Times Staff Writer

Ethel Greene is an artist who likes to surprise.

She grew up in Boston a thrifty New Englander but moved to San Diego at the crescendo of World War II, in 1943. It mattered little to Greene that she had never seen San Diego, much less knew anyone who lived there. In her mind, it was all the more reason to go.

News of the move stunned her family; she felt challenged by the thrill of adventure.

“I arrived by bus at 2 a.m., and the place was hoppin,’ ” she said. “Even at that hour, San Diego was full of sailors and activity. I hired a taxi and went to the YWCA. I was led into a large room, where I awakened maybe a dozen angry women. I soon found a room to rent and had a roommate named Lulu from Louisiana. It was quite a time.”


She was educated at the Massachusetts School of Art and was taught the finer virtues of realism and design and how lovely watercolors could be. World War II was all the realism Greene needed--her heart was beating in a different direction. She loved the work of a Belgian named Rene Magritte, whose specialty was surrealism.

She loved surrealism for its extravagance--its intention to surprise.

Greene, who won’t say her age, is, by societal definition, elderly. Yet the term doesn’t fit. She’s a spry, fit, unwrinkled woman with a lifelong devotion to health food. Even in that context, surprises flourish.

“Vegetarians get mad at me,” she said, “because I eat meat. But I like meat, so I eat it.”


She won’t drink coffee or tea and despises sugar. She lives alone but has a cat. Even that is a furry compromise. She once gave one away, not having the money to feed herself and the cat as well.

“One thing I’ve never lost,” she said with a wry smile, “is my gift for thrift.”

Greene may be one of the more important painters in San Diego County. The woman of thrift uses colors that are lush and rich and anything but stark. She lives in rural Spring Valley in a house bought at an auction in 1955 for $1,725--a lovely, woodsy creation of the architect Lloyd Ruocco. She has toiled as a painter almost continuously since busing here in ’43.

Martin Petersen, senior curator and curator of American painting at the San Diego Museum of Art, called Greene “one of the most competent of local artists, who is always serious about her work.”


Petersen labeled it foolhardy for Greene or anyone else to limit her work to surrealism, her focus for almost two decades. She experimented nicely with abstract painting during an early expressionist period, he said, “and it, like all her work, was competently done and imaginatively conceived. I see her as a grand lady of great American artists. Her reputation as an exhibitor supports this.”

Sandra Dijkstra, a Del Mar literary agent and art buff who is a close friend of Greene’s, said collectors “all over San Diego have supported Ethel for decades, because they value her work so highly.” Day-to-day living was made rougher, however, by Greene’s leaving the refuge of the 9-to-5 work world in 1955.

She sold her first painting to a man in Linda Vista, in the 1950s, for “about $85"--not a lot to live on, even without a cat.

“Saving money is kind of a game with me,” she said. “I enjoy defeating the prices of living.”


What thrift didn’t accomplish, talent did. Greene’s work is varied, elaborate and dancing with surprise. She once painted a woman rowing a rowboat across a vast desert. She wondered if she could “pull it off,” but much to her own surprise and girlish delight, “it did . . . come off!”

Her rendering of “Balboa Park” includes horsemen wearing armor and a lion stalking a nude woman reclining on a picnic bench, the top of which is littered with pigeons. Sailors, eucalyptus trees and a Sunday shade of green complete the clever tableau.

“Blue Tree,” one of her most compelling works, centers on a young woman with long hair staring into a pond made brighter by a glowing moon. The woman wears a dress, and the tree has leaves. In the reflection, there is a surprise--the woman is nude, and the tree is bare. (“Blue Tree” will be shown in the art gallery of Southwestern College from March 14-April 3.)

Greene knows that San Francisco and Los Angeles offer richer art worlds than San Diego. Plenty of her friends have felt the pull, and gone; so far, she hasn’t. She shyly admits “it’s easier to be a success down here,” but it’s easy to think she could succeed, on her terms, in either other place.


Greene is modest, especially about work. She lauded Magritte for once painting a man and woman fighting, as part of the same body.

“He tried it, and it came off,” she said with a sense of awe. “I might have the idea, but I wouldn’t know how to do it. I wouldn’t know how . . . to pull it off.”

The fantastic appeals to Greene far more than the literal, unless it comes to doing a budget. She’s the inventor of “eggs of an unknown bird,” a recurring image in her works. She draws eggs that seem to be roughly the size of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

San Diego represented her earliest adult freedom. She left a greeting-card company in Boston--she thought the war would kill the business--and ended up working as an artist for an aircraft company. Mere money-making measures en route to a nobler calling.


She puzzles at times over why she became an artist. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father a mechanic who could, she admits, “letter his name quite nicely.”

Most of all, she is thankful for opportunity. She has grabbed them when they came, and with the savvy of a horseman in armor, made the most of what they present.

“I had them to grab,” she said. “I noticed in grade school that a black girl and I were the best artists. I’ve always wondered what happened to her. I have a feeling the roads we traveled were much different, maybe even . . . sadly different.”