UPDATE: As some of you who have recently come to this post know already the subject of this profile, Isabella Threlkeld, passed away March 4, 2012. I met her just a few years before. By the time I met her she was quite on in years and living in a retirement community, but her passion and curiosity for life were undiminished. She will always be one of the more unforgettable characters of my journalistic career. Rest in peace, dear Isabella.
Someone, I don’t remember who now, told me about Isabella Threlkeld, suggesting she’d make an interesting profile subject. To say the least, she did. My New Horizons piece about Isabella follows, and I believe it’s a case in point of how people all around us have fascinating stories if we only take the time and show the interest to search out and learn their tales. As a journalist, I am in a privileged position to seek out people’s stories and to share them with others. For every great story I come upon and end up writing, I can only imagine there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, that I miss or will never have the time to get to. I am only one writer, one storyteller, after all. I am glad I found Isabella and her story. As you’ll read, she is my prototypical profile subject in that she has a great passion and magnificent obsession that permeates every fiber of her being. During the course of several conversations I had with her before the interview and then during the interview and in subsequent conversations, she described an unlikely association with Albert Einstein that I wanted to believe but that I couldn’t find any confirmation of. I still want to believe it happened the way she tells it, but even if it didn’t it’s just another manifestation of her passion and magnificent obsession, which are qualities I find irresistible.
Isabella Threlkeld’s Lifetime Pursuit of Art and Ideas Yields an Uncommon Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Isabella Threlkeld could feel sorry for herself. She chooses not to. She’s too busy enjoying life. The Omaha artist, art enthusiast, collector, instructor and art therapist is still very much engaged in her passion and work at 86. Still a vivacious force of nature whose brassy personality is the life of any gathering.
Opinionated, curious, quick-to-laugh, Isabella loves the stimulation of a good conversation, book or artwork.
Despite compromises to her age she still paints/draws every day, her precious sketchpad never far from her lithe hands. She even has a new exhibition opening Dec. 5 at the Hot Shops Art Center in NoDo.
The show’s Futurism theme perfectly expresses this dynamo’s focus on energy and states of being. Always reading, always exploring, she’s more attuned to the here-and-now and things-to-come than the past. Not that she doesn’t think about her much-traveled, event-filled past. She does. She has a keen appreciation for history and what it teaches. She savors her visits to Mexico, England, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, all locales she studied in, all cultures she immersed herself in.
She also dips into the past to inform her work, like a commissioned mural of Albert Einstein and comets she completed for her show. Einstein’s work inspired the international Futurism movement, which incorporates science in art. She’s been an adherent since the 1960s. When her thoughts turn to Futurism, she considers big bang theories, black holes, space-time continuums and parallel universes the way the rest of us do sports or politics. She reads Scientific American cover to cover.
Her Einstein piece is more than an idle fan’s rendering of an icon. It displays the deep stirrings of a woman who claims to have spent time with the famed theoretical physicist. As she tells it, she was barely more than a girl when she found herself taking notes for not only Einstein, whose theory of relativity changed the world, but other leading physicists, including Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. Scientists were embroiled in discussions over peaceful atomic energy use. She said these meetings took place at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. in the mid-1940s.
The story of how Isabella, a Wellesley art student from Omaha, may have come to be associated with the fathers of atomic energy, must wait. First, there’s more to know about her uncoventional life, one in which Einstein and Co. are but a few of the famous people with whom she’s crossed paths.
Spend any time at all with Izzie and you soon realize she’s far more than the sum of her considerable parts. It all combines to make her one of those “most unforgettable characters” the Reader’s Digest features. Eclectic to the core.
Not that her life’s been a bed of roses. Despair and regret have touched her. She lost the love of her life, husband Harry Threlkeld, decades ago. She’s never remarried. Childless, she has no son or daughter or grandkids to visit her at Mable Rose Estates, the Bellevue assisted living facility she resides in. She’s outlived most of her oldest friends. About a year ago Isabella was forced to move from the house she made her home and the base for her Threlkeld Art Studios. It’s a sore subject.
She misses her independence as well as the invigorating salon scene she presided over at her home/studio, where art was always being made, discussed, appraised, appreciated. A Mable Rose office doubles as a studio. Isabella and other residents set up easels to make art. But it’s not the same as having her own space.
She misses, too, being surrounded by young people. Her old place was often filled with her students. Some even stayed with her. Her proteges became her children.
Don’t feel sorry for Isabella though. She’s still a surrogate mother to people who studied under her, like Mary Harrington, and still a friend to old cronies, like Jack Latenser. Young and old alike, they make the pilgrimmage to Bellevue to bask in her infectious enthusiasm. All who come under her influence receive the gift of her sharp wit, throaty laughter, aesthetic musings and philosophical beliefs.
