The 800 block of Morris Street is a long way from the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam or the medieval spires of Prague. But Arthur Ostroff’s Brussels-born daughter thinks the area resembles, of all places, Rome.
At least that’s what the 26-year-old remarked to her artist father one day shortly after the family returned from Italy’s capital, where he had a visual-arts job with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Ostroff sent his daughter to buy bread at the corner bakery. Upon her return, she observed that South Philly, with its bakeries and butcher shops on every block, reminded her of Rome.
Anne Ostroff would know. Rome was just one of the many cities in which the family lived while her father’s talented hands landed him jobs throughout the continent.
Most artists would kill for a fraction of the opportunities that have crossed Arthur Ostroff’s path. But the Philly native worked hard for every chance.
"I would have to say that perseverance is my greatest attribute," he says.
Ostroff earned a degree in pictorial design from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, but his career was detoured by the Korean War. After serving in the Army, he spent one year just hitchhiking through Europe. He loved Amsterdam so much, he decided to stay, eventually landing a job as the first art director/instructor for the newly opened European office of the Famous Artists School.
One year later, Ostroff boarded a German freighter back to the States. The artist met his future wife on the vessel — her was an American nurse stationed in London on her way back home.
The couple, who recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, have lived in New York, Seattle and San Francisco.
In the late ’90s, Ostroff freelanced as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Two years ago, the artist was referred to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which commissioned him to design its 2001 holiday card. As a sign of its satisfaction, the PRPA invited Ostroff back to create its greeting this past Christmas.
But the big project has been a limited-edition print showing the evolution of the port from the 18th century to the present day. The print, Port of Philadelphia: From the Beginning, Building the Region … Serving the Country … Connecting to the World, was created for presentation to visiting dignitaries and other official visitors to the Port of Philadelphia.
Ostroff created the original piece and edition last summer, and the print had its official unveiling in October at La Buca restaurant off Washington Square Park. The first print of the edition was formally presented to state Rep. Bill Keller at the PRPA’s Christmas party.
Plans are under way to expand the print to a mural project for the lobby hall at PRPA headquarters.
Ostroff also created his own line of watercolor sketches under the trademarked name City Scenes. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Visitors Center and area stores sell the detailed sketches of our city’s skyline and landscape.
Locally, Ostroff is a board member of the Philadelphia Sketch Club, and a member of the Philadelphia Art Alliance and Artists Equity.
Wherever he has called home, Ostroff has been active in the fine arts, working in watercolor, gouache, pastel, lithography and etching. His favorite medium? Watercolor. His work has been exhibited in America, Canada and, of course, Europe.
A brushstroke of luck landed the artist his first real European venture.
While living in San Francisco, Ostroff worked for a printer for a while. One of his clients was an international publisher. When Ostroff learned that a production manager for the publisher’s Brussels magazine had just quit, he knew just the person for the job.
"It was perfect timing," Ostroff says more than two decades later. His daughter and son, Alex, were both born in Belgium.
After Ostroff’s U.N. stint in Rome, he ventured further east to the Czech Republic.
In Prague, Ostroff was active in the growth and development of Anglo-American College, the first English-language undergraduate facility in the Czech Republic. The artist was coordinator of the Business-Economics School and the Center for Corporate Development.
Prague suited Ostroff well, as he went on to create a line of souvenir items based on the city’s colorful street signs. The items were sold throughout Prague. He also produced illustrations, ads, corporate-identity packages and TV storyboards for local and multinational clients. But the biggest feather in Ostroff’s cap was an Estee Lauder commission. The cosmetics giant asked the artist to create an original watercolor to commemorate the opening of its new premises in the Old Town. The print was even presented to the Lord Mayor of Prague.
"In those days in Prague, there were a lot of ex-compatriots around sort of wheeling and dealing. Again, it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time," Ostroff says.
Living and working in Europe afforded Ostroff the chance to hone his language skills. The artist says he’s fairly fluent in French, not bad with Dutch, knows basic Italian and one phrase in Czech. After uttering the Slavic phrase, he translates with a laugh: "Sorry, I don’t speak Czech."
By 1996, Ostroff was ready to trade in the Old World for the new. South Philly was a natural choice. Ostroff liked the area partly for budgetary reasons, and also because of its European flavor, he notes. But there were perhaps more familiar factors that attracted him.
Ostroff drew his first breath at St. Agnes Medical Center and his grandfather owned a haberdashery on Seventh Street between Moore and Morris. Named Berry’s, the men’s clothing store thrived during Seventh’s heyday as a retail destination, notes Ostroff.
As an only child growing up in East Falls, Ostroff’s security blanket was his sketch pad. By age 10, he was enrolled in Saturday classes at Philadelphia Museum School, now the University of the Arts.
"I was always drawing," he notes. "My parents recognized my ability and encouraged it."
And in doing so, literally opened his world.