Good Life

The secret of artful living: Rose Budd Fenstermacher has painting in her blood

Fenstermacher has always built the frames and stretched the canvases for her paintings herself.
Fenstermacher has always built the frames and stretched the canvases for her paintings herself. CDT photo

Late afternoon’s golden rays shined on Rose Budd Fenstermacher’s face as she sat by her studio window, hard at work.

Her latest painting, a mountain landscape resplendent with fall foliage, rested behind her on a large wooden easel. It showed her view, but it was nowhere near finished. She had the ridge painted, flecked with orange and gold, but not dwellings and hills in the foreground.

That’s why Fenstermacher was gazing outward, a sketch pad in her lap, drawing a charcoal rendition of a tree. She’ll use it as a reference when completing her acrylic work.

“So I can get a feel for what it’s going to look like,” she said. “There’s a good light right now.”

She seemed right at home — because that’s exactly where she was.

Fenstermacher, 92 and a lifelong artist, has converted her small apartment at The Oaks at Pleasant Gap assisted-living facility into a painter’s enclave. Brushes and palette knives poke from cans and jars, and art books line her shelves. On her walls hang several of her paintings.

Her easel, a cluttered table and a sofa packed with pillows and stuffed animals dominate the apartment’s single room. So much is crammed in it’s easy at first to overlook what’s missing.

“This is my bed,” Fenstermacher said, indicating a rocking chair.

She apparently gets enough rest. Her energetic, outgoing personality serves her well as the chief greeter welcoming and educating new residents. Administrator Nichole Kerschner considers her the “unofficial mayor” of the Oaks.

“She is so engaging, and she can talk to people about anything,” Kerschner said.

But most dear to her is art, her passion since childhood. Throughout her life it has been the connecting thread, linking different stages — her Upper Darby youth, her World War II service, a late 1960s job restoring the state Senate chambers ceiling in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg and her years spent teaching art and working as an interior designer.

“I’ve just always painted,” she said. “I’ve never known anything else.”

A painter’s blood still pumps through her veins. Like Picasso, who remained prolific into his 90s, she’s not yielding an inch to age.

“Look, I’m still steady,” she said, holding out a motionless hand as proof.

Her talent is genetic

Born in 1922, Rose Budd Nickell grew up in an artistic household.

Her mother, Mary Louise Nickell, whose photo hangs in an oval frame in her daughter’s studio, and maternal grandfather were painters. She jokes that her talent is genetic.

“It just came with me when I was born,” she said.

Early on, her predilection for art emerged. In elementary school, she drew American Indian wigwams and Eskimo igloos for her classmates with her teachers’ encouragement. At one point, for a reason lost to time, she found herself on stage drawing on an easel before an audience.

She eventually advanced to rendering pen-and-ink color portraits of her cat and experimenting with watercolors.

“Nothing was a problem,” she said. “Any time I could get my hands on a pencil, brush or crayon, I would do it.”

At Upper Darby High School, she used her talents to paint theater backdrop sets. She also fenced in tournaments, won jitterbug competitions and performed as the head cheerleader.

Even after all the years, she’s quick to don her old fencing mask and strike a familiar pose, ready to thrust and parry. And her inner cheerleader hasn’t diminished.

“She can still do some of the cheers,” said the Rev. Drew Fenstermacher, the younger of her two sons and the pastor of Faith Baptist Church of State College. “Every now and then, we say, ‘Mom, give us a cheer.’ ”

But back in Upper Darby, she saved her best spirit for cheering up broken men.

Lifting spirits

First she drew smiles.

Sometimes soldiers, sailors and airmen strode down the gangplank from the troop ship, eager to take their last steps back to America. Sometimes they hobbled on crutches or were carried on litters by stevedores.

Regardless, they all beheld a sight for sore eyes: a beautiful private first class standing on the Hampton Roads, Va., dock and welcoming them home.

That’s one way Fenstermacher contributed to the war effort in the Third Women’s Army Corps Company, following in the steps of her older brother, Charles Nickell, and her high school sweetheart and future husband, Kay Fenstermacher.

They served, respectively, as an Associated Press correspondent with the Air Force in the Pacific and an Army tank commander in North Africa, Italy and Germany.

“We were just out of high school,” she said. “(Kay) had just learned to drive a car, then he had to learn to drive a tank.”

After their 1941 graduation, she worked as a hotel waitress at the Jersey Shore and then for a Philadelphia insurance company as a secretary, taking art classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Pearl Harbor changed everything.

Everyone she knew left to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan. Two years later, Rose Budd Nickell finally joined them, flooring her family by enlisting.

“I wanted to go over there and fight the enemy, get a gun and get on the front line and do my part,” she said.

Instead, she wound up comforting those who fought — and paid a price.

Fenstermacher not only greeted 9,840 returning servicemen while a WAC until 1945, she checked their identification tags, logged their arrivals and arranged their transport to Camp Patrick Henry, a staging base near Newport News, Va.

And, according to an AP story at the time, she was good at it.

“Private First Class Rosebud (sic) Nickell, of Philadelphia, visibly boosted the morale of the homecoming soldiers as she greeted them at the foot of the casualty gangway, keeping up an incessant chatter; she touched one man on the arm, grasped the fingers of another, and smiled cheerfully at them all,” the story said.