“I have known Isabella since the mid-1980s when I began taking classes at Threlkeld Art Studios while in high school,” said Harrington. “Since the day I met her, she has been a driving force in my life similar to Rosalind Russell’s famous Auntie Mame character. ‘Isabellaism’ pops into my life to this day. She continues to challenge me to do more, travel, read, think more deeply and incorporate art into my life. My life would not be remotely the same without her.”
Auntie Mame’s credo — “life’s-a-banquet,” so catch all you can “before the parade passes by” — perfectly expresses Isabella’s credo: Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it.
Ask Isabella to describe herself and she arches her eyebrows and voice to say, “Who is she? Uh, she’s a funny little white-haired lady that’s overweight and loves life.” Oh, c’mon, Iz, you can do better than that. OK, try this on for size: “She’s a little old lady who’s still trying to be an artist,” she said of herself. If there’s anything art’s taught her, it’s to never give up.
“You know what it gives you? An appreciation of the need for failure, because you fail and you try again.” she said, “and each time you have to try again. Without failure, we wouldn’t get up and do it again.”
Spirit. She overbrims with it. So much activity, so many interests. Such a rich life.
“Well, I’ve just lived a lot, you know,” she said by way of explanation.
Perhaps the best way to understand the Isabella experience is to look at what’s gone into shaping her. Born into a prominent Omaha family, the Byrnes, she was the oldest of three children of her insurance executive father and homemaker mother. She grew up in Dundee, where neighbors included Omaha’s elite. Life in their well-appointed home was the kind of never-ending banquet Mame sings about.
“My dad and mother were always very active in the community. My dad was always bringing somebody for dinner.”
Some dinner guests were living legends. Polar explorer Richard Byrd. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Others were simply neighbors who became icons, including a young Henry Fonda. Dodie Brando, the mother of future superstar Marlon Brando, was a frequent guest. Marlon’s mom was an Omaha Community Playhouse fixture and like many society families the Byrnes were supporters, too. “Every time there was a new Community Playhouse director he came to dinner,” Isabella recalled. “They all came for dinner. Did Dad remember to tell mother? Uh, sometimes.”
She said, “A cousin once commented, “Your father thinks he’s the chamber of commerce, and mother said, ‘You’re right.”
As the big sister it was Isabella’s thankless task to keep her young siblings in check while exciting personalities discussed their record-setting adventures. “It was hard to hold down my little brother. He would get bored at Admiral Byrd and throw a butter pad. How do you keep a 5-year-old quiet when Amelia Earhart is trying to speak? I was the oldest and I had to control these monsters.”
She admits she wasn’t old enough herself to appreciate the distinguished company her folks kept. “No, I didn’t get it.”
Weekends found the family at their Idelwild farm near Nickerson, Neb., right on the Elkhorn River .“The best part of all,” she said, “it had horses, milk cows, pigs, turkeys, guinea hens. Oh, yes, we looked forward to it. Every weekend we got to go and gather the eggs. It was a lot better than going to Dundee School.”
The farm’s still there. She visited recently and rued the disintegrating shoreline. “It just breaks your heart to see the erosion that’s went on,” she said.
Education then wasn’t a priority but she did discover her calling for art under Dundee teacher Dorothy Gray Bowers.
“I didn’t really excell until I got to Brownell Hall (Talbot), where I think I realized I was really serious about art and would major in it when I got to college. Everybody said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that.’ The practical one in the family was Dad. He said, ‘You’re never going to make a living. How are you going to eat? How are you going to live?’ Mother said, ‘Oh, let her go with it.’ Then I got a scholarship to Wellesley out of it, so it was well worth it.”
Wellesley. Right across the Charles River from Harvard and MIT. “Pretty good location wouldn’t you say?” commented Isabella. Attending there was “a big tradition” with women in the family. Her mother was class of 1911. A legacy school.
A rude awakening made Iz want to leave as soon as she got there.
“It was rough, I’ll tell you, very rough because I wasn’t prepared. Let’s face it, I was still with the pigs at Idelwild farm. My first letter home in 1940 said, ‘I cannot stay here. Everywhere I go there are big signs that say, ‘No Irish need apply.’ My dad was Scotch-Irish. I had never seen discrimination before. So I wasn’t going to stay in school. My parents got so upset they called me and said, ‘Don’t come home, you’re going to stay there and change the system.’”
She stuck it out but not before things got tougher.
“My sophomore year my grades went down and I was called in by the chair of the art department. She said, ‘I’m taking away your scholarship.” I told her, ‘You can’t do that — I’m the oldest of the family. This is the Depression.’ No luck. I went to the dean — a very straightlaced New England lady, who said, ‘I’m so sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.’ And I lost my scholarship.
