Family Portrait: Arleen Olshan

Arleen Olshan has been active in the community for over 30 years.

As a painter, she’s done portraits of people in the LGBT community that will carry on their memories long after they’re gone. As a leather craftswoman and owner of Turtle Moon designs, her handiwork is over the shoulders and around the waists of people in all four corners of the globe. As a counselor and teacher, she has helped her people find and reach their potential. And she’s one of our own, born and raised right here in Philadelphia. In addition, Olshan is a former co-owner of another Philadelphia institution, Giovanni’s Bookstore.

PGN: I understand that you’re helping out with the bookstore again. AO: Yes, the 12th Street wall has been found structurally unsound and they need to raise $50,000 to get it repaired. Since Giovanni’s Room needs our help, I’ve begun to work with them again. The bookstore is something that we can’t afford to lose. It’s a part of our community. There are a lot of ways to help. At OutFest, they are going to go all out. There are a number of things being planned for the day including a Publishers Row, featuring a collection of local and national LGBT authors, a stilt walker and giant puppets and a huge used-book sale. They are also selling raffle tickets for a drawing that will be held at the end of the day and, at 3 p.m., there’s a concert at the Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany [330 S. 13th St.] that will feature organists Peter Richard Conte [of the Wanamaker organ at Macy’s] and Wesley Parrott [of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at Cathedral Road], along with the Philadelphia Voices of Pride. The money raised from this concert will be donated to the store’s preservation efforts. Inside the store, Joe Cesa, of Joe Coffee, will be selling his freshly brewed and bagged Philadelphia-roasted, fair-trade coffee and the bookstore’s Women’s Reading Group will be hosting a bake sale. If you can’t make it to OutFest on the 11th, there are other ways to help. Instead of buying books at a chain or at one of the big online sites, invest back in the community by getting your books from Giovanni’s. If they don’t have it in stock, they can order it for you. And if you’re not in a position to make a purchase, stop by the store and see how you can help, because there are a number of ways that you can help keep the store alive.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. AO: I was raised in Philadelphia, the middle child of three kids. I have an older brother and a younger sister. I’ve always worked: It’s part of my fabric. I’m from a working-class family. I dreamed of being an artist when I was a child and moved to New York when I was 18. I studied art and apprenticed in leatherwork in Greenwich Village. I’ve been doing it ever since. After two years, I left New York and then lived in California for two years. Later I came back to Philadelphia. I became a custom leather maker and, in my early 20s, I opened my own business. By the time I was about 23, I had 10 employees. Then in my mid-20s, I was hit by a car and thrown up into the air. It threw everything off. My leatherwork is all intricate hand work and I’d really messed up my hand in the accident. I had to stop. My back was thrown out as well. Fortunately there was an agency that helped me get into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia College of Arts, which is now the University of the Arts, and I got a bachelor’s degree in painting. While I was in school, I got involved in the lesbian feminist movement. There was a women’s center at 46th and Chester where a lot of radical lesbians used to meet. There was a lesbian newsletter and hot line that came out of there, and there was consciousness-raising of some kind almost every night of the week on Penn’s campus. Groups like Women Organized Against Rape and a number of other grassroots organizations that are now large, established organizations were all started during that period. At that time, I also got involved with the first gay and lesbian community center, which was located at Third and Kater. I became a board member and eventually a co-coordinator of the center. Ed Hermance was the treasurer of the center. He and I became friends and, when we heard that Giovanni’s Room, which at that time was at Second and South, was going to close, we decided to become business partners and buy the bookstore. We moved it to a different location in Center City, 1426 Spruce St. After a while the building got a new owner: He thought we were responsible for turning Spruce Street gay and wanted us out.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? AO: I was always an artist … and a tomboy. I used to like to skate and ride my bicycle and hang with my friends. I really liked to read, too. I enjoyed libraries. My mother always wanted me to be femme, but it just wasn’t going to happen. I came into the lesbian community because of my work in the feminist movement and the civil-rights movement. I think I was born a lesbian, but I just didn’t know the words for it. I knew the feeling, just not the words. When I was growing up back in the ’50s and ’60s, there was no supportive community for tomboys. I’m still tight with my family, but I’ve certainly created an adopted family in the gay and lesbian community.

PGN: Favorite book? AO: I always liked J.D. Salinger, but I enjoyed reading a variety of books. I loved going to the library. Librarians were always my favorite people. I’m really pissed about that fact that the city threatened to close down many public libraries. It’s very, very disturbing that they would be closing facilities that are designed for working people, everyday people. Not everyone can afford to go out and purchase books.

PGN: Was there a particular librarian who made a difference in your life? AO: Well, I worked for Alexandra Grilikhes at the University of Pennsylvania. She was phenomenal. In addition to being a librarian, she was a poet, a novelist, workshop leader, a radio host and a big feminist. She started a film series on women, which ran for a number of years, and she was very supportive of other artists. Of course, I loved listening to Barbara Gittings too. She wasn’t actually a librarian, but she worked tirelessly with the American Library Association to make materials with GLBT content more accessible to the public. Both Ed and I worked in libraries before we got the bookstore.

