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A lifetime of art; Edna Hibel welcomes the opportunity to connect with her devotees.

Byline: Laura Porter

Edna Hibel rises long before the sun comes up over the intercoastal highway near her Florida home, the night's shadows still thick at 4 a.m. By 5, after a shower and something to eat, she is hard at work in her studio. And unless she is interrupted by the doorbell or an obligation to be elsewhere, there she will stay until 5 at night.

"I paint long hours," says Hibel, who at the age of 90 shows no sign of relinquishing the passion that has driven her since she discovered the joys of art as a child in Massachusetts. "My routine hasn't changed much. Sometimes I have a hundred things going - I might be working on one and get an idea for another one. Something is always going on that's new and fresh. And I never believe there's a bad painting. I believe it's unfinished."

A painter in mixed media, Hibel uses such varied surfaces as canvas, wood, silk, plaster and Japanese rice paper, often incorporating oil glazes and gold leaf. In addition, she works in porcelain (including collector plates), serigraphy, sculpture and crystal. She has had considerable success as a lithographer, completing her 600th lithograph, "The Epic," three years ago.

Although she paints a plethora of subjects ranging from portraits and nudes to landscapes and floral still lifes, Hibel is particularly well known for her portraits of mothers and children. Her ability to capture the essence of the maternal bond in a few soft strokes shimmering with color reaches across the cultural divide, reflecting a lifetime of travel and observation.

"I feel so strongly that a mother and a baby are what make the world go round," she says. "All over the world, wherever I've been, the feeling between a mother and a baby is exactly the same everywhere. They carry and handle them differently, but the look is the same."

In the mid-1980s, she was asked to design the cachet cover for the United Nation's World Food Program stamp. In the resulting painting, called "Mother Earth," the titular figure gathers a group of children of different cultures in her arms.

Since 1940, when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts bought one of her earliest paintings, "The Orange Lady," when she was only 23, Hibel's long career has been studded with accomplishments. Her work has been widely exhibited in museums and galleries in the United States as well as internationally. Honors include Medals of Honor from the Pope and the King of Belgium and countless awards, including the Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Art from the World Cultural Council in 2001. Hibel has created commemorative art for the White House, the National Archives, Project HOPE and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, among other organizations.

Married since 1940 to her high school sweetheart, Theodore Plotkin, Hibel lives and works near the Hibel Museum of Art, a nonprofit, public museum founded in 1977 by art patrons and Hibel collectors Clayton and Ethelbelle Craig. The museum is on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter, Fla.

Born in Allston, Mass., in 1917 and raised in Brookline, Hibel began to paint when she was 9 years old. In the fourth grade, she often took only 15 minutes to finish arithmetic tests that were supposed to last an hour. "To keep myself busy," she remembers, "I used to make up complicated math problems. Finally, the teacher said, `Wouldn't you rather do something else?' She gave me a paint box and a cover of an old copy of Good Housekeeping and said, `Copy this.'"

When the young child took the picture home, her mother pronounced it "wonderful" and immediately "ran right out and got a 25-cent frame from Woolworth's," Hibel says. Even now, she tells parents of talented children to frame their work. "They love to see themselves in a frame," she says. "It means so much to tell them that they count, more than the work."

From that moment on in her own childhood, Hibel painted constantly. When she was 13, artist Gregory Michael saw her work at a frame shop and offered to teach her without charge, though her parents paid him what they could. "In high school," Hibel says, "I went to his studio every day after school and all day Saturdays and Sundays. I don't know how I played tennis and basketball, too, but I did. I must have walked around with a paintbrush attached to my hand. I painted everything I saw. I even have a painting of our telephone, and they were pretty ugly in those days. I thought that I needed to paint something in front of me. I didn't realize I could paint from imagination."

After graduating from Brookline High School, Hibel undertook a five-year program of study at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, where she caught the eye of Russian painter and lithographer Aleksandr Yevgeniyevich Yakovlev. The master called his young protege a "wunderkind" and gave her advice that has continued to resonate for her. "He told me it could be my undoing because things came so easily," she recalls. "So he gave me a project that was really pretty difficult. But I did it. And I never forgot what he said. I (have done) things that were not easy for me but I (have) adored every minute."

After graduating in 1939, she used a traveling fellowship to paint in Mexico, avoiding Europe because of the outbreak of war and marrying Theodore Plotkin upon her return.

The arrival of their three sons over the course of the next decade made it necessary to balance the demands of painting and family for many years.

Indeed, Hibel was so successful at putting her family first that her middle son, Andrew Plotkin, has said that he was 12 years old before he realized that his mother was an artist.

Her boys were older when art turned from avocation to business. She describes the period in the 1950s when her husband's family lost their women's clothing business in Boston as "a terrible time but also a fantastic time. It made me realize that I could earn money with my painting." Public attention was immediate and long-lasting.

Hibel's joie de vivre comes through even across the telephone lines, her voice rich with warmth and good humor.

She paints even when she is on the phone, noting that she "would be a recluse otherwise." On this particular day, she is working on a lithograph in her studio, adding gold leaf, oil and pastels to enhance an etching of a small group of Katrina victims who came from New Orleans to meet her.

She has "a lot of fans" in New Orleans and notes with some relief that though her gallery there was damaged, "not one Hibel was destroyed" by the deadly hurricane. (The same cannot be said of her own home in Florida, where her studio was destroyed. Winds took down 50 trees, providing Hibel and her husband with a sweeping, albeit unintended, view of the water.)

Hibel welcomes the opportunity to connect with the people who come to see her.

"I get life stories in the half a minute it takes me to sign," she says. "They're interesting; sometimes I get involved. Once I made a good match. I became a matchmaker! A couple had been dating, she said they should get married in the (Hibel) museum, and they did."

Though the date of her 90th birthday was Jan. 13, the celebrating began in earnest last fall, with one of the many art show events held in Westboro, Mass. Yet Hibel herself remains focused on the work that continues every day in her studio.

"To create is fantastic," she says. "Every stroke is different. I'm ... 90 years old and it's still fascinating, maybe more so. You couldn't do this if you didn't love it. I love every stroke."

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1, 2) Jody Barnard, top photo, and Arthur and Marcella Holmes, all of West Boylston, wait for Edna Hibel to autograph her artwork at a signing in Westboro. (3) Edna Hibel during an appearance at the Heather Shop in Holden. At right are some of her paintings.

PHOTOG: (1, 2) PHOTOGRAPHY/BETTY JENEWIN (3) PHOTOGRAPHY/ED WOZNIAK
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 25, 2007
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