WESTERLY — With glitter in her hair and a smile on her face, Trisha Grabel, 88, stood in the middle of the Tapped Apple Cidery & Winery on Friday night, greeting friends, fans and art lovers.
Dozens of admirers – including many from the StoneRidge elderly community in Mystic, where Grabel now makes a home – and a few others, members of Westerly Village, crowded into the small cider house to see Grabel’s eye-catching paintings – acrylic landscapes , flowers, stills and abstracts “inspired by the light, the ocean and the beautiful landscapes of Westerly and Mystic” – hung on the walls.
“Another just sold,” said a delighted Grabel, who was in the middle of opening her first solo art exhibition in 10 years, and was clearly enjoying herself. “Now I’ve sold two.”
One of the paintings was sold to John Harkey of Providence, who stood nearby, smiling, alongside his wife, Ginger.
“How can you not love your job? said John, who is writing a story about Grabel and his art for an upcoming edition of “Village Voices.” “I love it. It makes me happy.”
“She has such freedom of expression,” John added.
“She has such command,” said Mimi Desire, of Attleboro, Massachusetts, who helped Grabel hang the show and sat at a small table near the entrance to keep track of “Sold Out” stickers. “She’s a great lady.”
A great lady with a beautiful story, according to Laurie Meisner, who, assisted by her husband, Bill, and John Harkney, helped Grabel write a short biography titled “One Woman’s Story of Evolving from Mere Survival to Thriving – Despite All the obstacles”.
Grabel credits Harkey and the Meisners for encouraging her to tell her story and share her artwork, which also adorns the walls of her StoneRidge apartment, where, days before the opening reception, she spoke about her life and his art.
“I have a strong sense of color,” Grabel said as she sat in her brightly decorated flat, surrounded by plants, artwork and a huge, bright red British telephone box.
“Bought from Westerly and made in China,” Grabel said with a laugh as she stood beside the phone booth.
Her artistic work, she said, is “fuelled by my exuberance, my imagination, my intellect and my love of color and movement”.
“Nothing is realistic,” adds Grabel, citing Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh as inspiration for his expressionist art, and Warhol, Pollock and Frankenthaler as influences on his abstracts.
“I’m not a famous artist, but I celebrate my art,” the London native said. “I want my art to bring joy. One of my goals is to bring happiness to others because I’m basically a happy person and I like to spread it.”
But before art; before his escape from the Nazis in 1939 aboard the RMS Duchess of Atholl with his nanny and brothers; before her marriage to the late Dan Grabel – a New York-based reporter who made a career as a writer and reporter for the original “Today” show with Dave Garroway – before her successful career as advertising executive for home furnishings Conran; before returning to school at the College of New Rochelle to complete a bachelor’s degree; before the birth of her two sons, four grandsons and a great-grandchild, a 1-pound, 14-ounce baby named Patricia Ann Cohen, born in London to Alfred and Rita Cohen.
“My baby bonnet could fit on a tangerine,” Grabel said with a laugh. “The doctor said I wasn’t worth saving.”
“But here I am at the ripe old age of 88,” she said warmly. “I’m a survivor and a fighter and I’m fiery.”
“My nanny wrapped me in cotton, fed me with an eyedropper, and kept me in the bottom drawer of a dresser,” Grabel said. “From impossible beginnings to a high-spirited, high-spirited 88-year-old man.
“I have the fighting spirit of the Cohens,” she said. “Our motto is ‘Play hard and work hard’.”
Grabel is also an accomplished athlete who swims every day and is a senior Olympic cycling champion who has cycled in a number of competitive races, ridden from Ottawa to Quebec, through Cuba, in the Cape Mountains, to through Long Island on a “cultural hike”. and participated in the Empire Games with dozens of medals for his efforts.
Grabel’s parents also showed that fighting spirit, she said. During the Second World War, his mother served as volunteer chief civil defense officer for the Corporation of the City of London when the city “gave him a flat in the criminal court called the Old Bailey – a place which is now reserved for murderers”.
His father, manager of Court Bros. Ltd., a chain of British furniture stores, joined the Royal Air Force and spent most of the war as a squad leader in Cairo, Egypt.
“His work wasn’t always so bad,” she said. “He was a good bridge player and sometimes had to play bridge with King Farouk.”
Although she took painting lessons as a young girl in England, she says, she was constantly berated for refusing to copy what was before her.
“But I always thought that I would paint one day,” she said.
Grabel, who studied at the Sorbonne, started painting again, but not until she was in her 60s, she said.
“I became a wild woman in my sixties,” Grabel said triumphantly.
Grabel has exhibited in galleries in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. His work was also included in a tri-state exhibit at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York.
In 2004, Grabel and her late husband moved to Westerly. After her husband died nearly 10 years ago, she said, she became a member of Westerly Village, one of four villages in Rhode Island and part of the umbrella organization known as of Village Common. The group is dedicated to helping senior citizens “stay active, connected and independent in the home and community they love”.
“Westerly Village has been very, very helpful to me,” Grabel said, “not only helping me get to big social events, since I’m no longer driving, but also helping me with transportation and now …to help me share my story – to share my own life’s miracle of not only surviving, but also thriving despite all odds.
“Fame doesn’t come overnight,” Grabel joked as she sat in her StoneRidge apartment, “and it doesn’t last more than 15 minutes.
“I really enjoy painting,” Grabel said with a smile. “I am confused.”
Grabel’s exhibit will be on view at Tapped Apple Cidery & Winery, 37 High St., Westerly, through October 20.
“I hope people come to look and see and smell the flowers that can’t be picked,” Grabel joked. But they can be sold, she added, and she hopes she doesn’t have to take any back to StoneRidge with her at the end of the show.
“I would love to sell them all,” she added with a smile.