Linguist uncovers her inner artist

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Barbara Ruben

After a lengthy career teaching foreign languages, Gladys Lipton took a painting class a couple of years ago that set her off on a new path as a painter. She recently had her first gallery show, at age 91, and now markets her works online.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

Day-Glo pink swirls into ribbons of azure and canary yellow on Gladys Lipton’s canvases. Slivers of amethyst, jade, eggplant and magenta punctuate the vibrant abstract works.

Earlier this year, Lipton exhibited her artwork in her first show, a high point in any artist’s career — especially remarkable since Lipton is 91 and took up painting just two years ago.

She sold four paintings at that show, held at the gallery in the Friendship Heights Village Center in Chevy Chase, Md. in January, and will exhibit in two more shows this spring.

And no one is more surprised by her success in the art world than Lipton herself, who spent her career as a foreign language teacher and administrator.

“I really don’t know where I come up with the designs. I don’t understand the process. But I’m glad it’s working and continues to work,” said Lipton.

Bringing light to darkness

What Lipton does know is that her bright, joyful work stems from a dark period in her life.

Two years ago, she and her husband moved from Rockville, Md., to the Fox Hill retirement community in Bethesda — she to an independent living condominium, he to assisted living because of dementia.

“It was very painful to watch a brilliant scientist lose his memory,” she said. Robert Lipton, a physicist, had been the director of science programs for New York City Public Schools in the 1960s and ‘70s. He died last July. The couple had been married for 70 years.

Once settled in, Lipton decided to take an art class offered at Fox Hill.

“It’s just that I had all this energy that had been pent up with sadness. But [my] paintings had all this cheerfulness, and I’ll never understand that. Maybe I was just trying to find a corner that was happy,” said Lipton, who is a fan of Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keefe and Gustave Moreau.

She says many people tell her that her paintings have a retro, 1960s psychedelic style. She mixes acrylic paint and felt-tip markers.

Doing it her way

During art class, Lipton balked when the teacher asked the class to copy the style of one of the famous painters they had discussed.

“The teacher was very kind and did an excellent presentation, and then showed us examples of work we could copy. But I didn’t like any of them and said, ‘Do I have to do this?’

“And she said, ‘No, you can do anything you wish.’ And that’s exactly what I did,” Lipton said.

Her art teacher, Aniko Makranczy, remembers the exchange well, and remarked, “Rebellious? I’ll say. She wanted to go in her own direction from the beginning.

“One of the things she’s really good at is incorporating concepts and ideas and motifs into her own work. It wasn’t so much she was imitating it as she was folding it into the ideas that she had,” said Makranczy, who also teaches art at Montgomery College.

“She was always pushing the boundary in trying to move forward with what she had just learned.”

A facility for languages

Lipton’s trademark independent streak started early. In high school, she picked up French and Spanish easily and, as a student at Brooklyn College, planned a career in education.

When she discovered a pilot French program in an elementary school across the street from the college, Lipton was “entranced”  and decided she wanted to teach foreign languages to young students. In the 1940s and ‘50s, very few elementary schools offered foreign languages. But Lipton hoped to change that.

After several years of teaching languages in traditional elementary classes, she found herself with what was called an IGC class. “Officially, it stood for Intellectually Gifted Class,” she recalled, “but teachers called it the ‘I Go Crazy class’” because of the smart, rambunctious students.

Part of the job was teaching her fourth grade charges French. She wrote verb conjugations on the board on the first day, and a boy at the back raised his hand.

“He said, ‘What do we need this for?’ And I said, ‘You know, you don’t,’ and I erased the board. And behold, this kid taught me how to teach foreign languages in an elementary school. Use sentences that mean something, something that engages them. This led to a whole new world.”

Lipton rose through the ranks of the New York City Public School system, taking short maternity leaves to have her two daughters, but continuing to teach at a time there were few working mothers.

She eventually became the director of foreign languages for the entire school system, overseeing 2,000 teachers. Her husband held a similar position in science. “We were a power couple,” she quipped.

Moving to Maryland

The Liptons moved to Maryland in 1975.

“Why did I move? Grandchildren. Our daughters decided they didn’t want to live in New York. We said, ‘If you’re staying in Maryland and there’s grandchildren, we’re coming. Like it or not.’”

Today, Lipton has four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Once in Maryland, Lipton became the head of foreign languages for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. She also served as the coordinator of the Modern Language Dept. at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s outreach department.

She has written several foreign language dictionaries for children, and other books on language. In 2013, Lipton was recognized by the Northeast Conference of the Teaching of Foreign Languages as a “Regional World Language Treasure...in recognition of priceless and unique contributions to world language education and educators.”

She continues to serve as the director of the National FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School) Institute.

Empowering the viewer

Does Lipton see any parallels between language and art? Not really, she says. But she did “flirt” with art after getting her doctorate from New York University.

“I painted a big painting with all the shades of pink and all the swirls I now do. My husband wasn’t nearly as thrilled with it as I was. He said, ‘I’ll tolerate it for a while.’”

The five-foot-by-five-foot painting hung in their living room for a few years, but did not make the move to Maryland.

She is now experimenting with round paintings and preparing for upcoming shows, including a solo show at the Bethesda Library in the fall.

“I am just amazed that this really works. It seems to be interesting to people of all ages. Children enjoy it. They always say, ‘What is it?’ And I say, ‘Whatever you want it to be.’ They are always surprised they have the power to decide what it might look like,” Lipton said.

“I think that’s the fun of doing abstract work, because it can appeal to so many people. They can become active participants in enjoying it. They can have a totally different idea about it than what I originally thought it might be. That empowers the viewer, I think. That really pleases me.”

Lipton will next exhibit as part of the 40th Annual Community Art Show and Sale presented by the Women’s Club of Chevy Chase, 7931 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, Md., from April 10 to 12. Call (301) 652-8480 for more information.

From May 10 to June 2, she will participate in a show called “A Lifetime of Perspective” at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville, Md. To learn more, call (301) 881-0100.

 To see Lipton’s work online, go to www.gladys-c-lipton.org/art/index.html.

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