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Zelda Toll Edelson, editor, painter, and poet, dies at 92

She edited publications at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History for two decades, and later created large abstract paintings that evoked emotion and thought.

Ms. Edelson used bold colors and large strokes in many of her paintings.
Ms. Edelson used bold colors and large strokes in many of her paintings.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Zelda Toll Edelson, 92, a natural history and science editor for two decades, and a painter and poet for two decades after that, died Friday, Nov. 12, of heart failure at her home at the Quadrangle retirement community in Haverford.

Creative, driven, and independent, Ms. Edelson grew up in Philadelphia and lived in Illinois, Maryland, Kansas, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before settling in Haverford after her husband, Yale University professor and psychiatrist Marshall Edelson, died in 2005.

During that time, she worked as an editor and head of publications for the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, a lecturer on science writing at Yale, a public relations writer, and a social worker. After moving to the Quadrangle, she continued to paint and added poetry to her eclectic resumé.

“She was intellectual, passionate, and fun,” said her son David Tolchinsky. “She’d read a highbrow book and then watch Wedding Crashers. She was like her poetry: serious and playful.“

Although Ms. Edelson was interested in art throughout her life — she took a class by the acclaimed Philadelphia artist Jack Bookbinder as a teenager — she began painting in earnest after she retired in 1995. She had taken a few painting classes over the years but had been busy working and raising her sons, Jon and David, and daughter Bec.

So, when she finally had the time, she dived into the world of color, abstract shape, and texture. “I wanted to do something that was my own thing,” she told the Jewish Exponent in 2018.

Ms. Edelson often painted later in her life while standing at a walker for balance, and rotating the canvas so she could reach the corners. She said in a 2018 online story by Donartnews that her paintings were “lyrical like a song, strong like a knot, and intricate like a spider’s web.”

At first, she showed her work in Woodbridge, Conn., where she and her husband lived. Then, after moving to the Quadrangle, Ms. Edelson showed — and sold — some of her paintings in galleries and exhibits around Philadelphia.

“Zelda was serious, playful, and prolific in her painting,” her family wrote in a tribute. “Like Jackson Pollock, what she expressed didn’t follow the rules, and she went where the paint wanted her to go.”

In 2007, she earned honorable mention at the annual members’ exhibition at the Main Line Art Center. In November 2018, at 89, she held her first solo painting exhibition, “Color in the Moment,” at the Old City Jewish Art Center in Philadelphia.

In October 2018, she published the 88-page book Zelda Edelson — Painter.

“Painting is not just what comes out of your hand or arm,” Ms. Edelson told the Jewish Exponent. “It’s what’s in your brain, and that’s the ultimate decisive part of the experience of painting.”

Born Oct. 18, 1929, Ms. Edelson grew up in West Philadelphia, was first in her class at Philadelphia High School for Girls, and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Chicago. She married her husband in 1952.

She began writing poems recently, and focused many of them on her own mortality. She liked to watch old movies and read obituaries. She was fashion-conscious, read the New York Times and books by Virginia Woolf, and kept up with politics.

She especially liked to hang out and dine with her sister, Charlotte Thurschwell, who also lives at the Quadrangle, and her family posted a touching video tribute.

On her 92nd birthday, Ms. Edelson offered this advice to her family and friends: “Listen to Beethoven. Listen to soaring Italian operas. Do the tango. Roller skate. Feast on dim sum, sushi, apple pie. Above all, respect intuition when it comes your way.”

In addition to her children and sister, Ms. Edelson is survived by six grandchildren and other relatives. Two brothers died earlier.

Services are private, and a memorial service is to be held later.