Roslyn Zinn, 85; Blended Social Activism With The Arts
NEWTON, Mass. - The dunes overlooking Wellfleet's shore, a terrain Roslyn Zinn revered during summer visits, glow in one of her paintings with a singular warmth, as if she perceived the landscape more deeply than any seasonal pilgrim.
"After years as a teacher and social worker, I turned seriously to painting, which throughout my life had sparked and enlivened my spirit," Ms. Zinn wrote in a brief introduction to "Painting Life," a collection of her work that was published last year, a few months after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. "What I see in the world, so burdened and troubled, and yet beautiful in nature and in the human form, impels me to seek to create images that give the possibility of hope."
A glorious spray of tulips, the gentle curve of an unclothed hip, the deep smile lines etched around her husband's mouth - Ms. Zinn's brush found in each of her subjects a sense of serenity and promise. And those same qualities, present in her along with a radiant delight in life, impressed those she met her during her long marriage to historian Howard Zinn as they walked arm in arm in marches protesting wars from Vietnam to Iraq.
Ms. Zinn, who was always the first and most important reader of her husband's many books and essays, died May 14 in their home in the Auburndale village of Newton. She was 85 and had continued to climb the stairs to her studio and paint until the last days of her life.
"She was a passionate person, passionately committed to the causes of peace and justice, and she was anguished by what was happening in the world," her husband said. "At the same time, she was a very sunny, happy, warm person."
"The woman exuded love and openness," said James Carroll, an author and columnist for the Globe's opinion pages and a friend of the Zinns. "I felt it, but everyone who met her felt it. She was just an affirming person."
He added: "Radical politics could be intimidating and frightening because the questions are so hard, but Roz Zinn made it all seem like the most natural thing in the world to ask the tough questions. She took the threat away."
Blending the arts with activism, Ms. Zinn worked for many years as a social worker and was an actor and musician. While her husband rose to prominence as a writer and a professor at Boston University, hers was the unseen hand shaping sentences that inspired his readers and students.
"I never showed my work to anyone except her, because she was such a fine editor," he said. "She had such a sensibility about what worked, what read well, what was necessary, what was redundant."
One of six children of a Polish immigrant family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Roslyn Shechter read avidly and had already shown promise in high school as a writer and editor before meeting Howard Zinn. They dated briefly, then courted through a lengthy correspondence as he was sent to training bases with the US Army Air Corps. Four days into his first furlough, they married in October 1944.
She raised their two children in a low-income housing project in New York City's Lower East Side after the war and worked for a publishing company while her husband attended graduate school. When he took a teaching job at Spelman College in Atlanta in the late 1950s during the nascent days of the civil rights movement, she was the only white actor on the stage in some productions of the Atlanta-Morehouse-Spelman Players.
"For 'The King and I,' they wanted a white woman and asked her to do that," her husband said. "White people came to see it and were taken aback. There was an actual gasp in the audience when the black King of Siam put his arm around her waist to dance. Atlanta in 1959 was like Johannesburg, South Africa, it was so rigidly segregated."
Moving to Boston when her husband began teaching at BU, she finished her undergraduate work through Goddard College's adult degree program. Ms. Zinn took courses at BU's School of Social Work and then worked with the elderly in East Boston and with young clients in Dorchester and Roxbury.
Throughout, she kept a hand in the arts, whether playing recorder with a group in Cambridge or as an appreciative audience member.
"Usually, when I would see her, it was after a show, and she was just always beaming, always engaged in the moment," said the comedian Jimmy Tingle. "I'm sure there were nights when I came off stage and it wasn't that great, but she would never let on. She would say, 'That was fantastic!' She gave you great validation."
Retiring 20 years ago, Ms. Zinn turned to painting, and tried a number of different styles. She showed her paintings in some venues, and often gave them away to nonprofits. But many friends didn't realize the scope of her accomplishments until an exhibition in Wellfleet a couple of years ago.
"I was awestruck by the body of work and the range," said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a longtime friend and former neighbor. "I had no idea she had produced that much. It was only then that I realized what a brilliant artist she was."
Diagnosed with cancer last summer, Ms. Zinn "wrote me and said in effect that she was going to live as normally as possible as long as she could, and that meant visiting with her family, including her grandchildren, and painting and reading poetry," said Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and peace activist. "She was going to be in charge of her life, instead of giving it over to the medical profession."
Howard Zinn said that after the diagnosis, they went to their summer home in Wellfleet, where "she swam twice a day and announced it was the best summer of her life."
"She seemed to elevate to some place of profound contentment," Carlsson-Paige said. "Roz was always a content person, but she has been supremely happy. I've never seen her sad. I've seen her cherishing every moment, every experience she had, every rainstorm."
Two weeks before Ms. Zinn died, she told Carlsson-Paige during a visit that she had just finished two paintings. In one, Ms. Zinn sensed a need for something more.
"She said, 'I had to put an apple in it,' which I saw - it's this beautiful yellow apple," said Carlsson-Paige, who asked her friend whether she was pleased with the paintings. "And she said, 'Oh, I'm very happy with them.' She was just completely joyful."
In addition to her husband, Ms. Zinn leaves a daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington; a son, Jeff of Wellfleet; three brothers, Ben, Saul, and Carl Shechter, all of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; three granddaughters; and two grandsons.
Services will be private.
© 2008 The Boston Globe