Robbed of Memory, Stolen Moments Fill Her Frame

Deborah Kaplan says her mother, Zena, has long been known and appreciated for her charm, humor, wit, friendliness and talent.

And she still is. Although Zena, 86, is afflicted with what her daughter calls "midstage Alzheimer's disease," nothing seems to have interrupted Zena's vigor, vitality and artistic pursuits. True, she may not always remember exactly when she created a beautiful painting, but she never forgets the joy of having done it.

In fact, with a brush in her hand, Zena, who's been painting quite successfully for the past 50 years, continues to create wonderful canvases. She seems surprised at all the fuss, but will happily take you on a tour of her daughter and son-in-law's home in East Falls — where she's lived for the past l0 months — and describe many of the intricate acrylics that hang everywhere the eye can see.

In addition, Zena, whose work has been exhibited in Connecticut, New York, California and Sweden at juried shows, galleries and public spaces, is the recipient of innumerable awards. Her work is on display at the Old City Jewish Art Center, 119 N. Third St., through the end of the month.

Zena Kaplan was born in New York, married and raised three daughters. She received a bachelor's degree in social science, a master's degree in political science and taught French for a time.

But her real passion was writing. Living out on Long Island and known as the "adjective queen," she longed to become an editor in New York City. But in the 1950s, her daughter explains, even though the men doing the hiring for such jobs told her she had the right qualifications, they also told her they couldn't give her the job, which would have meant bypassing all the young men with Ph.D.s vying for the same positions.

So she settled back into the life of wife and mother, often taking her daughters to art classes and sitting around waiting for the time to pass. One day, however, one of the instructors suggested that instead of simply biding her time, perhaps it would be more interesting for her if she decided to get involved in art as well.

So Zena took his advice, and by the early 1960s became so involved with art that she later attended the Student Art League in New York City. She was eventually awarded a two-year scholarship to study there.

The Fabric of Her Life
Over the years, she and her art continued to prosper. She had a 12-year relationship custom-designing fabrics for Henri Bendel in New York. Many of her fabric creations — hand-painted pillows, ties, place mats, shawls and more — decorate her daughter's home.

And as she continues to paint in her newly fashioned studio next to the tastefully-furnished living room, her eyes brighten as she displays the tools of her trade, her carefully worked canvases, and describes her feelings about art. Seems even the memory-robbing disease cannot take hold long enough to deny Zena a world without her colorful creations.

For example, a large acrylic painting hangs at the top of the stairs. Another brightly colored painting dominates a wall in the living room. Her daughter describes that one as a "young Jewish couple visiting her parents for Sunday brunch to ask advice about donating money to Jewish people."

Deborah Kaplan, who gave up a prosperous business to stay home and take care of her mother, is also an artist. She has no regrets about having to take care of a mother she obviously loves so very much.

On a recent visit, she displayed several scrapbooks memorializing her mother's work. In one of them her mother's mantra shines on a page: "Surround yourself with color … and sing all day."

Who could ask for a better description of what life could and should be like — regardless of any limitations time may have imposed?


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