PGN: Any hobbies? AO: I have two studios in my house, one for my leatherwork and one for my painting. I like to go to different festivals to sell my work. I like to create environments that are positive places for those in the women’s community. So I’ve gotten back to being involved in the gay and lesbian community center and I’ve been involved with the International Women’s Day Coalition. In June, we did a tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion called “A Womyn’s Day of Pride In Struggle.” I also want to help recreate a Woman’s Commission for Women. It was stopped during the Rendell years and it needs to be reactivated. We have one statewide, but not here in the city. Having positive women’s images benefits young people, both male and female. There’s still a lot of inequality for women in sports, in business, almost everywhere that needs to be addressed. So these are not really hobbies, but they are preoccupations.

PGN: Do you have any pets? AO: We have a dog named Maggie.

PGN: And who is we? AO: I live with Linda Slodki and we’ve been together for about 11 years.

PGN: How did you meet? AO: At a straight dance! We were at an event at the Commodore Barry Club, which is in the neighborhood. It was a benefit for a number of different women’s organizations including NARAL [National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League] and Planned Parenthood, Women Organized Against Rape and Women in Transition. They had a live band and, even though it wasn’t a lesbian event per se, there were a lot of lesbians there. We met and I have to say, I gave her a little bit of a hard time at first, having been around the block a few times. I interviewed her for a couple of months before we got together. But we’ve been together ever since.

PGN: Ever play any instruments? AO: Well, I played the violin for a little bit but I wasn’t really … no, no, I can’t even count that. Music is not my forte. PGN: What is one of your favorite pieces that you’ve made? AO: I do realistic paintings. I do large, just-under-life-size paintings. I have a few pieces that I really love, but one I’m really proud of is Dr. Ethel Allen. I also did activist and writer Joe Beam and Victoria Brownworth. I also do photographs and recently I went to Paris with Linda. I’ve always wanted to go and, while we were there, I took some pictures near the base of the Eiffel Tower that came out really well. I’ve won a few awards for my black-and-white photos. I like using different mediums: They blend into each other because I do a lot of my paintings from photographs.

PGN: How does it make you feel, creating images that have historic as well as artistic value? AO: Well, I always wanted to create positive images that celebrated this lifestyle. Sometimes it’s a little eerie because a number of the people that I’ve done pieces on are no longer with us. Sometimes I’m like, “Oh my gosh, it’s like ‘I see dead people!’” But it’s nice to know that I’ve been able to immortalize them.

PGN: If you could pick another time period to go back to, what would it be? AO: I wouldn’t want to. This is it. I’ve often said that I am happy I was born in this era. It’s exactly where I wanted to be. To be a part of and witness people’s changing attitudes and seeing prejudices being overcome and people’s hearts changing is really exciting.

PGN: Your work is beautiful and uses a lot of natural gems and stones. How are your works inspired: Is it the style first and then the stone or does the stone inspire you? AO: It usually does start with the stone and I build around it. Sometimes I do have an idea and look for the stone to fit it, but it usually starts with the stone. I do custom work too, so the client can pick out what they want and I’ll design around it.

PGN: OK, I haven’t asked you any frivolous questions. If you were a candy, what would you be? AO: Licorice.

PGN: What do you like about teaching? AO: Presenting possibilities. Trying to get people to admit and let go of their fears. Working to find what the barriers are that stop you from learning and moving through them. It’s very rewarding to help people do that.

PGN: What’s a favorite thing about going to Sisterspace, formerly the Lesbian Feminist Weekend? AO: Oh, it was and still is great. I mean, I think the first years, which were held at a Boy Scout camp in the Poconos, were amazing. Just discovering the freedom of the weekends — being able to be exclusively with so many women, being able to walk around without clothes if you wanted, floating on the lake in canoes. Nowadays, it’s fun to see old friends. No matter what, come September, I know I’m always going to run into people I haven’t seen during the year. We don’t have to worry about schedules and having to be somewhere — we can take time to talk and hang out.

PGN: What was the hardest thing when you first came out? AO: I had no role models. And what I saw of the older women I met who had been out was scary to me. There was a lot of alcohol addiction and mental-health problems in the women I encountered. It took me a long time to accept being a lesbian because of what I saw around me. I didn’t want that to be my future. It took a while to find people and find myself in all of it. I had issues that I needed to deal with too, but I needed to find a way to express myself and the values that were important to me that were uplifting and away from the bar scene. In my teens, we had fun hanging out in Rittenhouse Square — [laughs] until the police chased us out! This was early 1960s and it could be silly and wonderful. We didn’t have any worries about sexuality; we’d just get together and enjoy ourselves, dancing and having fun.

PGN: Do you think the new generation of gay and lesbian kids will have it easier or harder? AO: I think in some ways, it’s of course easier to be open. People are much more nonchalant about it. Everybody is out and open. But then in other ways, they don’t have as much a sense of community and purpose and belonging that we had. We had missions to rally behind. Although, the community center is coming along and there are places for gay youth to go, like The Attic Youth Center. Even most high schools have gay-straight organizations that they can be involved in, but I think they’re mostly for kids in or near big cities. I don’t know what it would be like for a kid coming out in the South or Midwest. I think in many ways our struggles made us closer, made us family.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].