Quilt Show at Adas Pays Homage to May Kelman

Opening on Sunday at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor
At the request of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, Ann Chwatsky photographed May Kelman, the temple’s oldest member, on her 100th birthday. Ann Chwatsky

“L’Chaim . . . to Life: Quilts by May Kelman,” which will open on Sunday at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, is a singular exhibition. Not only is it the first show of quilts ever presented by the temple, it is also a celebration of Ms. Kelman, who at age 103 is the temple’s oldest member. She has lived a productive but relatively quiet life in Sag Harbor since moving there in 1946, when her husband, Irving, relocated his dental practice there.

Ann Chwatsky, a photographer and educator who serves as the temple’s curator, organized the exhibition with Ms. Kelman’s daughter, Edith Kelman, who lives in Atlanta, and with the help of the Eastern Long Island Quilters Guild. 

“I first met May three years ago, when somebody at the temple suggested I take a photograph of her for her 100th birthday. I knew she had given her beautiful Hanukkah quilt to the temple, where it hangs in a prominent spot, but I wasn’t aware that she had done so many others and won so many prizes.”

“Quilting is something that I don’t believe I would have come to do unless I lived right here in Sag Harbor,” Ms. Kelman recalled in the book “Voices of Sag Harbor: A Village Remembered,” which was edited by Edith Tobier and published in 2007 by Harbor Electronic Publishing. “I began quilting at the age of 80 after my husband died. My neighbor, Ruth Benfield, started me off. Our friendship goes back to our children, who went to school together.”

Ms. Kelman joined a quilting group that met once a week and over the years made and donated quilts for fund-raisers for St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, the Masonic Temple, the Sag Harbor Ambulance fund, and the John Jermain Memorial Library. “In 2004, at age 90, my bright blue-and-gold quilt in the log cabin pattern won ribbons for Best in Show, Best in Workmanship, and Viewers’ Choice.”

“The Hanukkah quilt I gifted to our temple in 1995 was to share its interpretation of the menorah lights. I remember the task of finding perfect fabrics and color schemes to express my ideas. It was a joyful project.”

Ms. Chwatsky noted that Judaism does not figure in most of Ms. Kelman’s work. “The temple usually requires that exhibitions embrace a Jewish theme, such as the show of Larry Rivers’s Jewish-themed work we did last summer. But we’re making an exception for May.”

“Last night, Edith Kelman and I went over to the space, and Edith said, ‘In all the years I never really saw my mother’s quilts. She didn’t start quilting until we had all moved away, and when we came to visit for the holidays she would put all her stuff away.’ Her children didn’t realize their mother had this passion. She’s a lovely lady, and it’s exciting to honor her for this.”

The exhibition will open on Sunday with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. and remain on view through Jan. 15. Ms. Kelman will attend the reception via FaceTime.

The octagonal shape of the Hanukkah quilt represents the eight days of the Festival of Lights. Ann Chwatsky