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Good things come to those who wait

by Leslee Komaiko

February 19, 2014 | 1:26 pm

Artist Burt Kopelow paints every day. Photos by Leslee Komaiko

Artist Burt Kopelow paints every day. Photos by Leslee Komaiko

Apparently Burt Kopelow didn’t get the memo that you’re supposed to slow down as you approach 90. 

The Lake Balboa resident and Brooklyn native paints just about every day — all day — despite a stroke more than 10 years ago that compromised his mobility. His routine is simple: After he and his wife, Nancy Blumstein, eat breakfast, Kopelow heads to his studio. Formerly a dark family room, it’s now a sunlit, color-filled retreat. He puts on some music — usually classical or opera because his favorite jazz station is gone — and gets to work. 

This month, at the age of 89, Kopelow has his very first art show, a retrospective featuring approximately 100 works on paper and canvas. The exhibition at the L.A. Artcore Brewery Annex in Lincoln Heights closes Feb. 27.

“It blew my mind,” Kopelow said of the Feb. 2 opening reception, while chatting in his art-filled living room. “Now I feel like I want more. I like the accolades. I want them to say, ‘Where have you been all this time?’ ” 

Kopelow, the son of Jewish immigrants, does not have any formal art training. He is, however, a voracious reader and has an extensive collection of art books. (His collection of science fiction and fantasy books, meticulously organized by author in a spare bedroom, is equally impressive.) Some of his favorite artists include Max Beckmann, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico. Although he said he is inspired by their work, he does not seek to imitate them. He is also influenced by the work of Carl Jung and theosophy, particularly the idea of transforming the self. 

“The process of art is like the alchemists trying to produce gold from lead, which really was a metaphor for the transformation of themselves into a higher level of being,” he said. 

Kopelow has worked various jobs in cities across the country, from Manhattan to San Francisco. He was a cashier at a restaurant, a clerk at an art supply store, and sold a range of goods — from men’s neckties to automobile convertible tops. His last day job was tending the pool at the downtown loft where he lived until 1996.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that he started creating art seriously. He says his mother didn’t even let him make art at home growing up: “She didn’t want me to dirty up her house.” 

As an adult, he started reading Jung as well as artist biographies, which spurred him to try his hand at art. He was especially attracted by the freedom of it. 

“When I knew I had the ability to draw and paint, I went full blast,” he said. 

His oeuvre is varied and nearly fills the four-car garage behind the couple’s home. He has thousands of brightly colored portraits and blocky abstracts, black-and-white figurative paintings and striking mandalas on enormous 81-by-81-inch canvases. 

The original plan for the downtown show was to highlight a dozen or so of these outsized canvases, but after painstakingly loading them onto a truck and transporting them to the gallery, it turned out they were too big to get through the stairwell. Not the most auspicious start to a big debut. Fortunately, Kopelow had no shortage of other work from which to choose.

To support her husband’s urge to create, Blumstein, 52, takes big sheets of art paper and tapes the edges to foam boards every week. This way, when Kopelow is ready to start a new drawing or acrylic painting, he just grabs a board and sets it on his easel. Blumstein, who works full time as department manager of the economics and Afro-American Studies departments at UCLA, also serves as Kopelow’s publicist and archivist.  They have been married for 18 years.

Like many things in Kopelow’s life — including his introduction to Blumstein through a mutual friend in a Trader Joe’s parking lot — serendipity played a large role in the gallery show. A friend of Kopelow’s, who was his landlord at the downtown loft where he lived before moving to the San Fernando Valley, had a show at L.A. Artcore last year. Kopelow attended the opening, found himself talking to one of the gallery representatives, and soon was sitting down with executive director Lydia Takeshita.

“I was surprised to see how all his work seems to come out naturally from him without much outer influence,” Takeshita said. “He’s really a natural talent.”

While some artists, especially those just shy of the big 9-0 — Kopelow hits that milestone April 29 — might be inclined to put their feet up following a major show, Kopelow seems re-energized. 

“I just am pouring myself into my work and not thinking too much about it anymore,” he said. “I paint so much it’s incredible, more so now, because I’ve matured. I’m much more secure in how I approach my work.”

And already he is thinking about the next thing.

“Now I want a museum that’s big enough to hold all those [large] paintings,” he said.

Then he added, “I forget who said, ‘If you don’t have a show by 19, find another field.’ Of course, I fooled them.”

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