GEORGETOWN, Maine — Meat, cheese, cream, butter and art every day. That’s artist and author Dahlov Ipcar’s recipe for a long life.
In a studio annexed to an old farmhouse, the 98-year-old painter sits surrounded by her lively animal paintings and sculptures carved by her father, the artist William Zorach. Overlooking a serene 40 acres in Robinhood Cove, it’s a fine retreat.
But retreating is not what the painter is doing. Though macular degeneration, a condition she’s had for years, has robbed her of her central vision, she still paints most mornings.
“Everything is foggy. I get within an inch and a half of the canvas,” she says gesturing toward the almost complete painting drying on her canvas. “I don’t think I’d stop. Even if I can’t see anything, it makes me happy.”
She already has had what she considers an extra 18 years of life. Both her parents died at age 80 and so did her brother.
“I thought I’d die at 80,” said Ipcar, seated on a couch with her calico cat, Chelsea Girl, purring in her lap. “I’ve written instructions but thrown them away. I don’t know why I’m living so long.”
She has undergone a series of “artificial things” such as hips and shoulder operations, but for the most part, she gets around fine on a walker. At an opening last week of recent work at the Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport, Ipcar greeted a receiving line of 500 people who waited eagerly for a few minutes of her time. Shaking each person’s hand, she had a warm smile for all.
She grew up in an artistic family where Ipcar’s mother Marguerite Zorach, an artist whose work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, was a worthy partner to her father. The Zorachs, as they became known, had a joint influence on the modern art movement.
A Greenwich Village childhood, with summers in Maine, made Ipcar’s artistic path seem inevitable. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion for her family. Her parents didn’t push her into art. They taught her to “clean the brushes, put out the paints and stretch the canvases,” but they didn’t instruct her what to put on the canvas — or teach her their techniques.
“I guess I am self-taught,” she said.
As her art career developed, her parents would praise what they liked or remain mum.
“That was how I learned,” she said.
For a while the family’s only source of income was her father’s teaching salary at The Arts Students League of New York. The budget was tight. But if growing up austerely was a hardship, it left no scars.
“My brother said he wouldn’t be an artist because the life was too hard. But I never noticed it. I thought that life was beautiful,” recalled Ipcar. “There were a lot of rich kids that went to school with me and I didn’t like their houses. I thought their homes were gloomy and dark. My house was always full of color, bright red floors and walls painted canary yellow. And modernistic paintings on the wall.”
Her work, choreographed folk art paintings of animals with long tails, bearded monkeys, butterflies and gazelles leaping under blue moons, capture the imagination of youth. She has illustrated and written dozens of children’s books, a favorite being “The Calico Jungle.”
As an artist, she came to animals on instinct.
“I got it in my mother’s womb. They were living in New Hampshire when she was pregnant with me. It was her first farm experience. They had a horse, cow, pig and a garden,” Ipcar said.
When Ipcar moved full time to Georgetown in 1937 to run a dairy with her husband, animals became an irrepressible muse. Though she was running a farm and living in the style of a mid-19th century life, illuminated by oil lanterns, cutting wood for heat and ice for the icebox, she found time to paint and write.
“I’ve trained my visual memory deliberately,” said Ipcar, whose subject ranges across the animal kingdom. “I’ve always painted animals from the beginning. I am not that interested in people. I guess I am an introvert.”
Deteriorating eyesight makes it hard to see the National Geographic movies of African zebras she used to love, and Ipcar can’t discern the colors of birds flitting outside her window, or the paint by her palette, yet her artistic practice has not dimmed.
“Your hands do a lot of the drawing for you. I can almost close my eyes and draw a horse now. I’ve done it so long,” said Ipcar.
Though her paintings depict jungles and exotic locales, she has never been outside the United States — not even to Canada. Traveling makes her feel “uprooted and bored because I want to be doing my thing.”
When it comes to old age, she is well-adjusted and savoring life.
“Old age is something everyone goes through. Some people are in much worse shape.”
Ipcar wonders why she keeps on living and struggles with the question: “How do you continue to do what you used to do?”
She is finding a way.
Ipcar’s work is on exhibit through Dec. 28 at Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport. Her books can be purchased through Islandport Press at www.islandportpress.com, 846-3344, and they can be found at most bookstores in Maine.