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After 60 years painting in the shadows, Overbrook woman finally gets a solo show

Article written by Aubrey Whelan for

When young students in Pat Nugent's art classes at Rosemont College seem to be overthinking a painting, or unwilling to try a new technique, she points them toward 98-year-old Bernice Paul.

"While the other kids are waiting for the Art Museum to pick up their work, Bernice is finishing four or five paintings," Nugent said, laughing. "She has the bravery to try everything."

Paul, who took up painting in her 30s, has been a fixture in Nugent's classes for years. Over the last six decades, she has quietly amassed an enormous portfolio of work that she has never exhibited in a solo show.

That is, until Friday, when the University City Arts League will launch a monthlong retrospective of her work. Paul will celebrate her 99th birthday midway through the run.

Paul lives with her granddaughter in a tidy rowhouse in Overbrook where her paintings - bright flowers in the abstract, lush landscapes rendered in thick brushstrokes - hang on nearly every wall. Canvases are stacked against the wall in her basement studio. She speaks proudly about Friday's opening - how excited she is, and a little nervous, too.

"I'm delighted," she said. "To have a show - it's a lot of fun. But I don't think about showing. I just like painting."

Paul had always been drawn to painting. Growing up as a rabbi's daughter in Soviet Russia, she had few opportunities to study art - but she made do, carefully cutting out letters for signs in school parades and drawing on her own.

And when the family fled to America during the Great Depression, there was little time and less money for painting lessons. While her father slowly set up a congregation in Wynnefield, Paul diligently studied English, graduated from high school, and fell in love with Nathan Paul, one of her father's congregants. When he was sent to Japan during World War II, she took a job in a photo studio, coloring portraits for women to send to their husbands overseas.

When her husband returned, wounded, from the war, she quit to be at home with him and their daughter, Susan.

But it was only when Susan showed an aptitude for drawing that Paul remembered her own long-ago dream. They both signed up for art classes at Fleischer Art Memorial. Paul was hooked.

Over the next 60 years, she painted whenever she could - in classes at Rosemont and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Barnes Foundation; outside, in Fairmount Park with friends; and in her tiny basement studio, with its carefully labeled boxes of oils and acrylics.

"I do like outdoors the best," she said. "You have to get close to your subject matter."

Nathan, who died 30 years ago, didn't quite understand her love for painting ("he was a baseball fan," Paul said, laughing) but encouraged her nonetheless.

She started to exhibit her work with others. She sold a few paintings. She even won awards. Her daughter grew up and had daughters of her own. They made her a website to showcase her work - "my Web," Paul calls it - and encouraged her to keep painting even as her eyesight began failing in recent years.

The University City Arts League came calling earlier this year.

Annette Monnier, the league's executive director, said a friend of Paul's granddaughter had recommended her to the gallery. Monnier was struck by Paul's use of bright colors and her bold style.

"You can really tell by looking at it that it's something someone's been doing for their entire life," she said.

Paul said there's no secret to her talent: She wanted to paint, and she just kept painting.

"You have to have the desire," she said. "And you have to give it time."

Sixty years' worth, if you're Bernice Paul.