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The off-white carpet in Abe Graber’s Gaithersburg, Md., apartment is marked by several splotches of paint. The stains could be the byproduct of any number of paintings that decorate Graber’s walls and occupy his closet, but he doesn’t take note of them. Legally blind from macular degeneration since 2004, the 103-year-old Graber spends most of his days listening to books on tape, napping, and, when he can, making art.
Graber stopped painting when he lost his eyesight, but since last year he has slowly been making art with the help of his 66-year-old son and caretaker, George Graber, as well as hospice workers. “When I lost my sight in my right eye in 2000, I felt so terrible that I couldn’t get over it. Then in the other, it was 20/268. That gave me a little light. It was terrible,” says Abe Graber. “I didn’t decide to stop painting. I couldn’t decide to do any painting.”
Several of his recent works are now on display at the Art Enables studio, in the show “Together One Hundred and Eight: A Birthday Celebration.” The exhibition opened two days after Abe Graber’s 103rd birthday and five years after Art Enables began assisting adult artists who have developmental and mental disabilities. “For the most part, we’re dealing with people with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy,” says Art Enables Executive Director Joyce Muis-Lowery. “We have almost every disability in the book, but we don’t have anyone who’s visually challenged.”
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Included in the exhibition are “11 smaller paintings that he’s done, say, within the last five months,” says George Graber. “Then they wanted to take two pieces of work to show what his capability was before he went blind, so that’s why they took Leaves of Grass and the stained glass piece, Homage to Picasso.”
“Both of those pieces are in a much more academic tradition than his recent work,” says Muis-Lowery. Though most of the Art Enables program artists are self-taught, Abe studied at the Grand Central School of Art under Arshile Gorky and the Art Students League of New York. In the eight decades he’s been making art, Abe has done frescoes, stained glass, watercolors, tile works, and, in 2000—at the age of 96—he completed a 50-by-20-foot mural for the Art and Drama Therapy Institute in northeast D.C.
“Before he started the mural, he lost sight in his right eye, and he hadn’t told anyone,” says his son. “We probably would have gone crazy thinking of him climbing up the scaffolding.” Photos in an album documenting the summer project show Abe Graber in a straw hat, standing in front of his vibrantly colorful painting.
Muis-Lowery describes his recent work as made of “playful” swirls and drips. “He has reinvented a way of working that accommodates the disability that he has developed,” she says.
“I did different colors, all the colors. Secondaries, a mix,” Abe Graber says of his new paintings. “I try to do whatever I can. I asked George to buy me three canvases so I could make drawings on them.”
He has been using one of those canvases to paint a portrait with the help of a hospice volunteer who visits a few times a month. He plans to use the other two for abstract paintings. “I know enough about color, but I have to give that to somebody else,” he says. “This lady doesn’t know enough about color and how to express it, so I have to tell her, ‘Take red and white and make pink, very light pink, and add a little yellow in it so you get a flesh tone. Under the nose and around the ear you add a little blue, see, because that’s closer to skin. There you are!’ I teach them their lessons.”
“Together One Hundred and Eight: A Birthday Celebration” is on view from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, to Friday, March 23, at the Art Enables Gallery, 411 New York Ave. NE. Free. (202) 554-9455.