"When you're 90, it's good if somebody's still speaking to you," quips Florence Millner Arnold.
On Sunday, the noted artist and longtime Fullerton resident will find out that a good many people are not only still speaking to her, but also are eager to pay tribute to her. Some are even calling her a "living treasure," which is OK with "Flossie" as long as the emphasis is on living.
Although her memorabilia and some of her paintings are housed in the Smithsonian Institution, she's not about to let anyone get the idea that the story of her life is complete. As far as she's concerned, she's still writing it as she goes along. She approaches each day as something to be "wrestled down to the ground" and sees every activity as "extracurricular."
Her infectious enthusiasm is sure to set the tone for her 90th birthday bash Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Fullerton Arboretum. Archie Arnold, her husband of 65 years, will be at her side, and as many as 400 friends and fans are expected to attend.
The party will be an occasion for the Cal State Fullerton Art Alliance to honor Arnold--a founder of the group--by establishing the Florence Millner Arnold Scholarship Endowment Fund. There will be speechmaking about her contributions to the arts in Orange County and her influence as a feminist, mentor, teacher and friend. And she'll be praised for her dedication to lifelong education, which led her to start the Continuing Learning Experience program at Cal State Fullerton for people whom she refuses to call "seniors."
Arnold will no doubt respond to all this with the quick wit of a stand-up comic because dwelling on the past is not her style.
"The yesterdays you have are all plowed under," she often says. "We're all the same age because all you have is one day."
A potent mix of the suffragette in her mother and the poet in her father, Arnold has a way of making such platitudes sound like New Age wisdom.
"She repeats them often," says longtime friend Katie Thorsen, "and we're glad she does because it reminds us all to live each day and not spend much time looking back."
Thorsen, who is in charge of the Cal State Fullerton Art Alliance docent program, says Arnold has taught her to always look at the positive side of life--and not to take herself too seriously.
"She loves to laugh. She can't stand grim people or people who are poor in spirit," Thorsen adds. "She has no patience for hand wringers who say, 'If only. . . .' "
Perhaps that's because Arnold--who has traveled extensively by herself because few people can keep up with her--has lived so fully that she is never plagued by regrets.
Raised in frontier mining camps in Arizona and Nevada, Arnold went to a bank by herself at 17 and boldly asked for a loan to pay her way to Mills College. She got it--and eventually paid it back with the income she earned as a vocal music teacher.
After she married Archie, a pharmacist, they settled in Fullerton, and she taught music in North Orange County schools for more than 40 years. She took a year off after her daughter, Adrienne, was born in 1933, but, unlike most women of her generation, she was determined to continue her career because she loved her work and didn't want to lose her independence.
"I wanted my own money so I wouldn't have to ask if I wanted to spend it on someone else or give it away," she recalled recently, noting that one of her greatest joys was buying new shoes for needy young students.
Arnold, who showed no sign of tiring during a lengthy interview at her home, said she was in the midst of a satisfying career and had no idea she was about to launch a new one when she enrolled in an art class at Fullerton College in 1950. Her first canvases were filled with blue skies, grassy knolls and seascapes, but she soon became bored with those traditional subjects, and her efforts to try something different quickly revealed a talent for abstract art.
Her work came to the attention of Karl Benjamin, a key figure in what became known in the '50s as the "hard-edge" movement. Arnold began to study under Benjamin in Claremont, where she played with two-dimensional arrangements of colors and shapes until she had mastered the "hard-edge" style. Working 12 to 18 hours a day, she produced a body of what she prefers to call "abstract classic" work that gained international attention and won her a place in "Who's Who in American Art" and the "Dictionary of International Biography."
Her works, now included in many private collections, have been exhibited in Madrid, Copenhagen, Florence and in Rome, Milan and Venice, Italy. Locally, they can be seen at the Newport Harbor Art Museum and the Laguna Beach Art Museum.
In her art as in her music, Arnold has always reached for a "moment of perfection." But she found painting more satisfying because, she explains, "music consumes time while painting stops time. The performance is there in the painting and you can always refer to it."
In spite of the long hours she spent working in her studio at home, she found time to help cultivate the arts in a part of the county that was a cultural wasteland when she took up painting.
She helped organize the Orange County Art Assn., the Fullerton Cultural and Fine Arts Commission and the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, where she still serves as a member of the board. She also started two annual cultural events--the city's "Night in Fullerton" and Muckenthaler's Florence Arnold Young Artist Festival.
Arnold, who is tiny but doesn't appear frail, gave up painting about two years ago because she no longer had the strength to work on large canvases, which require long periods of standing and a great deal of motion. But, she notes, the paints and brushes are still ready to be picked up at any time.
She misses work. "It's more fun to be scheduled--to know you have to get up and paint," she says.
But her life is rich, she stresses, because she has her family--including two grandchildren and two great grandchildren--and friends who call or visit every day, take her out to eat or shop, run errands for her and bring her homemade chicken soup when she isn't feeling well.
Arnold, who spent the night before her heart bypass surgery about six years ago discussing art with a group of students to whom she served a formal tea, always has enough energy to enjoy visitors, Archie says.
And, Katie Thorsen notes, on the way home from a late night out, it's always Flossie who asks, "What's next on the agenda? Do we have to go home?"
"She's a lot more fun than a lot of younger people I know," says Thorsen. "She's always the life of the party."
While her friends organize Sunday's party in her honor, Arnold has been planning the one that will be her last. She wants to make sure it is not a somber occasion.
She's already told her close friends that she wants a brass band--and a chocolate cake--at her funeral.
"If and when I die," she says matter-of-factly, "I want my funeral to be a celebration like my life has been."
And, she adds, "if there's something in the hereafter, I'll go for it. If not, I'll be back."