94-Year-Old Artist Talks Painting, Teaching and Jewish Identity

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Lillian Klein Abensohn with her late husband, Seymour Abensohn.
Courtesy of American University.

At 94 years old, Lillian Klein Abensohn is still just as busy as ever. Abensohn has been a prominent Jewish figure for decades, teaching literature with a specialization on the Bible for 20 years at the University of Maryland Munich Campus. She then returned to the United States and taught at American University (AU) until her retirement in 1997. But even in retirement, she found joy through painting and being heavily involved with the AU Center for Israel Studies. A collection of her work was recently featured at an AU art exhibition. Abensohn spoke with the Washington Jewish Week about her career, artwork and strong connection to Judaism.

Can you tell me about how you got into art?

I had wanted to paint all my life and I was too busy with other family and career [responsibilities] to really approach it until I retired from American University. And when I retired, my late husband said, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘Paint.’ I was just eager to get into it. And it was a good fit immediately. It was a lifelong ambition to really get into it and it took until my retirement to do it. And that was about 25 years ago.

Can you tell me a little bit about your paintings, especially the most recent ones?

I sort of veered off into portraits. I saw a photograph of a grandson of mine who was in his late 20s. And there was so much pain in his eyes and his expression that I thought I have to paint that, and I did, and I caught a lot of it. And I just got hooked on painting portraits. And I am getting commissioned regularly now. I’m painting mostly portraits. And on the other hand, I did a bunch on tachisme base technique, modern portraits. I use modern photographs as subject matter, but I use tachisme techniques and they are another little niche. And now I’m shifting into Vermeer, copying a Vermeer. I’m just trying to learn from Vermeer’s techniques by doing them and then I will inevitably incorporate them into what I do.

I understand you’re very involved at American University and the Center for Israel Studies there. Can you describe that relationship?

I’m still very, very closely affiliated with AU and I helped form and finance their Center for Israel Studies, which is my baby. It’s an amazing institution, that Center for Israel Studies. It has provided and protected the Jewish population. AU has virtually no problems, yet they did, and as the Center for Israel Studies grew in strength, they disappeared. By and large, [they are] wonderful programs for the public and the students … it’s Israel’s culture, its agriculture, its innovations, water products, anything, it’s really marvelous.

Back when you were a professor for many years, what did you enjoy most about teaching?

Seeing somebody take off. Seeing somebody’s eyes open up. I got a letter about six months ago from a student I had 30 years ago, who is now in the Navy. He told me he came from Missouri and had a poor education and I taught him to write, and that he has made a career of writing and it’s all because of me. That’s what I love about teaching, seeing students take off.

How does your Jewish identity show through your art, if at all?

My Jewish identity, I have to tell you, is extremely strong. I’m passionately Jewish and passionately involved with Israel and supportive of Israel. I don’t necessarily paint Jewish themes; I haven’t been moved to do that. But as you will see in one of the still life’s, the main theme when you get down to it is relationships. And that’s very Jewish to me. It took me a while to get to that theme. I was trying to figure out what’s real, what’s important. And it got to relationships – my relationship with Judaism, the relationships among Jews and our ties to one another that I believe are essential.

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