“‘Well, I can’t go home,’ I said. The dean said, ‘We’ll get you a job.’ I got two jobs. Best thing I ever did.”
In true Yankee fashion Isabella worked at a campus soda shop and in the school’s Italian library, where she “got to handle original Italian manuscripts. So then I decided to minor in Italian. I learned more on those jobs than I did in the classroom. I loved those jobs. I had a lot of fun.”
Half-way through Wellesley America entered the war. Her life would change in unimaginable ways. Everything accelerated and concentrated. She furthered her studies at the Cape Anne School of Art in Rockport, Mass. “A wonderful experience. It was all studio,” she said, versus the art history diet pushed on her at Wellesley. “Every morning we painted in the studio and every afternoon we painted outdoors, on the ‘rocks.’ And I got to meet some fantastic artists there. A lot of these were New Yorkers vacationing in Rockport. They’d come up and make comments on your work. I turned around once and said, ‘Aren’t you Joan Miro?’” Yes, I am, came the reply by the Spanish surrealist painter/sculptor.
Around the same time Isabella also studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where, she said, “I learned the most.”
She graduated Wellesley in ‘44. She took her first paying jobs in art at summer camps in Hackensack, Minn. and on Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest.
“My parents were impressed. ‘Well, she’s proving that art will pay,’ Dad said.”
She said her association with Einstein began around war’s end when her uncle, Walter Wohlenberg, dean of the Yale University School of Engineering, called to ask if she had Friday afternoons free. She did. At his request, she said, she agreed to take notes and make sketches for meetings in Princeton, N.J.
The arrangements made, Uncle Walter picked her up in his car the next Friday and drove them to Princeton. As the pair walked across campus, she said, “along came little old Albert (Einstein).” She recognized him instantly from newsreels and press photos. “He embraced my uncle, which shows you some intimacy, and spoke to him in German, and I was totally left out. And we walked along to the little white cottage where he lived with his sister.”
Meeting Einstein, she said, came as a complete surprise. She knew little about him except he was a preeminent scientist from Germany. “That was about it,” she said. She later gathered from her uncle the two were colleagues on an atomic energy committee Einstein led at the Institute for Advanced Study. It was this committee, she said, for whom she began taking notes-making sketches that very afternoon.
“He (Einstein) went into the little cottage and sat there with a few others and I took notes. It was that simple,” said Isabella.
Einstein, a one-time avowed pacifist, begged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt not to militarize atom splitting research. After the war he led groups of like-minded scientists. Isabella said the exploratory committee she sat in on met “to discuss the problem of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.” The participants varied, she said, but at one time or another included Oppenheimer, Fermi, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard and other luminaries. Einstein and Wohlenberg were fixtures.
Marcia Tucker, librarian for the Historical Studies-Social Science Library at the Institute for Advanced Study, has been unable to confirm Isabella’s experience. Neither has Barbara Wolff with the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jersusalem. Is it possible the committee was a precursor to the Emergency Committee for Atomic Scientists Einstein headed after the war? Nobody knows. “I hope that this mystery may be solved,” said Tucker, whose search continues.
For a time, Isabella said, committee meetings were unsupervised. No security clearances or secrecy oaths. “We were a bunch of academics. We were all civilians.” Still, precautions were taken. “We never got to keep the notes. They were always collected at the end of a session. They confiscated everything,” she said, including sketches she made of the participants. Then it got more restrictive.
“Things changed,” she said, once Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the secret Manhattan Project already under way, began sitting in on the proceedings. “It was so hush-hush then. Gen. Groves sat right here (indicating next to her). Very military. How much he knew about atomic physics, I don’t know. He scared the hell out of me.”
Einstein biographies have established the eccentric genius as a womanizer. So, did he ever come on to Isabella? “No, no, no, no, he was preoccupied in outer space,” she said. “You won’t get any tittilation there.”
She does offer a few Einstein anecdotes that reveal aspects of his peculiar self.
“This man had a wonderful sense of humor — like Warren Buffett (a lifelong friend of hers). He (Einstein) had a chain hanging down in this little cottage’s living room, and he would say good evening to my uncle in German and good evening to me in English, and he’d pull this chain and a step-ladder would come down. He’d go up and pull it up after him. She ascribed the behavior to his focus “on outer space, on planetary changes, on other universes than the one you and I live in.”
This is the first time she’s spoken publicly about her brush with the atom men. She’s longed to talk about it all this time. She never told anyone. Not even Harry.
“Well, you can tell by my intensity you just took the cork out of my bottle,” she told a pair of guests who came to hear her story. “I don’t know how I stayed silent all these years. I sure poured it out to you.”
