Bernice Paul, a Moscow-born artist whose paintings won plaudits, prizes and placement in local museums, died on Feb. 5 of esophageal complications at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. She was 103.
Paul’s portfolio consisted of more than 100 paintings and sculptures, displayed throughout her lifetime at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, City Hall and Rosemont College, where she held her first solo exhibition. Her four-panel painting “Springtime” is on permanent display at Lankenau Medical Center’s cardiac unit.
And which of those works did Paul prize most?
“When people would ask her, she’d say, ‘The last one,’” said her daughter, Susan Schaumberg.
Paul was born Bernice Olinsky in Moscow in 1917, where she lived with her mother, rabbi father, brother and three sisters. Paul and her family left the newly formed Soviet Union for America in 1930, departing in the middle of the night in a horse-drawn wagon. The family settled in Wynnefield.
In the U.S., Paul’s enthusiasm and skill for painting the natural world flourished from a young age, as the local rivers, parks and flowers provided her with all of the subject matter she needed. In 1940, she married Nate Paul, owner of Paul Brothers grocery store; they were together until Nate’s death in 1986.
While her husband was in the Army during World War II, Paul got a job at a photography studio, coloring black-and-white photographs with oils. But it was as a young mother that Paul decided to take her interest in painting from hobby to vocation. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia College of Art (now a part of University of the Arts) and under the artist Filomena Dellaripa at Fleisher Art Memorial.
Her dedication paid off. Her work earned awards from the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Plastic Club, the Upper Merion Cultural Center and the Main Line Art Center and won praise from critics. One critic, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, noted the “physicality of the brushstroke and the exuberance of her painting.”
The true reward for Paul, of course, came from the long hours she spent at the canvas or in nature, studying her subject. “There are so many phases of art. The joy of just creating something,” she told the Jewish Exponent in 2017. “Painting is the most satisfying thing. You lose yourself. A book — you’re over with it … There is nothing like painting.”
She treasured her family, and she relished routine; Paul lived in the same Overbook house for more than 50 years. She taught art classes at the Kaiserman JCC. As her eyesight began to fail, she made the move to ceramics. She was still creating art after turning 100. Alice Dustin, a fellow painter who knew Paul for 20 years, said that she fell in love with Paul the first time she met her.
“She was just willing to jump into anything and everything,” Dustin said of her friend, who beat breast cancer, practiced yoga and swam in the Great Salt Lake — the latter two after the age of 95.
Paul is survived by her daughter, Susan Schaumburg; two granddaughters; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.