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Artist Agnes Schenk gets her own show at age 87

Agnes Schenk isn't big on sentimentality. The Laguna Beach resident sits behind the work table in her garage studio, surrounded by stacked canvases and jars of brushes, and tells the story of her upcoming gallery show in the voice of one who views it as a curiosity more than a career breakthrough.

"I sent them pictures of my paintings, and I didn't hear from them for a while," the 87-year-old artist says. "I finally heard from them, and they said, yes, they saw them and they were lovely, and maybe in 2015 I could have a show. I said, 'Oh, [bleep], I'll be dead in 2015.'"

Schenk, whose exhibit "Spring Spectacular — Flowers Rediscovered" will open April 7 at the Newport Beach Central Library, has already issued a warning about her language, despite a reporter's assurances that a family newspaper will gloss over it.

The occasional four-letter slip aside, though, her manner is warm and congenial. She's also a little fretful on this warm afternoon about the 80-plus guests who have RSVP'd for the show; she hopes to have enough catered food to cover them all.

Schenk, a retired fashion designer who has lived in her Laguna house since 1965, didn't initially set out to have a solo exhibition. She considers her garage a decent-enough gallery. Her friends, though, urged her to submit her work, and now that Schenk has a show on the docket — well, she can't deny she's a little jazzed.

"Of all the places to have a show, that's where I wanted," she says about the library, whose architecture she loves. "And it's summertime, and it's great for flowers. Isn't that wonderful? That's marvelous. And here, at 87 years old, I get a show."

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Flowers dominate Schenk's garage: vivid closeups of rhododendrons, hollyhocks, magnolia. A box full of specially made greeting cards features smaller versions of the images. A new painting rests upside down on the easel in front. Schenk explains that she recently finished painting the bottom.

The artist, who often works from photographs, prefers natural subjects to portraits. She has one canvas of a cat in the garage, but says finessing the hairs frustrated her. As for human subjects, she says — with a chuckle — that she doesn't like to have people hanging around her garage.

Not that Schenk is a recluse. For two decades, she's painted with a circle of 20 or so friends, and the group still meets regularly at a studio in Irvine. Jennifer Mathews, a fellow member, says she first met Schenk when they were taking a class with former Laguna College of Art + Design professor Roger Armstrong.

Mathews, a Newport Beach resident, calls the group social more than anything — a chance for members to eat, chat and share their work.

"She just does it because she loves it," Mathews says of Schenk.

Schenk has never harbored dreams of being a professional artist — the one time she sold a painting, she says, she created a replica for herself because she didn't want to part with the image. And she doesn't have her eye on sales at the Newport library, although she adds, grinning, that she would entertain the notion if someone offered $30,000 for a painting.

Still, art wasn't simply a hobby that Schenk hit upon after retiring in 1984. As a teenager in Missouri, she studied art under the nuns at her high school, and one teacher, who had been trained at the Sorbonne in Paris, influenced her in particular.

"She studied the old-fashioned way," Schenk says. "She took you from the very beginning. In those days, oil was in, not watercolor. You know, after that, it was all watercolor. Now it's oils again, or all mixed media. But anyway, she took you from clay things like hands and faces, and you learned to sketch all that, and then she took you to charcoal."

Schenk has a remnant from that experience displayed in her garage: a charcoal portrait of a horse, dated 1944. Around her home are other works that date back decades, including a high school landscape of Mt. Vesuvius that hangs upstairs. The works in "Spring Spectacular," which are cohesive enough to look as though they were created as a whole, span years as well.

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Schenk may not have had name recognition when she submitted her work to the Newport Beach Arts Commission in 2013, but her work easily found a niche. Tim Hetherton, the library's services director and city staff liaison to the arts commission, says the group slotted the exhibit for spring because of the pastoral subject matter.

"She does pictures of flowers, and we thought they would be perfect for spring, which is why they chose April," Hetherton says. "But just the color and the detail and that fact that they're such close-up pictures — they almost look like they're abstracts, so we thought it would be a nice exhibition for the public to take a look at."

Because of the library's waiting list, Schenk's turn finally came this year. "Spring Spectacular" will remain on display until the last day of April, with a reception scheduled for the 16th. If all goes as planned, it will be Schenk's highest-profile moment as an artist to date.

Not surprisingly, she intends to cut a low-key figure.

"Heavens, no," she replies when asked if she wants to make a speech at the library. "I'm going to be in a wheelchair sitting out front to make sure they know where to go."

If You Go

What: "Spring Spectacular — Flowers Rediscovered"

Where: Newport Beach Central Library, 1000 Avocado Ave., Newport Beach

When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, April 7 to 30 (reception 5 to 7 p.m. April 16)

Cost: Free

Information: (949) 717-3800 or http://www.newportbeachlibrary.org

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