By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Painting portraits for hours at a time frees Nancy Weinberg from her pain and infirmities.
At 95, her mind is as precise and expansive as her art. She draws comfort and inspiration from the 9 by 12-inch paintings of her heroes that cover every inch of wall space in her small room at the Lieberman Center for Health & Rehabilitation in Skokie.
The brush stroke is looser these days. At her age, the hands shake and every movement hurts. But she still paints with an ability to lose herself in creation.
“When painting, I feel very committed. I forget my aches and pains, forget anything negative,” said Weinberg, a Chicago native who lived independently until five years ago. Her longevity may stem from her passion for painting, she acknowledged, but in a nod to her art therapy, she said, “It’s a healing process, challenging but healing.”
She lists off her subjects, directing a visitor to her renditions of artists, poets, singers, political figures, clergy, performers—all people she has read or known about through her past life as a social activist.
There’s the Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, humorist Mark Twain, Zero Mostel as Fiddler’s Tevya, Otto Dix, the satirical German artist and Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter who suffered a life of chronic pain.
“They are usually people I admire who have a history of good works,” she said of her choice of subjects.
There are dozens of others that Weinberg has brought to life from her careful study of photographs. “She’s not the most realist of realists, but they are certainly so realistic that you know who they are,” said her daughter Louise Weinberg, a museum curator and artist in New York. She and her brother Joe make sure her mother has canvasses, acrylic paint and other art supplies. Joe Weinberg, a self-employed carpenter, frames his mother’s portraits in wood.
Louise Weinberg marvels at her mother’s talent and persistence. She hopes to promote her work when she retires soon. “There’s a sparkle of life and light that she puts into each painting,” she said. She also sends her mother boxes of books to read, which reflect her political and social ideals and insatiable curiosity.
Nancy Weinberg “has very Jewish concerns responding to issues of social justice,” said her daughter, who remembers attending Hebrew school and celebrating the Jewish holidays with her parents. Her mother jokingly calls herself a heathen for no longer attending temple.
Weinberg and her husband, Sam, a social worker and urban school teacher who died 28 years ago, were anti-war protesters in the Vietnam era. They pushed their children in carriages in peace marches. They attended activist meetings and petitioned for causes. In the 1980s, she stitched banners with cloth images so long they spanned a roadway. With uplifting messages, they were brandished in El Salvador when civil war ravaged the country.
Born to poor Eastern European immigrants in 1922, Weinberg began drawing “as soon as I could hold a pencil.” She attended the Jewish People’s Institute, once the largest and most active Jewish educational and recreation center on the city’s West Side. “They had wonderful art teachers there,” she said.
At age 12, she received a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago where she learned to appreciate the masters and developed her own painting style. In high school, she sketched a series of movie stars of the day.
Her children remember all their mother’s crafts and creative projects. She explored water colors, enamel jewelry, mosaics, stained glass, batik and other art forms. She kept a kiln in the basement.
“She was able to render anything she looked at,” said Louise Weinberg. “She was always making something, testing the boundaries of what she already knew.”
Once her children were out of the house, Weinberg finished college, returning to school at age 50. She earned her art degree at Northeastern Illinois University on full scholarship.
Weinberg tried teaching for a while but didn’t like it. She preferred doing art and sold her work at art fairs and other venues. She earned money with commissions for pet portraits. Hers were renditions that crackled with life in ways that aren’t typical of the genre.
She worked as a secretary to help make ends meet and retired at age 70. After her working career, she almost never put down her paint brush.
Weinberg painted a series of 25 romantic works of Paris that were displayed at the Harold Washington Library Center. “Her love of the city comes through in these paintings,” her daughter said. “There’s such passion for any subject she sets her mind to.”
And she’s unstoppable. A recent portrait of a little girl holding a rooster consumed her, causing her to work for 15 hours straight until she finished. Her easel currently holds a painting almost complete of Harold Washington campaigning with Mohammed Ali.
Two years ago, Weinberg exhibited her hero portraits at the school of the Chicago Institute for the Arts. She made the connection through her art therapist, Melissa Miller, who exhibited at the same time.
There was a brief time when she stopped painting. The pain was too much and she was unhappy confined to a nursing home. But Miller worked with her and encouraged her with oil pastels, water colors and collages of cut paper. Soon she was back to acrylics.
“I think it is wonderful and inspiring that she is doing this at her age,” Miller said. “It can serve as a reminder for some of her peers that you can still do things you enjoy.”