Editor’s Note: St. John’s lost our dear friend Yetta Sher in 2016. This Faces of St. John’s story serves as a touching tribute of her spirit and the impact she made on her friends and family.
Walking into Yetta Sher’s room, you might not make it through the doorway. The exquisite portrait hanging on the wall above her bed just opposite the threshold is striking. It will stop you in your tracks just long enough to breathe a single word. “Wow.”
And it’s not just a likeness of a random beautiful woman dressed in a formal sea blue gown with hair up and pearls around her neck. When I asked Yetta who had done that painting, she said, “My self-portrait? Who do ya think?!”
She is sharp like that. Yetta, who moved in to the Penfield Green House Homes in February, has a prickly sense of humor that offsets the softness of her artistic talents. She is not mean, but she is not afraid to tell you like it is. So when I told her after five minutes that she could kick me out at any time, she responded swiftly.
She stared starkly just long enough to make me nervous, and then cooled the mood with a smirk to let me know she was just kidding. “Be careful what you say to me,” she said, that smirk growing into a smile.
Yetta’s love of art started young and it was fueled by an interest in fashion. Growing up during The Great Depression, Yetta’s father often would make clothes for his family. While this carries a symbol of hardship, it also afforded Yetta an opportunity to embrace her budding passions.
“I designed them myself, only for myself,” she says. “And my father did the best he could copying it, making a pattern for himself. We never did it for anyone else. He only made one copy of anything that he ever sewed.”
“It’s supposed to be fun,” she says about art in general. “That’s how it started for me, until somebody said they’d pay me some money for it. Then I became a fashion illustrator.”
That “somebody” was none other than Rochester’s own department store icon, McCurdy’s. Yetta got started in fashion illustration doing work for a few local retailers before her talents had her noticed by one of the largest clothing chains anywhere. She admits she still did some freelance work on the side (frowned upon by employers in that field), but mainly did her work for McCurdy’s after that.
“They’d bring me a dress, and they’d tell me the size. It didn’t make any difference what size I drew it; they reduced it, ya know, to the size that they needed it in the paper.”
Yetta tells her story as her fingers flip through a portfolio of illustrations from throughout her career. Long, slender women depicted in summer dresses with impressive detail to the floral patterns or mink coats that erupted in popularity at the time for those with the means. Her memory is as sharp as her wit, recalling details of each image as if she had drawn them yesterday. Her work appeared regularly in the Democrat and Chronicle and the Times Union to encourage people to shop at McCurdy’s.
“Eventually they got me to do men,” she says, noting she did not have any interest in illustrating men’s clothing at first. “I didn’t do it for a long time, but eventually the art manager said to try doing it, but ‘make sure you make them look macho!’ Gotta be macho,” she says.
While these images were seen by thousands of people on a regular basis, the art that hangs in her room is just as impressive despite not being as well seen. With her self-portrait as the showpiece, she also boasts an abstract piece of art painted on glass. Dabs of color and loosely defined shapes form a crowd of people dressed to the nines packed in closely together.
“I call this ‘Intermission: Act 1 and Act 2,’ Yetta says. “These are the people standing around waiting for Act 2 to start. That’s everyone’s favorite.”
Spread over two walls are three panels done in a traditional Asian style that one would think could not possibly be her work, until she points out her signature in the bottom-right corner. So dramatically different from her illustrations, her self-portrait, and her ‘Intermission’ piece, they display not only her range of ability, but her depth of interest and appreciation for art of many forms.
“All three go together, sort of a scene of where the mountains are,” she says. “There wasn’t a wall big enough to keep them all together, so I had to separate them. I made it up. I was always interested in Chinese and Japanese drawings and whatever.”
Having recently celebrated her 92nd birthday, Yetta glows when she has the opportunity to talk about her art. She glows like the young woman she painted all those years ago, filled with appreciative she had the talent to match her considerable passion.