Merle Spandorfer, 83, of Cheltenham, a Philadelphia-area painter and print-maker who taught other local artists how to pursue their creative work without using harmful chemicals, died Thursday, April 5, of lung cancer at her home.
For a half-century ending last summer, Ms. Spandorfer taught painting and printmaking at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts. Her pupils included adults and children.
“Over the course of that time, she was considered at the forefront of the printmaking world,” said Margaret Griffen, the center’s executive director.
Ms. Spandorfer conducted research on replacing toxic artists’ materials with less harsh compounds to safeguard the health of artists, especially print-makers. Her findings resulted in a book, Making Art Safely, which she co-authored with Jack Snyder and Deborah Curtiss. The book was published by Van Nostrand Reinhold.
“She certainly practiced what she preached for the rest of her life here and in her studio,” Griffen said. “Etching involves acid, so she really stuck to her convictions — the fact that art could be beautiful and durable — and safe.”
The book explores the types of toxins and asphyxiates that can be present in the artist’s studio and offers safer techniques and materials that don’t compromise the quality of the art, according to the flyleaf.
Ms. Spandorfer’s artistic vision was fed by her sunny optimism. Although it sometimes derived from nature, that vision almost always included a joyous carnival of color.
She drew inspiration from whatever milieu she passed through — engineering projects by her husband, Lester; the Poconos, where the family vacationed; or the plants and seed pods underfoot in Cheltenham. All coalesced in the works she created at her studio in Mount Airy.
During the last decade, she began experimenting with handmade paper pieces combining painting, drawing, collage and laser printing.
In one phase of her career, Ms. Spandorfer considered how to depict the passage of time in her mixed-media works. “The flower,” she wrote online, “is a metaphor for my concept. It is shown as buds, in full bloom, and even withered and dried. This transition, to the artist, has beauty as energy in time and space.”
In an interview with students at the Cheltenham Center, Ms. Spandorfer said she always loved art. At age 12, she began taking lessons from an art teacher in Center City who taught her oil painting, sculpture and pottery. In 1997, she had her first experience with printmaking at the center. Over time, she became adept enough to teach the craft.
Printmaking, she said, felt “indirect.” But her paintings and mixed-media creations were much more expressive. “[They] just give me a sense of creativity, yet it’s not permanent, I can change it,” she told her pupils. “I can always switch things around to get my work to the way I want it.”
Ms. Spandorfer’s works were represented in major galleries in Philadelphia. She had exhibitions in China, Japan, and Israel. Her creations are in the permanent collections of major museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Born in Baltimore, she earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Maryland. She taught kindergarten in the Philadelphia public schools before becoming an artist in the 1970s.
In addition to the Cheltenham Center, Ms. Spandorfer taught at Tyler School of Art, the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, and the Pratt Institute in New York. She won the Pennsylvania Education Association Outstanding Art Educator Award.
Ms. Spandorfer also was an engaging storyteller.
“She would command the room with her hilarious tales of the people she met, the students she loved, and her grandchildren,” her family said in a tribute. “She was always ready with a joke and a funny anecdote.”
To her family, she offered support. “I felt like I hit the mother-in-law jackpot,” said her daughter-in-law Amy Jordan. “She was only ever supportive of me, never interfering, always full of praise and pride.”
Ms. Spandorfer is survived by a son, John; a daughter, Cathy Segal; four grandchildren; and a brother. Her husband, Lester M. Spandorfer, died in 2012. A grandson also died earlier.
Interment was Sunday, April 8.
A memorial service with a silent art auction will be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, May 12, at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham.
Donations in her name may be made to the Montgomery County SPCA, 19 E. Ridge Pike, Conshohocken, Pa. 19428.