In Selma Waldman's last major show, her drawings portrayed unclothed men committing brutal acts in what she called the "pornography of power...

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In Selma Waldman’s last major show, her drawings portrayed unclothed men committing brutal acts in what she called the “pornography of power.” For her, activism and artwork were often synonymous.

When she died of cancer in her Rainier Valley home April 16 at age 77, she was surrounded by hundreds of books and walls covered in artwork and posters, said her son, Rainer Waldman Adkins.

Although she lived in Seattle for about 50 years, her work is better known in Germany, where a series of 25 drawings, titled “Falling Man,” was permanently installed in the Jewish section of the Berlin Museum in 1986.

“I think the Seattle art world doesn’t know what it was missing,” said David Allison, a friend who hopes to turn her house into a monument.

Although she was Jewish, she was so passionate about peace that she supported the Palestinian movement, said Allison.

Her activism reflected antimilitary sentiment, and she started the South Africa anti-apartheid movement in Seattle, Adkins said. In her last series of drawings, shown in Seattle in 2003 at Gallery 110, she vividly depicted reports of abuse from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

“I don’t feel like she’s sensationalized it at all, but she’s captured the raw dehumanization of both the tortured and the torturers,” said Ken Matsudaira, curator of the M. Rosetta Hunter Art Gallery at Seattle Central Community College, which plans to show the series this fall.

Born in Kingsville, Texas, in 1931, Waldman graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor of fine arts degree. She married architecture student James Adkins in 1952. They divorced in 1965.

In 1959, she was named a Fulbright Fellow and traveled to Berlin with her family, where “she had the opportunity to really expand her skills and explore,” Adkins said.

Her uncle Myron Waldman, who was a popular American animator during the 1930s, got her interested in art.

Her drawings often reflected on the dark side of humans, which isn’t popular for Seattle artists, said Phillip Levine, a Seattle sculptor and longtime friend.

“There is something that art historians never speak about in looking at a piece of art,” said Levine. “Did the artist really believe in what they were doing, and, in a certain sense, have satisfaction in what they did? If you look at Selma’s art, that strength certainly comes through.”

Although she wasn’t a synagogue member, she was active in the Jewish community, often celebrating holy days with loved ones. “When I was growing up, I just assumed to be Jewish was to work for peace and justice,” Adkins said.

Working as an independent teacher, she often taught not-for-credit drawing classes at local schools, including the University of Washington and Free University. She published several books that focused on social justice, and she illustrated others, said Levine.

Besides her son, survivors include a sister, Maryon Spotswood, of Texas; and daughter-in-law Deborah Figen and grandson Sam Adkins, both of Seattle.

A public memorial is planned for 5 p.m. June 1 at Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S. Alaska St., Seattle. For more information, call 206-723-6271 or e-mail zeichnerin@hotmail.com.

Celeste Flint: 206-464-3192 or cflint@seattletimes.com