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Obituary: Jerry Caplan / Local prominent artist, innovator with ceramics

Friday, January 16, 2004

By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Artist Jerry Caplan, a prominent member of the Pittsburgh art community, influenced countless students while teaching at Chatham College and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

"There were two larger-than-life figures in the art department at Chatham. One was Jerry Caplan and the other was Charles LeClair [the latter now of Philadelphia]," said Donald Adam, English professor emeritus at Chatham.

Mr. Caplan, of Shadyside, died of a heart attack at his home early yesterday morning. He was 81.

Mr. Caplan taught in Chatham's art department for 29 years, occasionally serving as its chair, and retired in 1989 when he was appointed emeritus professor.

Although he was in frail health in recent years, he regularly returned to campus for art exhibition openings, according to Elisabeth Roark, associate professor of art at Chatham. His presence, she said, thrilled students.

"Everyone would pay homage to Jerry -- he was such a pillar of the art department," she said.

Friends and colleagues frequently cited his generosity and concern for his students.

Kara Snyder, studio arts program director at the Center for the Arts, said Mr. Caplan was "instrumental to my getting into the arts."

Mr. Caplan rented the cottage in the back yard of her family's house from the time Snyder was 7 until she was 18. She and her sisters would go to his studio and "sit there for hours to watch him. He'd always give us a big lump of clay to work with."

She said she began taking classes at the center because of him, and in later years was "contracting him to teach classes here."

Mr. Caplan has a "long legacy at the center," Snyder said, through the impact he had on students, artists and the staff. He was one of the first instructors when it was founded, as the Arts and Crafts Center, and taught there for nearly 40 years through fall 2001.

Mr. Caplan was an innovator in ceramic arts, constantly pushing the limits of technique.

He originated art and industry workshops in clay pipe factories in Ohio, California and England, and taught workshops in the United States and abroad on the reduction stenciling process he'd developed. He also worked in wood and bronze.

He received many individual, religious and institutional commissions, including from Temple Emmanuel in Upper St. Clair; Temple Beth El in Mt. Lebanon; and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority for its outdoor sculpture garden on the Boulevard of the Allies.

He was particularly pleased that he won a competition at the Holocaust Center at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, because the jury included Holocaust survivors, and they didn't know he was a Pittsburgher when they made their selection, said his companion, artist Donna Hollen Bolmgren.

A frequent exhibitor in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annual at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Mr. Caplan also served as president of that organization, and his work is included in the Carnegie permanent collection.

Among the honors Mr. Caplan received during his career was Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year in 1975 and Master Visual Artist, 1993. He was also one of six Pennsylvania artists chosen for the exhibition "A Legacy of Excellence," which continues through February at the Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg.

Mr. Caplan was born in the Hill District, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, whose father and uncles ran a produce business in the Strip District. He spent most of his life in Pittsburgh, although for a short time he lived in New York City and North Carolina.

Besides Bolmgren, Mr. Caplan is survived by a son, Greg, of Boston; a sister, Rose Engel, of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday in H. Samson Funeral Home, 537 N. Neville St., Oakland, followed by a memorial service. Friends are invited to bring mementos of Mr. Caplan's life to display on a memory table.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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