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For Seniors : Crafting Artworks Provides Youthful Enjoyment for Late-Bloomer

Al Greenberg, 68, is going through his teen-age years now. This is not to say that people get silly as they get older. This is about passion--the kind of passion we associate with youth.

If you can hold onto passion long enough, it can be put to good use when you’re older.

And that is what Greenberg has discovered through ceramics.

From his Marina del Rey garage studio, the retired tire salesman fashions Jewish icons from clay.

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Among his pieces: a chess set that depicts an Israeli soldier as a knight, a synagogue as a rook, a rabbi as a king and Greenberg’s wife as a queen. It and other pieces sell at the Museum of Tolerance on Wilshire Boulevard and other locations.

Greenberg finally has discovered what he was meant to do on this earth. It has taken a long time to get this far but he’s loving every minute of it.

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Greenberg is part of the golden-rule generation: people whose character was shaped by the values of responsibility, duty, loyalty, and, for men, the need to make a living and take care of your family. It wasn’t necessarily the life you wanted to be in but because of World War II or the Depression or poverty, it was the one you lived.

There was a certain prescribed way things were done and at what age. According to the script of life for Greenberg’s generation, he should be “retired"--enjoying his leisure time by traveling, sailing, bike riding.

He did all that, but he didn’t feel like he does when he turns clay into art. Greenberg found his niche.

For 35 years he was the Al in Hal and Al’s Tires in the Crenshaw district.

“If you don’t like Hal go to Al” was their motto. And it’s hard not to like Al, which explains why he and his brother were so successful.

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“These hands encrusted with grease and oil, why, I thought, ‘These hands can’t create anything but work,’ ” he said in his booming voice.

So how does a man go from rubber to clay?

It started with failure.

“I washed out of Air Force cadet school,” the Los Angeles native said. “I’m 18 and I’m heartbroken. I went looking for some of my buddies, and I passed the old Hal Roach Studio and saw a sign for the first motion picture unit. I had taken some photojournalism classes in high school. Ronald Reagan was the personnel officer. He interviewed me. He sent me to war and he stayed home,” he said.

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After the war, Greenberg tried several ways to make a living. He went broke several times. He even became a butcher for a while to support his wife, Charlotte, and son, Ken.

He and his brother decided to go into business together selling and repairing tires.

The business flourished, and his life gained direction.

“The day I walked out of the business 10 years ago I dropped an anchor. I never felt motivated to do anything and stick to it. I tried guitar lessons, Spanish lessons, bought a sailboat, rented a motor home and drove to all of the Indian reservations, but nothing felt right.

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“Then we went to Africa as part of a study abroad program. When we returned home, Charlotte became ill--something which was not related to the trip. I couldn’t go sailing or biking because we always did everything together. I don’t like to do anything alone,” he said.

Even when Charlotte got better, she turned her interest toward her first grandchild, who was born shortly after they returned from Africa.

So, at 65, Greenberg went to West Los Angeles College after being persuaded by a friend to take some basic ceramics classes.

“I fell in love with the whole thing,” he said.

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Greenberg started out making masks. But no one wanted to buy them. He stopped going to classes and started to develop his own style. He liked making his own hours too. Then he began doing Judaica, pieces that depict Jewish life and history. He makes religious figurines and scenes of the Wailing Wall and people at prayer.

It was something he had a feel for and it was part of his history.

“Clay is dirt. It’s earth. I get a religious feeling from the work but I am not a religious man. I didn’t want to follow a mold. I feel like a Jewish-male Grandma Moses because I started so late. My work is primitive in many ways. I have a certain amount of talent, but what I turn out comes from my heart,” he said.

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He also teaches ceramics in the Las Virgenes School District, where his grandson is in elementary school. “When I give my grandson a gift that I have made, it will outlive me. It’s stone. Stone will be around for a long time and he can say, ‘My grandpa made that,’ ” he said.

Greenberg’s pieces sell for $30 to $4,000 at the Museum of Tolerance, Gallery Judaica on Westwood Boulevard and J. Roth Bookseller on Olympic Boulevard.

Every piece is signed and has its own story. It’s an original. Just like Al.


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