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101-Year-Old Tells Her Tale With a Palette

May 07, 1987|DEBORRAH WILKINSON

Her earlier paintings are based on childhood memories of a Russian homeland where ominous, snow-capped mountains overshadowed the grandeur of the Black Sea.

The childhood reflected in the paintings began in 1886, and Annie Tahl has been telling her life's story through the watercolors for the last 15 of her 101 years.

Tahl, a former hat maker, said she never thought about painting until she moved to Grancell Village, a nursing home in Reseda run by the Jewish Homes for the Aging.

"Painting about nature lets me visualize the beauty of life," Tahl said. "There's so much beauty in the world, if we just take a little time to see and appreciate it."

Tahl's poor eyesight prohibits her from distinguishing between the colors on her palette, yet, she said, she continues to capture life as she sees it.

Paints What She Feels

"I'm just an old woman who paints what I feel. Whenever I want a different color, I tell the art teacher, and she gives it to me."

She works at an easel at least three hours each week, creating paintings of trees, flowers and seashores. Though the nature motif hasn't changed over the years, Tahl works on a smaller scale than she used to in her former landscapes.

The objects and figures have become softer and often primitive, and the colors, more muted.

"Nature makes me feel calm and peaceful. I can even forget my aches and pains sometimes when I paint," Tahl said.

Several elaborate scenes with bold, well-defined brush strokes are displayed along the hallways of the home. In one, a setting sun casting shadows on still waters produces a rippling effect. This was Tahl's homeland--Odessa.

It was a small city built on a high plateau where a walkway of about a thousand steps led to the Black Sea, Tahl said. "The sea was a beautiful green when it was calm, but during a storm, the water became a morbid black," she said. "Perhaps that's why I don't like black or extremely dark colors."

When Tahl was 22, her family fled the Soviet Union and came to America. She tearfully recalled several experiences on their 32-day voyage.

"During a terrible storm, everyone thought we were going to die," she said. "The captain decided to let the boat take its own course for four days by riding the waves. Then he ordered the crew to stretch ropes on the deck and along the sides so we would have something to hold onto."

Became a Milliner

Two days after the ship docked at Ellis Island in New York, she was working as a milliner. "I didn't know anything about making hats, but a friend got me the job, then taught me everything she knew," Tahl said.

She was paid 17 cents a hat. "For working six days I made $3, but I got to work with a lot of beautiful artificial flowers."

The family moved to Chicago, where Tahl married a draftsman from Odessa and had three children. After her husband died of skin cancer at 42, the young widow continued making hats to support her family. Tahl never considered remarrying because "no man could ever replace my husband," she said.

She moved to Los Angeles 40 years ago and lived with her son and his wife until she came to Grancell. Tahl doesn't understand why the staff praises her work or how she got the moniker, "Grandma Moses."

"If I must keep on living, I have to do something to stay busy," she said.

During a double birthday celebration Jan. 9 for her and Moshe Abovitch, another resident of the Jewish Homes who, amazingly enough, also turned 101 on the same day, Tahl presented Israeli Consul-General Eytan Bentsur with a landscape, which hangs in his Wilshire office.

"Maybe the ultimate blessing is longevity," Bentsur observed at the celebration, "which brings with it the wisdom, the experience and perhaps with it the answer to the questions, 'Isn't all worthwhile?' and 'What's it all about?"

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