Discovering talent at midlife, artist shows her works at age 75

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Determined to find a Jewish community for her four daughters, Gertrude Bleiberg and her family moved to Palo Alto from rural Northern California. In the process, she discovered her latent talent as an artist.

"She is a phenomenon," says Nancy Gordon, director of the Koret Gallery at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, where Bleiberg is being honored with a one-woman show of about 50 works. "She has this absolutely marvelous sense of life, color, humor and boldness in her work.

Becoming an artist was the farthest thing from Bleiberg's mind in 1965, when she and her family moved to Palo Alto from Quincy, a town 150 miles north of Sacramento. Instead, she wanted her daughters to meet other Jews. "We were almost the only Jewish family in a town of about three or four thousand," she said.

Moving to the Peninsula, her husband, a physician, got a job at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Clara. Bleiberg reactivated her dormant teaching credentials and started substitute teaching a variety of subjects in the late '60s. At lunch one day at a Palo Alto junior high, the art teacher asked her to come to a class for adults he was conducting. "I didn't have any interest in art," Bleiberg admitted. "My major was business. I only went because he needed people to fill the class."

But what began as a nice gesture immediately became "an emotional experience," Bleiberg recalled. "It was quite amazing. As soon as I sat down and started to paint, I knew that was what I wanted to do." After that class ended, Bleiberg studied painting through the U.C. Extension, and met San Francisco artist Jay de Feo, who suggested she study at the San Francisco Art Institute. Bleiberg, who turned 75 on March 11, earned her master's degree there in 1977.

Bleiberg's current exhibition is being held in conjunction with the art institute's 125th anniversary. In addition to the installation at the Koret Gallery, her work is being shown at the Palo Alto Cultural Center, the Stanford Faculty Club, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Rental Gallery.

The Bleiberg exhibition features acrylic paintings and works on paper that include drawings, etchings, and pastels. Gordon, who curated the Koret show, finds in Bleiberg's style "a unique combination of richly textured primitivism and folklore," and considers her "at home in a variety of mediums."

Although Bleiberg herself doesn't discern any particularly Jewish themes in her approximately 300 works, she describes herself as "a very committed Jewish woman" and notes she has done several studies of Jewish subjects. She and her husband, who passed away three years ago, were "serious travelers" who went to Israel nine times. During those travels, some of which occurred "before we had furniture," she made many sketches of Jerusalem. She also created a series of Jewish holiday scenes for the ALSJCC.

From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 17, Bleiberg will lead a tour of her work at the Koret Gallery and talk about how she constructs a painting. "I'll have to think about that some," she mused. "I'm not exactly sure how it happens myself."