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Photograph of Selma R. Bortner. Image courtesy of the artist. James A. Michener Art Museum archives.

"For me, being an artist was always a question of survival. I could not survive in this world if I could not do something creative. It's a commitment that I made when I was a child. I knew from the first time I could think about it that I wanted to be an artist."
-Selma Bortner

An innovative printmaker and admired art professor at Bucks County Community College, Selma Bortner drew upon folklore and myth to explore her autobiography, current events, and social justice. Born in Cleveland, Ohio to immigrants from Ukraine, Bortner and her family moved to Philadelphia, where she later attended Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. She completed advanced study at the University of the Arts, the Graphic Sketch Club, the Print Club, and the Cheltenham Center for the Arts. In the 1950s and ‘60s, she taught at local schools in Pennsbury, Bristol, and Neshaminy and married former Bucks County Common Pleas Judge Oscar S. Bortner (1920-2015) in 1951. She joined the Bucks County Community College faculty as an instructor in 1968, retiring as assistant professor emerita in 1991.

Bortner was a highly experimental and inventive printmaker, often combining different techniques and creating much of her materials, including paper, from scratch. She frequently used cut linoleum or textured fabric adhered to a cardboard support, known as a collograph, as a printing medium. When she lacked access to a printing press early on in her career, Bortner ran over prints with her car; this approach, unfortunately, proved unsuccessful. She often hand-colored and altered her plates between each printing, resulting in a series of unique works.

In 1986, Bortner was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her Aida series, named after the opera by Guiseppe Verdi, is a deeply personal response to this experience. Though she successfully won her fight against the cancer, she felt marred after a mastectomy. The central figure in Aida and the Mirror scrutinizes her fragmented reflection in the mirror while the surrounding animals recognize her as whole and comfort her. Bortner claimed to have been born a feminist, and she spoke of Aida and the Mirror as emblematic of the self-criticism women artists undergo when struggling to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field. Throughout the Aida series, Bortner represents herself as vulnerable and courageous as she recovers her confidence and health.

Bortner’s work confronts challenging issues like domestic abuse, immigration, and international conflict head-on with bold and colorful, graphic imagery that remains relevant and impactful today. Her work has been exhibited internationally and locally, including at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Bucks County Invitational I (1997), A Legacy Preserved: The First Decade of Collecting at the James A. Michener Art Museum (1998), A Celebration of Voices: The 25 Anniversary of A Woman’s Place (2002), Selma Bortner: Body of Work (2004-2005), Art Speaks: Celebrating the Bucks County Intermediate Unit Collection (2010-2011), Parting Gifts: Artists Honor Bruce Katsiff,Director/CEO, 1989-2012 (2012), and Selma Bortner: The Journey (2020).

Click here for an interview with the artist.

Click here for a conversation between Selma Bortner and Paul Keene.

Photograph of Selma R. Bortner. Image courtesy of the artist. James A. Michener Art Museum archives.

Education & Community

Education and Training
B.F.A. and B.S. in Education, Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1944-1949
Graphic Sketch Club, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1940s-1950s
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1960s
The Print Club, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, late 1960s-early 1970s
Cheltenham Art Center, attended courses on printmaking and papermaking, 1970
Pratt Graphic Center, New York, New York, 1980s

Teachers and Influences

Sam Maitin, Hitoshi Nakazato, Martha Zelt: contemporary printmakers and past teachers
Margot de Wit

Connection to Bucks County

Selma Bortner moved to the Lakeside section of Levittown in 1952 with her husband, Oscar Bortner, who served as a judge in Bucks County. They were one of the founding couples of the community and formed close ties with their neighbors. Selma Bortner taught printmaking and two-dimensional design at Bucks County Community College for twenty-three years. She served as chairman for the Bucks County Council on the Arts in 1974.

