Last Wednesday, I attended a student art show at Golden West College, intrigued by a flier one of the faculty members had sent me. I love student art shows, in part because they’re in my blood. My dad taught art at a community college for 40 years, and I can’t remember a time growing up when I wasn’t surrounded by charcoal, paints and stacks of photocopies.

The Golden West show was terrific, with dozens of paintings, photographs and sculptures filling the quad and classrooms. As one who runs a small book press and seeks cover art for every issue, I know there are more talented artists in the world than there are lucky breaks. Still, the part of the show that most caught my eye wasn’t any of the artworks, but a pillar that sits in the shade and faces the quad.

Last year, the Golden West art department lost one of its institutions when Jane Axel, a student for the last two decades, passed away not long after her 90th birthday. Axel’s family memorialized her by donating $50,000 for a plaque, which now hangs on the pillar, and a scholarship in her name.

For Axel, creating art wasn’t a hobby to pass the time after retirement; it was her lifelong passion. The Kansas University graduate, who was named Huntington Beach’s Artist of the Year in 2006, started taking classes at Golden West in her late 60s and branched out into new media, starting with two- dimensional paintings and moving on into sculpture, Cubism and African art.

Darrell Ebert, a longtime art professor at Golden West, said Axel often served as an inspiration for students young enough to be her great-grandchildren.

“She was a real asset to the program,” said Ebert, who accompanied Axel on an artists’ trip to Southeast Asia several years ago. “The younger students really admired her.”

Even after Axel’s death, her legacy continues at Golden West; the art department sold dozens of her artworks at a holiday sale last December, and has enough left to stock much of the show this year. Three of Axel’s prints are now in the department’s permanent collection.

In his classic song “Old Friends,” Paul Simon touched on one of the great simple mysteries of young life. “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be 70,” wrote Simon, who was 26 at the time and will turn 70 in two years.

It’s easy to see old age as a time of quiet and stagnation, an age when most of our accomplishments are behind us. But one of the pleasant surprises of community college is that for a number of people, the learning process never ends.

Jane Axel discovered her passion early in life and continued honing it until she died, constantly surrounded by younger faces and pushing herself to break new ground. It must not have seemed terribly strange to her.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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