Celebrating a Centennial On Canvas

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Bernice Paul doesn’t have to go very far to paint a landscape.

In fact, she just steps out into her backyard.

The 100-year-old artist has been painting for almost as long, and finds her inspiration through nature. Dressed in blue jeans, canvas shoes and a pink sweater that matched her glasses, the curly white-haired Paul has an energy as vibrant and youthful as her artwork. Although her vision has deteriorated, making it more difficult to see while painting, that hasn’t stopped Paul from pursuing her passion.

She showed about 30 pieces of her art — colorful flowers and lush landscapes — in the Lawrence Gallery at Rosemont College last month, the same month she celebrated her 100th birthday.

Paul was always interested in painting, but it took a long time before she pursued it intently. From there, she didn’t know it would consume so much of her life.

Growing up in Moscow, one of her teacher’s brothers was an artist, and she always admired his work. But there were few opportunities to practice and learn art techniques.

Although her father was an observant rabbi, her family was liberal and encouraged her passion. Her parents’ friend often brought over crayons and coloring books.

When Paul was a pre-teen, the family of four girls and one boy fled from Soviet Russia and immigrated to Philadelphia during the Great Depression.

“We went in the middle of the night with the help of some friends, and nobody knew anything about it,” she recalled. They escaped on a horse-drawn wagon waiting for them in the dark.

“When I came to this country, I said, ‘When I get older, I’m going to draw in an art class,’” Paul added.

At first, learning about art took form solely through observations. Two Italian brothers joined the rest of the immigrants in her English class in 1930. In the winter, she recalled, the brothers drew extravagant designs of Santa Claus or Christmas landscapes on the chalkboard. She was so impressed by their talents that she wanted to learn how to do the same.

During World War II, while her husband was in the army, Paul got a job at a photography studio. She colored black-and-white photographs — this was before colored film — using coloring oils.

But it wasn’t until Paul had her only daughter, Susan, that she finally took an art class. She went to Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia and dropped Susan off for children’s classes while she went upstairs for adult classes.

She also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). Later on, she taught a few classes herself in her own home.

She’s since won many prizes for her work; she keeps them in a hefty basket in her basement studio.

Paul used to work with oils, which she prefers — her favorite artists are Henri Matisse and Georgia O’Keeffe — but now works mainly with acrylic as it’s easier to carry outdoors, her favorite place to paint.

She often paints the scenery at Haverford College or Fairmont Park, which she can see across the street from her house.

Many of her family members decorate their own homes with Paul’s pieces. (Still more adorn Paul’s walls.)

She’s shown her work at several galleries, but the most recent showcase at Rosemont is one of her few solo shows. The preparation was a family affair: Her family helped her buy frames, and her granddaughter and son-in-law also made a few.

“I used to do all these things myself, but now I can’t hit a nail straight,” she laughed.

A lot of her work has sold, too. In recent years, Lankenau Medical Center bought a large mural for its hallways, but she makes sure family comes first.

“Everyone wanted to buy that one,” she said, pointing to another landscape in her studio, “but I said, ‘It’s my daughter’s.’ Naturally, the family goes first.”

One of Paul’s granddaughters lives with her. In the summertime, Paul paints in the backyard, accompanied by a spacious private garden her granddaughter planted full of spinach, mustard greens and lilac.

Inside, Paul’s studio remains in the dimly lit basement of the Overbrook house where she’s lived for more than 50 years.

She walks up and down the basement stairs with ease, leading to an organized clutter of loose paintbrushes, pastels, watercolors and tubes of acrylic paint.

The room is filled with dozens of canvases — some completed, some works in progress. A couple larger portraits clearly illustrate her two granddaughters.

“My favorite [piece] is what I’m trying to do,” she said. “Then I’m just all in it. Sometimes I can finish it very fast, and sometimes I leave it alone and come back to it.”

Adorning the length of the main wall in the basement is an original advertisement poster from the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1984, torn at the edges, depicting a 17th-century portrait.

She found it hanging off its pole after kids tore it down, so she brought it home to decorate her studio.

Art adorns all of the walls in her home in one way or another.

“There are so many phases of art. The joy of just creating something,” she paused. “Painting is the most satisfying thing. You lose yourself. A book — you’re over with it.

“There is nothing like painting.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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