Colleagues and Affiliations

Marlene Miller, Katharine Steele Renninger, Paul Keene, Alan Goldstein, Frank and Debby Domingoez, John Strawn, Bruce Katstiff, Bernice Shapiro


Major Solo Exhibitions
Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1968
Robert Louis Gallery, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, 1971
Newark Gallery, Newark, Delaware, 1972, 1974
Abington Art Center, Abington, Pennsylvania, 1973
Hauska House, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, 1973
Old York Art Guild, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1973
Old Queens Gallery, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1974
The Philadelphia Bicentennial Commission, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1976
Rider College Art Gallery, Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 1979
Wallnuts Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1980
Four Corners Gallery, Lambertville, New Jersey, 1990
The Cosmopolitan Club, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1990
Twenty Three Year Retrospective,
Hicks Gallery, Bucks County Community College, Newtown, Pennsylvania, 1991
Selma Bortner: Body of Work
, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2004-2005
Selma Bortner: The Journey, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2020

Major Group Exhibitions
Philadelphia Watercolor Club Show, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1970
American Color Print Society, International Traveling Show, 1970-1971
Pratt Institute International, Miniature Print Competition Traveling Show, 1972-1973
Philadelphia Watercolor Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1975
Artists Equity Triennial Traveling Show, Tel Aviv Museum, Tel Aviv, Israel, 1978-1979
The Print Club International, The Netherlands, 1980
Print and Drawing National, North Dakota University, North Dakota, 1981
National Prints and Drawings
, West Chester State College, West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1982
Philadelphia Print Club, Traveling Small Print Show, France and England, 1982
New Jersey Printmaking Council, Juried Show, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986
Philadelphia Watercolor Club, Graphics First Prize, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1987
Phillips' Mill Annual Art Exhibition, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 1986, 1991, 1997, 2001
Bucks Biennial 1
, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1992
International Color Print Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1995
Bucks County Invitational 1, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1997
A Legacy Preserved: The First Decade of Collecting at the Michener Museum, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1998
Art Speaks: Celebrating the Bucks County Intermediate Unit Collection, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2010-2011
Parting Gifts: Artists Honor Bruce Katsiff,Director/CEO, 1989-2012, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2012

Major Collections
Atlantic Richfield Oil Company
Armstrong Cork Corporation
Film Corporation of America
Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois
Manchester College Museum, Manchester, Massachusetts
Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Mills College, Oakland, California
Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection
Philadelphia Art Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia Psychiatric Institute
Reading Art Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Rowan State College, Glassboro, New Jersey
San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco, California
Tucson Public Schools, Tucson, Arizona
University of Minnesota, University Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Wharton School and Law School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Awards & Appointments

Major Awards
Graphics Honorable Mention, Philadelphia Watercolor Club Show, 1970
Pennell Memorial Medal, 1970-1971
Joseph Pennell Medal, 1971
Graphics McFadden Medal, Philadelphia Watercolor Society, 1975
President's Selection, Philadelphia Sketch Club, 1986
Patron's Award, Phillips' Mill Annual Art Exhibition, 1986, 1991, 2001
Philadelphia Watercolor Club Co-op Artists Award, 1988
George Lazlo Award Prints, Phillips' Mill Art Exhibition, 1988
Philadelphia Watercolor Club Certificate of Merits, 1992
Philadelphia Watercolor Club Grumbacher Award, 1993
First Prize, International Color Print Society, 1995
Prize, Lee County Art Alliance, Ft. Myers, 1995
The Crest Award, Philadelphia Watercolor Club, 1997

Teaching and Professional Appointments
Philadelphia Art Museum, Children's Classes, 1947-1948
Akiba Hebrew Academy, started art department, 1948-1952
From 1952 to 1969, Bortner worked as a substitute teacher in art at Pennsbury, Bristol, and Neshaminy schools. She supervised art classes for initial Head Start programs and organized art programs for William Penn Center for both adult and children. She worked as a freelance children's book illustrator, designed decorations for metal household objects, and designed Christmas windows for Philadelphia National Bank in Philadelphia. Bortner eventually concentrated on printmaking.
Bucks County Community College Art Department, Professor and Chairman of the Printmaking Department, 1968 to 1991; Professor Emeritus in 1991

Affiliations and Memberships

Set Designer, Levittown Players, 1955-1960
Cheltenham Graphics Guild, 1970-1988
William Penn Center for Fine Arts

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