On Sunday, April 18, she turns 100. Even for Engel, a notorious late starter, the number is daunting.
“I never considered it,” she said, flatly, when asked if she imagined celebrating this particular birthday, or even growing old, during World War II, when she was a young newlywed forced to live in a series of displaced-persons camps in Italy and Switzerland.
“I was thinking about other things.”
Back then, the “other things” on Engel’s mind were outliving the Nazi regime and, later, getting out of war-ravaged, anti-Semitic Europe. She did both. Then, in the decades that followed, Engel turned her keen mind to more vibrant goals.
Originally from Yugoslavia (now Croatia), Engel and her first husband and their young child initially landed in Los Angeles in late 1945. Within weeks Engel had a job with the phone company.
“We had a kid to feed,” she said. “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 noticed “I loved to draw as a girl, and was sort of good at it,” Engel took a painting class through Fullerton’s community arts program. In 1973, after a few more community classes and strong encouragement from one of her teachers, Engel enrolled in art classes at Cal State Fullerton.
“I was the only woman, and the oldest person, to join the program,” Engel said.
“It was the best time of my life.”
She was a relentless artist. Over the next 20-plus years, Engel would experiment with painting and mixed media and glass; she would make etchings and silkscreens and, at one point, made the paper on which she created art. She was an equally relentless student, earning three degrees at Fullerton, including a master’s in fine art in 1995. She was 74.
“I’m still mad at your paper,” she said, laughing. “A man graduated that same year, also at about my age, and you guys did a big story about him. Nothing about me.”
Consider it a whiff. By then, Engel’s life as an artist was already rich. She’d settled on glazed ceramics, a medium that blends sculpture and color, selling some of her work over the years and taking on a natural role teaching others how to create for themselves.
More importantly, she’s never stopped making art.
A year ago, at the start of the pandemic, some of her works were still available for sale at a now-defunct gallery in Pomona. Some pieces (a woman sharing a hot tub with a dolphin) were whimsical; others (bare trees) were reflective. None, she insists, is truly dark.
“I did make a forest. But that was about hope. … I made the trees bare, but there were leaves on the ground. And the birds were still there,” she said.
“The idea is that no matter how bleak things look there’s always hope for a better future,” she added. “That’s generally what I try to project in my art because that’s how I feel.”
She’s got a kiln at the Anaheim assisted living center where she lives, and she’s still firing it up. Recently, Engel created a not-particularly small ceramic garden – a couple dozen blooming flowers – for her patio. The inspiration, she explained, was simple.
“I was looking outside at the blank patio wall and, beyond that, the even blanker 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 taken on competitive spelling. “Words,” she said, “are my second passion.”
On Saturday, April 17, she’ll participate in a spelling bee. The word “sandbag” might be too easy for the contest, but it could be apt
“It’s far out of my league,” she said, referencing the apparently tough competition. “If I make it two rounds, I’ll be lucky.”
Still, with a 100th birthday in her sights, Engel is not averse to celebration.
Last week, she was the center of a Zoom party that included some of the people she’s taught over the years in ceramics classes offered through the OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) program at Cal State Fullerton. “The best thing,” she said, is that many of her former students have gone on to become teachers themselves.
But another best thing was what she heard from some those students – inspiration anybody can use, at any age.
“They told me I’d brought joy to their lives; that I’d made them do things they never thought they could,” Engel said.
“I felt sort of validated by that.”