, whom Gwathmey depicted favorably in his paintings.

    She was born on Sept. 3, 1905, according to a letter she wrote in 1974 to the Fairmount Park Art Association, seemingly in Philadelphia. (I found a Frances Leof, who was the second wife of the father of Robert Serber, who worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Serber described his new stepmother as a “ceramicist, muralist and potter.” The Loef family was an independent group of thinkers whom some sites described as left-wing intellectuals. I’m not sure if this was the same Frances Serber.)

    She was a founding member of the local chapter of the Artists Equity Association, which was formed in 1949. The organization was instrumental in approval of a rule allocating one percent of construction costs of all new buildings and other projects in Philadelphia to fine arts.

    frances serber sculptures

    Two ceramic pieces by Frances Serber resemble a Mende helmet mask. At right is her signature.

    She may have attended the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts). A 1930 commencement program for the school listed her as one of two second-prize winners for pottery.

    She is listed in several books related to art and architecture, and reproductions of her works at a 1946 exhibit were mentioned in a 2002 book about American artists and communism during the early part of the 20th century.

    Serber and artist William Soini handled the technical end of pottery produced by the Associated American Artists of New York under the label Stonelain from 1930 to 1952. The pieces, some of which they also made, were signed with an intertwined “SS” for both of their last names.

    Frances Serber mural

    Frances Serber mural of a firefighting scene from the 19th century.

    She also created several murals:

    “A Mythological Interpretation of Outer Space,” commissioned by the Philadelphia Health Center. It was mentioned in a 1965 catalog for an exhibit titled “Art with Architecture” sponsored by the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

    St. Mary’s Church, Sioux Falls, SD. Working with other artists, she did floor tiles for a project that was part of  the Architectural League of New York’s 1960 National Gold Medal Exhibition of the Building Arts.

    19th-century firefighting scene at the fire station at Linden Street and Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia, according to a letter in the file of the Fairmount Park Art Association, whose records are now in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

    American Legion Playground, Torresdale and Devereaux Avenues in Philadelphia (an eagle, which was said to have been damaged), according to a letter in the file of the Fairmount Park Art Association.

    Frances Serber eagle mural

    A mural of an eagle at a local playground. By the early 1970s, the eagle had been damaged.

    Just as Picasso, Brancusi and other artists were influenced by African sculptures, Serber seems to have been, too. I found that her two cylindrical sculptures were replicas of Sande Society helmet masks worn by the Mende women in Sierra Leone. The mask is used by this society of women in initiation ceremonies for girls reaching adulthood. It is one of the only African cultures where women wear masks.

    Serber’s ceramic columns closely resembled a wooden helmet mask in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, with its series of 4 neck rolls, triangular and curved projections representing hair on top of the head and rows of hair on the sides and back. Hers do not have the scarification of many of the Mende helmet masks, though.

    Sande Society helmet mask

    A Sande Society helmet mask in collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Photo from Brooklyn Museum website.


    Frances Serber 2601 mural

    A panel from the Frances Serber mural at 2601 Parkway House.


    Frances Serber mural

    A panel from the Frances Serber mural at 2601 Parkway House.


    Frances Serber mural

    A panel from the Frances Serber mural at 2601 Parkway House.

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    1. Thank you for your article on Frances Serber. My mother, Sylvia Miriam Brenner Devine (1913-1995), was a fairly well-known portrait artist in the Philadelphia area, and a good friend of Ms. Serber, whom I met a number of times when I was young. I have a ceramic lamp that Frances gave to my mother. It has a figure of a woman incised in it(probably not influenced by African art), and a lovely mottled green glaze. My mother loved the lamp, and she often spoke of Ms. Serber and of how good a ceramist she was.

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