Linda Friedman Schmidt is a self-taught German-born American artist known for her emotional narrative portraits and figurative artworks created from discarded clothing. She was born “Lonia” Friedman in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1949, the first child of Holocaust survivors who met and married in the camp. The family arrived in Brooklyn, New York when she was six months old and “Lonia” became “Linda.” Given the trauma that her parents endured and the difficulties they faced as refugees, her childhood was not a happy one. There was emotional distance and little warmth and affection. She learned to repress and sacrifice her own needs to be accepted.
Although Linda knew she was an artist from an early age, her interest in art was discouraged. She was valued only for academic achievement, pushed to become a scholar, and encouraged to skip grades in school. She was not permitted to apply to a public high school dedicated to the arts, nor to a college for visual artists. She majored in foreign languages at Brooklyn College (BA 1969) and became a New York City high school Spanish teacher. After one year of teaching Linda resigned from the job and moved out of her family home to live in Manhattan with the boyfriend who became her husband years later.
Linda’s impulse to transform, to create something better, to somehow create a happier life was strong. She began by refashioning old clothing and thrift store finds into trendy new styles that she wore. At the same time she began designing crocheted garments based on geometric shapes she transformed into fashionable multi-textured, multicolored art-to-wear sweaters and coats. Wearing the customized clothing that she created, Linda began working as a salesgirl at the original Henri Bendel store. It was the chicest and most fashion forward establishment in New York City in 1971. In this high fashion environment the self-taught fashion designer was soon able to sell some of her creations. Bendels bought some of Linda’s crocheted sweaters as did Julie’s Artisans Gallery. At the same time Linda sold ideas for creative transformations to Woman’s Day Magazine which wrote the following about her: “Seeing possibilities for an entirely new life for everyday objects is a gift.” In 1973, she appeared solo on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily, snapped on the street as a chic, super-stylish New Yorker, but actually wearing her thrift shop transformations.
When she was 23 years old Linda left her job at Bendels to start her own business. She opened a women’s clothing store two blocks away called LONIA, her birth name. She risked her life’s savings, $10,000 earned as a teacher, and began selling unique vintage clothing along with the reconstructed fashions she created. After a short time the store became a fashion design laboratory for other young creative artists she encouraged. LONIA also became the best kept shopping secret of many celebrities, stylists, socialites, and fashion conscious women. When there was no longer a need to sell vintage nor create the merchandise with her own hands, Linda was able to design, buy, and curate the perfect assortment of clothes and accessories for a fashionable clientele. She became a successful fashion retailer in a highly competitive environment not only because she loved fashion, color, and had a natural talent for dressing others, but also because she understood the transformational capability of clothing.
In later years LONIA became known for its creative window displays, an outlet for Linda’s artistic talent. After several expansions the store had four windows on the street which generated the visual excitement that drove sales. Not only could Linda transform the customers, she could also transform the merchandise in highly creative displays that won her the FAME Award for fashion merchandising excellence. Her windows were photographed and published regularly in Fairchild’s Retail Reporting Bureau publications Views & Reviews, in their visual merchandising books Store Windows That Sell, and in Inspiration, the international trade publication for best visual merchandising. In 1987 she was awarded a US Patent for a series of visual merchandising forms that transformed and improved an inefficient display tool into one that sold multiple items. She closed her store in 1987 to raise a family with her husband, architect Ronald Schmidt.
In 1998, when her daughters were 10 and 7 years old, Linda Friedman Schmidt realigned with her authentic self. She became a visual artist. A rug hooking book she inadvertently came across at the library provided the spark for art making. She had never seen a hooked rug before, had no interest in making rugs, but was greatly interested in a new way to transform and give new life to old clothing. All her life, she had been stifling a desire to paint because she was untrained and uncomfortable with materials and technique; this book pointed the way to “paint” and tell her story using cloth and a crochet hook. There was an immediate affinity for the technique of hooking, and a strong impulse to make art every day. This became personal therapeutic play in response to years of sadness and rage held inside. Knowing nothing about the rules of hooking was an advantage. There was nothing to fear, only endless possibilities for experiencing joy through color, texture, and self-expression.
Linda Friedman Schmidt’s lifelong dream of gaining recognition as an artist came true in 2005 when the American Folk Art Museum exhibited her self portrait “Here (Hear) No Evil” in Self & Subject in its new modern building on West 53rd Street next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was not a textile exhibit. Linda’s artwork was hung next to oil paintings and alongside the works of many world-renowned folk artists including Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, and Grandma Moses. A solo show followed at the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum. Since then Linda has been invited to exhibit her art both nationally and internationally: She has exhibited in Tokyo, Japan, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Guimarães, Portugal; in the USA her artwork has been included in numerous top quality museum and gallery group shows of contemporary fine art and textile art. Linda Friedman Schmidt has been recognized not only by museums, but also by the press, collectors, and her peers as an exciting artist with a unique vision and powerful content.
There is a permeable boundary between Linda’s art and her life. She is to some extent a performance artist: Just as she gives new life to old clothes, she is able to give new life to herself, to refashion herself. A self-created chameleon since her teenage years, a work of art herself, she has always been a work in progress. Linda transformed herself into a Latin ballroom dancer about the same time she began making art. With a slim athletic body, a flair for clothing, hair, and makeup, and a natural talent for moving freely and creatively, she became a regular on the New York City Latin dance circuit. Since 1998, weekly Sunday night hardcore salsa “on 2” dancing with young, diverse partners was and still is the most fun she has ever had in her life, a way to connect with others, rejoice, come alive, and be free.