Sylvia Fein created egg tempera paintings that synthesized myths and legends with her personal life and memories. While Fein never totally identified as a Surrealist artist, she was attracted to the movement and for a time adopted their use of Medieval and Renaissance iconography and the “Alice in Wonderland” story in portraying herself and her loved ones in her art.
She studied at the University of Wisconsin from 1938-1942. She was a part of a small group of students whose artwork formed the basis for a Midwestern Surrealist aesthetic. She married her husband William (Bill) Scheuber in 1942 while both were students at the university.
When he was posted to the Pacific during World War II, she channeled her grief by casting herself as a literary or a mythical figure in narrative images. In her 1943 painting “The Tea Party” she portrayed herself as Alice and the Wisconsin countryside as Wonderland. Her absent husband is alluded to by a place card on the table. Another painting “Lady wth the White Knight” is a portrait of herself as a medieval damsel and her husband as the White Knight.
In 1944, she retreated to Ajijic, a lakeside village in Mexico while her husband served in the American Air Force during the war. She loved living in Mexico, visiting archaeological sites and admiring the hand made pottery, clothing, metal work, and jewelry of the indigenous Mexicans. She spent three years there making art and working on paintings that would be shown in 1946 at her first solo exhibition at the Peris Galleries in New York City. Her work was also shown in the 1946-47 Whitney Annual.
After her successful New York show, she and her husband returned from Mexico and settled in Northern California in 1947. She studied at U.C. Berkeley and received her M.F.A. in 1951. During the 1950s, Fein exhibited her highly detailed, figurative canvases in group shows in several Western states and again in New York.
Her “Lady with Her Baby” depicts her baby daughter, Heidi, sitting on top of her mother’s head like a crown. Fein herself is portrayed with arms crossed, staring straight ahead in the manner of a Quattrocento madonna. A 1949 postcard-sized painting, “Sylvia with Baby Heidi” depicts her naked baby daughter, sitting in her mother’s arms in a style similar to the religious art of the Northern Renaissance. Like Christ, her baby holds a pomegranate in one of her hands. This painting is done in egg tempera, which Fein loved to use early on from the time she was a university student. Her use of egg tempera gives her paintings a magical, timeless, ethereal quality.
For 18 years Fein saved and catalogued her daughter’s drawings for two ground-breaking books she wrote on the role of drawing in child development. Her “Heidi’s Horse,” published in 1976, analyzed Heidi’s drawings from age two through fifteen. Her “First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking,” published in 1992, related childhood drawings with paleolithic cave paintings.
In the early 2000s when Fein was in her early 80s, she took up painting again. She worked on her “Eye” series and returned to landscape painting, a continuation of work she had done years earlier. Her 2012 “The Painting Told Me What to Do” shows trees on fire from within and conjures up scenes from Dante’s “Inferno” as well as from forest fires in Northern California, where she has lived for over 70 years.
Her work has been shown in group exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute, Dallas Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and others. Her work was featured in Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2012 major exhibition, “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.” She was the only artist still living and attended the opening at LACMA. Her work is now being shown at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through March 1, 2020.