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Identifier: MC 1479

Ora Lerman Papers


  • 1864, 1903, 1955-2002

Scope and Content Note

The Ora Lerman Papers consists of 17.5 cubic feet of material, spanning the period 1955 to 1998, with the bulk dating between 1971 and 1998. Two items in the SUBJUCT FILES dates to 1864 and 1903. The papers reflect the life and work of the artist and professor, during her adult life in New York City. Fewer documents cover her childhood in Kentucky and college years in Ohio. There are a small number of items, such as family photographs, that date prior to 1955 and are not included in the date span.

Most of the collection is in paper format, comprising of correspondence, notes, journals, datebooks, postcards, pamphlets, and ephemera. Other formats are photographs, negatives, slides, and audiocassettes. While most of the photographic materials are grouped in their own series, there are a few that were kept with corresponding documents, such as in some SUBJECT FILES.

These papers are from the files of Ora Lerman and reflect her personal and professional life and interests. Her personal history is documented in the series PERSONAL FILES, CORRESPONDENCE, DATE BOOKS, TRAVEL FILES, and some of the SUBJECT FILES and PHOTOGRAPHIC MATERIALS.

Her professional life-her artwork, her writing, and her teaching-is revealed in PROFESSIONAL FILES, DATEBOOKS, AUDIO MATERIALS, and most of the SUBJECT FILES and PHOTOGRAPHIC MATERIALS.

Lerman's secondary profession as an instructor in art and art history is found throughout the collection. Her activities in professional organizations are restricted to the PROFESSIONAL FILES, DATEBOOKS, and some SUBJECT FILES. Her writing and publishing of artistic critique and history is seen in PROFESSIONAL FILES and SUBJECT FILES.

The two spheres of personal and professional meld in Lerman's love for travel, which is reflected in almost all of the series. Lerman traveled to study art in Japan, France, Mexico, and India, but also traveled to visit family and for pleasure to Israel and the Soviet Union and throughout Europe and the United States.


17.5 cubic feet (17 records center cartons, 1 document box, 1 newspaper box)

Language of Materials



Ora Lerman was an accomplished artist, writer, and teacher during the emergence of the women's art movement in the early 1970s, and her career became part of that movement. The papers span the period from 1955 to 1998, with the bulk dating between 1971 and 1998. The papers reflect the life and work of the artist and professor, during her adult life in New York City. Fewer documents cover her childhood in Kentucky and college years in Ohio. There are a small number of items, such as family photographs, that date prior to 1955 and are not included in the date span.

<emph render="bold">Biographical Sketch of Ora Lerman</emph>

Born on March 14, 1938 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Ora Lerman grew up in rural Campbellsville, Kentucky. She earned a B.A. in Art from Antioch College in 1960 and an M.F.A. in Painting from Pratt Institute in 1969. Lerman received a Fulbright-Hayes Research Grant to attend Tama Art University in Japan from 1963 to 1965, where she studied calligraphy and sumi-ye (an ink art form). Although trained as a formalist in Abstract Expressionism, Lerman developed a realistic technique, in both oils and watercolors, to paint her symbolic tableaux of dolls, toys, masks, photographs, and other everyday objects. She also worked in three-dimensions, creating figurative sculptures and the complex assemblages from which she painted.

Lerman began exhibiting her work in New York City during the emergence of the women's art movement in the early 1970s, and her career became part of that movement. Her first solo show was in 1971 at the Prince Street Gallery, of which she was a founding member, and was followed by subsequent solo shows there in 1972, 1974, and 1977. Lerman participated in numerous group shows throughout the 1970s, many of which exhibited the work of women artists.

From 1978 to 1980, Lerman served as president of the New York chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art. She continued exhibiting her work regularly throughout the 1980s, including a major solo show at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in 1982.

From 1984 to 1990, Lerman also published several essays in Arts Magazine. During this period, Lerman taught in the Art Department at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, New York, where she was a faculty member from 1971 to 1998.

Lerman's work was formed by her travels as well as by feminism and the New York art scene. In the 1980s, she visited the Russian village from which her father emigrated as well as Mexico and India. In 1988, she received a Reader's Digest Artists at Giverny award that allowed her to spend six months working at Claude Monet's home and gardens in the French countryside. She subsequently returned to France several times.

