Michelle Obama congratulates Fleisher


Three years ago, Zulmarie Nazario moved from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to South Philadelphia to acquire a better education. The Academy at Palumbo, 1100 Catharine St., junior is learning that the United States, though economically and socially troubled, still stands as a land of opportunity.

The 16-year-old visual artist secured personal proof Nov. 2, as she and Matt Braun, executive director Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine St., met the smile of first lady Michelle Obama at the White House and received a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for Fleisher.

Originally the Graphic Sketch Club, the Bella Vista site has offered instruction since 1898, making it the country’s oldest free community art school. Zulmarie has graced it with her curiosity and capability for three years and reveled in being a part of its ceremonial distinction as one of only 12 winners out of 471 nominations.

“Meeting the first lady and interacting with so many people have made for the best experience and the biggest honor of my life,” the resident of the 300 block of Bainbridge Street said Monday at Fleisher.

The location’s lobby features cardboard cutouts of Obama and her presidential mate. They give staff and students reminders of their singularity and reinforce for Zulmarie that her sister, Alma Nazario, with whom she lives, chose a winner when selecting extracurricular activities for her.

“I had no art interest before coming here, but now I look for inspiration everywhere,” she said of how her infatuation with abstract drawing has had a short yet productive life.

Zulmarie participates weekly in Teen Lounge, a drop-in opportunity that matches budding creators with established artists for the composition of pieces that eventually join the young people’s exhibit. It serves between 15 and 20 learners each term and, as one of four Fleisher youth arts programs, earned bragging rights for its host.

“We are enjoying our acknowledgment as a leader in our field,” fifth-year head Braun said. “As newly minted ambassadors of arts education, we are amazed to have this top honor.”

More than 2,000 pupils gain exposure to drawing, mixed media, photography, printmaking and sculpture through the youth arts offerings, and the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, the land’s chief recognition for after-school and out-of-school programs looking to heighten creative sensibilities, cited Fleisher for its commitment.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, partnering with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, administers the awards and made Fleisher its lone Pennsylvania pick in August. The body gave Braun evidence that the third time can prove the charm.

The other occasions brought letters letting the Fleisher community know it had not won, so Braun appreciated his summer gift, a thick package detailing its victory.

“Every grant we have won feels like an award, but this is the gold standard of prizes,” he said.

He and director of programs Magda Martinez wanted a student to venture to Washington, DC., and required little time to choose Zulmarie, who through her high school has performed community service at Fleisher for two years.

“Zulmarie is a thoughtful, creative young lady whom we knew would make a great representative,” Martinez said.

“We knew Zulmarie appreciates the maturity of the staff and the environment,” Braun added. “She was the perfect choice.”

The honored teenager, who said Fleisher helps all students to battle any fears they may have about unleashing their creative impulses, feels Fleisher possesses a welcoming air and loved continuing her time as a product of its ingenuity. She fondly recalled her selection, which she learned of following another example of her diligence, a trip to obtain summer reading materials at the Charles Santore Branch, 932 S. Seventh St.

“I thought ‘I’m going to the White House!’” she said.

Worried about obtaining an updated identification card, she scored one just in time to make her initial trip to the nation’s capital.

“Washington was so beautiful,” she said of her jaunt, which included stops at The National Mall, the celebrated area that includes, among others, the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Institution Building and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “It’s a shame we can’t win more than once.”

The victory may be a one-time occasion, but Braun, Martinez, Zulmarie and thousands of others will count each day as an opportunity to strengthen Fleisher’s already fabulous tale. Businessman Samuel S. Fleisher started the Graphic Sketch Club for lower-income area boys at the former Jewish Union building, 422 Bainbridge St. Eight years into its existence, increased enrollment caused the club to find a new home at 740 Catharine St. Acquisitions of two spaces across the street upped outreach even more, and the 1922 purchase of the former Episcopal Church of the Evangelist, which he would christen The Sanctuary, allowed Fleisher to house his collections of paintings and sculptures.

Upon his ’44 death, the Philadelphia Museum of Art inherited the estate and named his initial spot the Fleisher Art Memorial. Nearly 5,000 visitors inspect its galleries annually, comprising more than half of its 16,000 yearly patrons, among which Zulmarie will continue to count herself for at least three more years while strengthening her skills in Teen Lounge.

“I am definitely sticking with Fleisher,” she said.

While White House personnel and fellow victors feted Braun and Zulmarie in Washington, D.C., Mayor Michael Nutter stopped at Fleisher to declare Nov. 2 Fleisher Art Memorial Youth Arts Education Day.

“We Skyped with him,” Zulmarie said.

“Fleisher’s program stands as a model, both locally in Philadelphia and nationally, for others who are serving today’s youth,” Nutter said.

Thanks to the triumph’s accompanying $10,000 grant, the site will work to touch more creative instincts. The Teen Lounge, a Saturday studio program, after-school activities and community partnerships brought Fleisher glory two weeks ago. The last will be the recipient of the money, as Braun and Martinez will use it to support community-based and school residencies. Last year, 358 children and youths engaged in projects, swelling Fleisher’s numbers to more than 5,000 over the last decade.

Abigail Vare School, 1621 E. Moyamensing Ave.; George Washington School, 1198 S. Fifth St.; Eliza B. Kirkbride School, 1501 S. Seventh St.; and Southwark School, 1835 S. Ninth St. have benefited, as have the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia’s South Center, 2416-18 S. Seventh St.; Mighty Writers, 1501 Christian St.; and Southwark House, 101 Ellsworth St.

“Our White House trip was more inspiration for our work, as I could further observe how much enjoyment and satisfaction children get out of the arts,” Braun said.

Fleisher is preparing to launch Color Wheels, a mobile arts studio that will trek to neighborhoods to engross students in the beauty of art. Already convinced, Zulmarie looks forward to the final weeks of the autumn Teen Lounge term and to next year’s adventures.

“The trip was great,” she said, “and will give me more incentive to see the joys of making an idea a reality.” ■

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com or ext. 124. Comment at southphillyreview.com/news/features.