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At 100, Frieda Lefeber gets her first gallery show

Article written by Samantha Melamed for Philly.com

Ever thought you were too old to take on a fresh challenge, learn something new, or add a few more chapters to your memoir? Please allow me to introduce Frieda Lefeber.

Lefeber will turn 100 this month, and she's celebrating with her first solo art exhibition, a retrospective of landscape and portrait paintings that opens at Rosemont College's Lawrence Gallery on Thursday.

It's the achievement of a lifetime for the Penn Valley mother, grandmother, retired nurse, and Holocaust survivor, who began taking art classes at Rosemont in 1991 at age 76 and earned a certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at age 83.

"It kept me young," Lefeber said - and it kept her busy. "I have to be busy constantly."

So, naturally, she's already looking ahead to what's next: She wants to update her autobiography, which she published in 2003. Given how active her 90s have been, the book is woefully out of date.

There's no shortage of material: Lefeber was born on March 21, 1915, into the turmoil of World War I, in a part of eastern Germany that was annexed to Poland as part of the treaty of Versailles. Facing persecution there, the family fled to Germany - but, over the subsequent decades, conditions for Jews there began to deteriorate.

Lefeber's parents eventually moved to British-controlled Palestine, while she stayed behind and took a job at the Jewish hospital in Berlin as a nurse.

But by 1937, she was looking for a way out - and by luck and charm she convinced a near-total stranger to sponsor her for immigration to the United States.

It took 15 months before she would move here - a period that included Kristallnacht, the November 1938 attacks against Jews in Germany.

"We were frightened they were going to burn the hospital down, too," she said.

But, on March 26, 1939 - despite a terrifying interrogation at the border - she left for the United States. She arrived with $4, and hardly any English.

But, she learned, and eventually became a registered nurse here, working at hospitals and a celebrity spa in New York, and serving as a nurse in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.

Over the years, she cared for some eminent people, including, fittingly, another late-in-life painter: Grandma Moses.

Her own interest in painting began long after that, when she was in her 70s.

"I didn't know that I had any talent," she said. "I never had any desire to paint except when my daughter was a little girl, I made a little painting of her. Somebody saw my little painting many years afterward and said, 'You have talent!' "

That was enough encouragement for Lefeber.

Pat Nugent, the director of the Lawrence Gallery and a faculty member at Rosemont, was one of her first painting teachers.

"She came in and she wanted to learn so badly," Nugent recalled.

"I told her what to do, and I walked on, but she stopped me and said, 'How do I do that, Pat? How do I do that?' Every few minutes! I thought, either I'm going to think it's funny or it will make you crazy, and I decided it was funny. Soon, the regular-age students kept saying the same thing: 'How do we do that, Pat?' "

Lefeber began taking three painting classes a day, going from Rosemont, to the Wayne Art Center to PAFA.

Nugent recalls asking: " 'How do you do this? It would kill me!' And she said, 'I don't want to get Alzheimer's.' I said, 'Are you kidding? It couldn't find you.' She's really phenomenal in her interest in everything."

Lefeber began working toward a bachelor's degree at PAFA. But, she admitted, her tendency to fall asleep while sitting in the front row during art history lectures was a barrier. So instead, she graduated with a certificate.

Still, she recalled, "In the fourth-year exhibition, I displayed 20 paintings, and 14 were sold then and there. So it paid for my tuition for the semester."

Over the years since, Lefeber has made regular trips to Germany, Italy, France - anywhere she could find art classes with teachers who inspired her. Her preference is plein air landscape painting, done in an impressionistic style.

Her retrospective, which Nugent said encompasses about 65 paintings hung "salon style," tracks 25 years of progress.

There are fewer recent works, though. Lefeber said it's hard, these days, for her to stand and paint for more than a half-hour.

"I don't paint that much anymore like I used to. I used to paint for hours at a stretch, sometimes in the middle of the night," she said. But, she added, "I always have something on my easel."

Lefeber isn't Nugent's only senior student. Just a few years behind her is Bernice Paul, 97, of Philadelphia, who creates vivid floral oil paintings and actively shows her work around the city. Earlier this year, she sold a series of paintings to Lankenau Hospital.

Recently, some students joined Nugent for lunch, "and the combined age at the table had to be over 500." For Nugent, they're models of determination.

Lefeber can't imagine living any other way. "I think you should never let go and just sit in your chair and do nothing. I keep busy every hour of the day. And I'm always positive. I never hold anything against anybody," she said.

She still works out every day (at Curves or with a trainer), and has been teaching herself to cook so she can prepare dinner for her daughter and son-in-law. She lives on the third floor of their house, and takes the stairs. And, she still drives - even at night, even into the city.

"I don't even need glasses," she said. "I don't baby myself; I think it's foolish. You have to be daring."