More than a survivor, at 100 she’s still making art – Orange County Register
You can call Desiree Engel a lot of things – Holocaust survivor, mother, artist, teacher – but you can’t call her a newbie.
On Sunday April 18, she celebrates her 100th birthday. Even for Engel, a notorious latecomer, the number is daunting.
“I never thought about it,” she said emphatically when asked if she imagined celebrating this particular anniversary, or even getting old, during WWII when she was a newlywed. forced to live in a series of camps in Italy and Switzerland.
“I was thinking of something else.”
Back then, the “other things” on Engel’s mind were to survive the Nazi regime and later to emerge from war-torn anti-Semitic Europe. She did both. Then, in the decades that followed, Engel turned his sharp mind to more dynamic goals.
Originally from Yugoslavia (now Croatia), Engel and her first husband and young child first landed in Los Angeles at the end of 1945. Within weeks Engel found a job in the telephone company.
“We had a child to feed,” she says. “Of course I worked.”
Over the next few years, Engel divorced, remarried, and moved to Fullerton. She raised a family that grew to three children.
In the early 1970s, decades after her mother remarked, “I loved drawing as a girl and was pretty good at it,” Engel took a painting class as part of the Community Arts program in Paris. Fullerton. In 1973, after a few more community classes and a lot of encouragement from one of his teachers, Engel enrolled in art classes at Cal State Fullerton.
“I was the only woman, and the oldest, to join the program,” Engel said.
“It was the best time of my life.”
She was a relentless artist. Over the next 20 years, Engel will experiment with painting, mixed media and glass; she was doing prints and screen prints and at one point was making the paper on which she was creating art. She was an equally relentless student, earning three degrees at Fullerton, including an MA in 1995. She was 74 years old.
“I’m still mad at your paper,” she laughs. “A man graduated the same year, also at my age, and you made a great story about him. Nothing from me.
Think of it as a puff. By then, Engel’s life as an artist was already rich. She had opted for glazed ceramic, a medium that combines sculpture and color, selling some of her work over the years and taking a natural role in teaching others how to create for themselves.
Most importantly, she never stopped making art.
A year ago, at the start of the pandemic, some of his works were still available for sale in a gallery that no longer exists in Pomona. Some rooms (a woman sharing a hot tub with a dolphin) were whimsical; others (bare trees) were thinking. None, she insists, is really dark.
“I made a forest. But it was a matter of hope. … I stripped the trees, but there were leaves on the ground. And the birds were still there, ”she says.
“The idea is that no matter how bleak things look, there is always hope for a better future,” she added. “That’s usually what I try to project into my art because that’s what I feel.”
She has an oven at the Anaheim Assisted Living Center where she lives, and she’s still turning it on. Recently, Engel created a not particularly small ceramic garden – a few dozen blooming flowers – for his patio. The inspiration, she explained, was simple.
“I was looking outside at the pristine patio wall and beyond that the even more pristine Toyota dealership,” she said.
“I thought I should do something colorful.”
Engel’s life is not static. She competes in Scrabble tournaments and recently has embarked on competitive spelling. “Words,” she said, “are my second passion.
On Saturday April 17, she will participate in a spelling bee. The word “sandbag” might be too easy for the contest, but it might be appropriate
“It’s far from my league,” she said, referring to seemingly tough competition. “If I do two laps, I’ll be lucky.”
Yet with a 100th birthday in sight, Engel is not opposed to the party.
Last week, she was at the center of a Zoom night that included some of the people she has taught over the years in ceramics classes offered as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program at Cal State Fullerton. “The best thing,” she says, is that many of her former students have become teachers themselves.
But another better thing was what she heard from some of these students – inspiration that anyone can use, at any age.
“They told me that I had brought joy to their life; that I made them do things they never thought they could do, ”Engel said.
“I kind of felt validated by this.”