At 86, Clothing Becomes the Canvas for a Noted Tribeca Artist

Malcah Zeldis in her apartment, surrounded by many of her paintings. She has lived and worked in the Independence Plaza apartment for 42 years. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Oct. 14, 2017

Setting out on her daily afternoon walks down Greenwich Street, 86-year-old Malcah Zeldis cuts a fine figure. Swathed in a riot of colors, sporting a dozen bangles and rings and always donning a hat to match, she patiently inches along, pushing her walker.

"People often give me the thumbs up," says Zeldis, who has lived in Tribeca's Independence Plaza since 1975. "I think they're saying, 'You're an old woman, but still you have gumption and you're dressing well. Go for it.'"

For most of her life, Zeldis, a well-regarded folk artist whose work is in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, the Jewish Museum and other institutions, spent her days in front of an easel. But after a shoulder injury a few years ago, Zeldis was forced to put down her paintbrushes. Now, she says, her canvas is her clothing.

"Since I'm only sketching, not painting, I need a creative outlet and some days, putting an outfit together is the only creative thing I do. It never fails to cheer me up."

And although her enthusiasm for dressing up can make her feel guilty ("clothing seems so unimportant in relation to the infinite problems of the universe"), she enjoys watching the women that pass by her on Greenwich Street and express themselves in their own ways through their clothing.

"I admire so many of them," she says."They seem to have so much vitality with their bright colors and short skirts. Their clothes seem to be a sign that they are strong women."

Zeldis buys mostly from thrift stores and doesn't like to spend more than $5 on anything. Her favorite is Housing Works on Chambers Street where she buys hats and sweaters (mostly Ralph Lauren) and where recently she found a designer wraparound skirt made from squares of silk for $5. She has also filled her closet with items from the Salvation Army (her favorite: a necklace of shells and turquoise for $1) and picked up a "very well-made Japanese coat" for $15 at P.S. 150's sidewalk fundraising sale. And if Zeldis sees a highly prized, brightly colored plastic bracelet that is damaged, she simply touches it up with Magic Marker.

The artist says her penchant for buying used items stems from the nine years she spent in Israel, where she moved when she was 18 years old. "I lived on a kibbutz for two years and then on other collectives," she recalls. "We all had so little and were very concerned about not wasting. I was very influenced by that."

"I think that part of my interest in second-hand things now," she added, "is that these clothes shouldn't be wasted."