It was in Giverny that Lerman began her series of art on recreating the Garden of Eden. She continued this theme during her stay in India in 1989, and after she returned to the United States until she finished "Inside the Ark" in 1995. She then turned her attention to "Aesops Fables," which occupied her until her death in 1998. As interviews with and essays by Lerman attest, each trip inspired some aspect of her work.

In the early 1990s, Lerman gained tremendous prestige by participating in New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs, Percent for Art Commission. For instance, from 1990 to 1995, Lerman created a ten-panel oil-on-canvas mural for the library of P.S. 176 in Manhattan. The state-funded sixty-foot work, entitled "Inside the Ark," was exhibited at the Hebrew Union College in 1996 before its permanent installation in the public school. During the 1990s, she pursued other commissions for public art, becoming a finalist in a Philadelphia International Airport competition and completing a piece for New Jersey Transit. Although accepted, the piece for New Jersey Transit was never realized, because of Lerman's untimely death. She was also featured and wrote in many well-known publications such as The New York Times, Newsday, Arts Magazine, and Womenart.

In addition Lerman exhibited her collections in galleries throughout the world with some of her artwork on permanent display as well. Lerman's works have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Jewish Museum (New York City), and the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC).

Very little can be found about Lerman's youth and family life. Lerman's father, Simon Herbert, (b. August 2, 1904) and mother Vera (b. 1905) emigrated from the Ukraine. After her mother's death, her father moved to Israel. Her older brother Pelley (b. 1931) also lived in Israel. Ora visited them there every few years. Lerman was interested in her parents' family in Russia, and visited and corresponded with relatives there. Although Lerman had significant relationships throughout her life, she did not marry until 1994 to David Ostwald, a stage director and teacher.

Ora Lerman died at age 60 on April 19, 1998 of complications from surgery. The Ora Lerman Charitable Trust administers the exhibition of her work and her Soaring Gardens Artists' Retreat in Pennsylvania, which began hosting resident artists in 2000. Lerman's work was exhibited posthumously at Douglass College, Hebrew Union College, University of Scranton, Keystone College, and the University of Pittsburgh. The traveling exhibition's accompanying book, I Gave You My Song: the Art of Ora Lerman, is one of two compilations of analysis of Lerman's work. The catalog Ora Lerman: Inside the Ark includes essays by Lerman, Margaret Mathews-Berenson, Phyllis Braff, and an epilogue by Arlene Raven, as well as a listing of awards, commissions, and selected solo and group shows of her works.


Fisher, R.I.C. "Giverny Revisited." American Artist . 55, no. 592. (November 1991), 40-47. Harris, Ann Sutherland. Ora Lerman's Delightful Lessons . Catalog for Lerman exhibit at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, New York, 1982. I Gave You My Song: The Art of Ora Lerman . New York: Ora Lerman Charitable Trust, 2001. Lerman, Ora. Application for Reader's Digest Artists at Giverny Program. January 1988, 1-4. Milford, Matthew. "Ora Lerman at Hebrew Union College and Anita Shapolsky, New York, New York." Art in America . 84. (January 1996), 95-96. Ora Lerman Charitable Trust Web Site. Accessed April 24, 2005. "Ora Lerman: I Gave You My Song; A Memorial Perspective" Hebrew Union College. Suffolk County Community College. Board of Trustees. Minutes . May 8, 1998.

Processing and Conservation Note

The newspaper clippings were photocopied onto acid-free paper, and the originals discarded. The photographs, negatives, and slides were placed in inert plastic sleeves. Multiple copies of exact prints were discarded.

Boxes 20, 21, and 22 are a second accrual of material from 2010.

Inventory to the Ora Lerman Papers, 1864, 1903, 1955-2002 MC 1479
Edited Full Draft
Carla B. Zimmerman
April 2009
Language of description note
Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University received an operating support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State.

Revision Statements

  • June 14-15, 2010: Boxes 20 to 22 added to finding aid by Caryn Radick. The structure of the finding aid as previously encoded has been maintained although there are several deviations from other Rutgers EAD finding aids (for example, finding aid does not use subseries level. Additions reflect recent additions to collection.