Stella Isenberg: The stories behind her paintings
By Susan Shinn
Every picture has a story.
Stella Isenberg would like to tell you every story behind her paintings.
Isenberg is 91 ó or 91 years, 9 months, as she’s fond of saying.
She’s been painting for years, mostly pastels and watercolors.
Scenes from childhood, a flower she liked from a neighbor’s yard, landscapes, even leaves. They’re all here.
Isenberg will exhibit 29 paintings from her collection at the Creators Gallery at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, 1620 Brenner Ave. An opening reception is set for 3-5 p.m. Sunday. The display will continue through the fall.
Isenberg still lives in the Wiley Avenue home that she and her late husband Harold moved to in 1949. They raised four boys there: John, Stephen, Timothy and Paul.
She now has eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Isenberg paints in her kitchen, which is in the back of her house.
“It has a northern exposure, and I have to have a lot of light,” she says.
As Isenberg gazes out into her expansive back yard, you get the feeling she still sees her towheaded boys at play.
Isenberg has painted in a variety of styles over the years. “I started with impressionism, and then I got more and more into reality. It changes depending on my mood, I guess.”
As a child, Isenberg loved to color. She grew up playing back and forth the farms of her grandparents, the Goodmans and the Morgans. She lived in Liberty until she was 11, where her father and uncle operated a country store. The family later moved to Woodleaf, where her father had another store.
Isenberg’s interest in art grew when she was in high school. She was introduced to form in studying ancient Greece.
“How could you have anything better than Grecian form?” she says.
Isenberg wanted to work in Christian education, but instead got her degree in teaching from Lenoir-Rhyne, because it paid more. Isenberg was the oldest of seven children and wanted to help her parents as much as she could. She taught for 30 years. Many members of her family were teachers and Harold Isenberg was a former city schools superintendent.
They met when they were members of a choir representing the United States at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
She and some friends were waiting on the young men in her group when a “young whippersnapper” came up to her and said, “If you were my girl, you wouldn’t have to wait.”
Isenberg says that her husband would later eat those words.
Even though her brother Leo told her she’d better watch out for that fast-talking Yankee, Isenberg married him anyway, in 1941. Harold Isenberg, it turned out, was a student at Catawba College. He died in 1998.
“My life without him isn’t very exciting,” Isenberg says. “We had an interesting life.”
Isenberg begins to tell more stories about her paintings. One is a scene from the woods.
She went with him one morning down ot the river to collect eels to take back to the store. People would buy them from a huge tin tub.
“I can’t stand snakes,” Isenberg says. “It was a foggy, misty morning.”
A perhaps more pleasant memory for her is of Hurley Park in spring, a scene she painted with the gazebo.
“My favorite season is spring,” Isenberg says.
Isenberg’s sister-in-law has a wonderful garden, and there’s a painting from that garden, full of butterflies.
Isenberg says she loves capturing nearly everything in nature.
A favorite painting is one of her husband’s hats that Isenberg did when she was learning about texture.
She’s studied with a number of local art instructors, including Clara Childs, Betty Watson, Betty Carmichael and Lou Murphy.
The Isenbergs had a lake house, and several paintings feature lake scenes. There’s one called “Abandoned,” that has a lone great blue heron standing on the bank.
She has a painting of a child shooting marbles.
She plans to do a whole series based on childhood memories, she says, “but I just haven’t had time to do it.”
She and one of her brothers once took a trip to Florida one February, to escape the winter weather here.
“Would you believe it?” Isenberg says. “It rained on and off the entire time we were there.”
She spied a row of pelicans, sitting on pylons.
“They looked so pathetic,” she says, although they look quite nice in her painting.
Isenberg signs her paintings in the beautiful penmanship reminiscent of teachers.
“I tried to copy my grandfathers,” both of whom were teachers, she says.
Isenberg recently ran into her friend, D.J. Whitfield, a member of John Calvin, and told her she’d like to do an exhibit sometime.
Whitfield recommended that Isenberg exhibit in the Creators Gallery.
“She has such a variety,” Whitfield says.
Although most opening receptions take place on Friday evenings, the church made an exception for Isenberg. She and her friends don’t drive at night.