“Most of the soldiers were unsmiling as they started their descent of the gangway but by the time they reached the pretty brown-haired, blue-eyed WAC, they were grinning broadly.”

She had asked for duty at a port of embarkation, thinking it would be the fastest way overseas, but was assigned to be a secretary. Bored with just that, she began visiting Camp Patrick Henry to use art as therapy in the hospital wards, teaching patients to make leather wallets and soap carvings.

“I was trying to do something for the wounded when they were lying there for a week,” Fenstermacher said. “There was nothing for them to do.”

When the Hampton Roads port commander, a brigadier general, decided to replace military police with WACs for the troops’ homecoming, Fenstermacher was tabbed. Her photo graced the cover of Camp Patrick Henry orientation pamphlet given to all servicemen.

“All day long (she has stood on unrelieved stretches eight hours and longer) until the last casualty has left the transport, Rose Budd stands at her post, greeting them all, ignoring empty sleeves, pinned-up trouser legs, casts that cover men from chin to knees,” said a Virginian-Pilot profile of her.

As reporters bore witness, she even kissed an overjoyed soldier who had vowed “to kiss the first girl I met when I came ashore.”

In the camp hospital, working with special services, she did her best to lift spirits.

“I even sang to them, but that wasn’t a high point of their recuperation,” she said.

She was more successful with her pencils and brushes, painting unit insignias on suitcases and creating portraits of patients who sat for her, bandages and all.

“I sketched their pictures,” she said. “Being an artist, I could do that. ... They liked that. They just enjoyed having something to do. They were just great. They never complained.”

Decades later, memories of them still makes her eyes misty.

“It was an honor for me to be able to do that for them,” she said. “I couldn’t do enough for them.”

Modern-day Michelangelo

Before she was discharged as a buck sergeant, she married her tank commander.

“I had to get permission to be with an officer because I was still an enlisted personnel,” she said.

She settled in West Chester, her home until a 1996 move to State College, and taught youth and adult art classes at the local YWCA, the Chester County Art Center and privately while raising two children. For three years, she served as the executive director of the Chester County Art Association.

From the start in her classes, she focused on fundamentals, rather than showing people how to translate a photograph into a painting.

“I wanted to teach people to paint what they saw,” she said. “I taught them beginners’ art.”

From 1963 to 1988, she ran her own interior design business. Her clients included hospitals in Philadelphia, Norristown, Lock Haven and Chester County as well as two churches. At Lock Haven, she painted a life-size mural of a shepherd in the hospital chapel. Another mural, at the Hershey Medical Center, involved panels of trees.

All along, she pursued her own painting out of her basement studio at home. Several local exhibitions displayed her works. One painting even went into the DuPont family collection.

But for prominence, nothing could top a 1968 commission.

Hired by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, she spent three and a half weeks on a scaffold painstakingly painted an expansion of the State Senate chamber ceiling. The Daily Local News out of West Chester called her a “Modern Day Michelangelo.”

“I did it on my back,” she said. “I had to be at least 12 inches from the ceiling to control my brush.”

While free-handing scrolls, flowers, heads, grapes and leaves on a gold-leaf border, she consulted a small panel of the design she made as a rough guide. She also had to match the colors of the ceiling’s older portion, making her additions look 60 years old.

But she wasn’t prepared for the fragrance of linseed oil her first night high above the chamber floors.

“It sort of got to me. I fell asleep to the swaying of the scaffolding,” she said, laughing. “I was young.”

Bringing joy to others

Drew Fenstermacher remembers his mother’s creativity revealed in another fashion.

He was 3 and fidgety, unable to pose with his brother, Bruce, for a Father’s Day present. She solved the problem with a cup full of pencils.

“That fascinated me enough to get me to stand still long enough for her to paint the portrait,” he said.

It’s now a family treasure, one of about a dozen of her paintings in his home. Four more hang at his church, including his favorite, “Seasons of Life,” four large panels juxtaposing the passage of the seasons with the stages of life.

Throughout his mother’s first three seasons, Drew Fenstermacher said, she enjoyed teaching children about art. Whether at his school or in her classes, she always encouraged creativity.

“She would often say that the worst thing you can say to a child is ‘That’s not the right way to draw a tree,’ ” he said.

Even in her winter, he said, she’s still following her heart. She has taught art to her three grandchildren. At his church, when children show her their art, she’ll gently give them tips in addition to praise.

“When I think of my mother and art, a key thing I think of is how she has used her art and her talents and her abilities to bring joy to others,” he said.

Art has taken Rose Budd Fenstermacher from Upper Darby to painting trips to Italy and all over the world to finally a room with a view.

She has captured the eternal grace of flowers, the genteel face of historic New Orleans and, for one home commission, 16 historical scenes, including Pearl Harbor, painted in skylights.

But she’s not thinking about the past now. All that matters is what’s on her easel: an unfinished mountain landscape, already gorgeous but waiting for houses and trees.

“Now I’m painting backwards probably,” she said. “But I want it to be what I’m seeing out there.”