She said the thought of defying Gen, Groves was enough to muzzle her. “He kept my mouth shut for how many years? Oh, I was scared to death. I didn’t want Gen. Groves back here or his ghost,” she said, laughing. She said she’s still nervous about it all. “You wanna’ go to Guantanamo Bay with me?” she joked.
So why’s she talking now? “The information has just been released. It’s been sitting there all along,” she said, adding that someone from a national archives, she’s unsure who or which one, called in August to say her materials are now declassified. The New Horizons was unable to determine what archives may have them. Is it a case of Isabella, who keeps a biography of Einstein near her, wishing herself with people in places? Or might there be a perfectly good explanation for it all? Either way, it’s a good story.
Top secret described some of Harry’s work in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. After retiring as a Navy commander he practiced international law.
As the war wound down Isabella joined the American Red Cross. “I wanted to serve and I found a way to serve,” she said. “They kept sending me back to school for art therapy,” a then-new discipline. Her duty saw her assigned to military bases in Virginia. At one of these she met Harry, then a lieutenant. They married in ‘46. Her final RC stint was at Walter Reed General Hospital in D.C. — in the psych section. She worked with male and female patients suffering from both physical and psychological war wounds. She trained for it at American University.
She embraced the work. “Art therapy really works,” she said. “It’s a great field.” She found the work so gratifying she’s “done it off and on ever since. We have three hospitals in this area that work with art therapy.” Overall, she noted, the discipline’s “still not accepted” here as in some other cities. “The healthcare institutions that don’t use it are ones whose people have never been exposed much to art. There’s the problem. So they just can’t see that art therapy would be of any benefit.” She said she’s some trained area art therapists.
She left Walter Reed after butting heads with officials she felt ignored concerns WAC/WAVE patients received inadequate treatment. She was “a wreck”. Her own therapy came working as a stewardess aboard a Great Lakes cruise ship.
Soon after a three-month honeymoon in Mexico, Harry left to serve on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which convened war crimes trials in Tokyo from 1946 through 1948.
The newlywed pined to go but Harry had her rejoin her family. “I never made it to the Orient. He did come back twice (over three years) and each time he was sick.”
Upon his return the couple moved to Seattle, Wash. Isbella worked at the Seattle Art Museum. Back in Omaha in 1950, she began her Joslyn Art Museum career as education director, instructor and extension services director. In her outreach role she was an art appreciation ambassador. It suited her outgoing personality.
After leaving the Joslyn in the early ‘60s she filled a series of art teaching posts at Duschene College, the College of St. Mary and Bellevue University. By the late ‘60s-early ’70s the counterculture movement was in bloom and Isabella was caught up in it. She encouraged students in helping make the Old Market a happening scene.
“College kids built that thing,” she said, referring to the transition from wholesale produce to arts center. “I sent all my students there. I drove them down there after school. Oh, I was really impressed with what kids could do. They learned to mix cement, lay bricks, to use the tools I was hoping they’d use. Lee Leubers (the late artist and art teacher) was a driving force and leader. He was the key to getting them down there and going to work. They worked like mad.
“I really got to love those kids. I did not love them when teaching art history and they were marching (protesting) outside the window.”
It was in those halcyon times she met Ree Kaneko (then Schonleau), who went on to found the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and to marry noted artist Jun Kaneko. Isabella and Ree once had an exhibition together.
During this time Isabella wrote an Omaha World-Herald art column. Then, as now, she made and exhibited her own art, filtering life experiences through her work. Inspiration came from the many travels she and Harry made outside the country. They preferred seeing the sights on their own and doing as the natives do.
“We were never on a tour,” she said. “We were alone. If you’re that outnumbered, baby, you have to go with the flow. I didn’t need a tour. I had read all the stuff before I went. While he was busy doing his legal stuff as an international lawyer, I had time to draw and paint.” Or visit museums-galleries. Meet the people. Her fluent Italian and servicable French went a long way. Harry knew five languages.
On a ‘58 European excursion she studied at the Louvre in Paris. The couple met Pablo Picasso. “We were watching him make a disturbance at an outdoor cafe.,” she recalled. “I wanted to go over and say hello but my husband couldn’t stand it and said. ‘We are leaving.’ So we left, and on the way out he (Picasso) came to us and said hello.” In Avignon, France in the early ‘70s she saw the last exhibition Picasso had before his death.
Once, Isabella nearly got her hubby arrested over art. After visiting a Cairo gallery she said she discovered Harry had removed a necklace from a sarcophagus on display. What he thought a lark — “I think he was showing off, ou know, look what I can do — offended her orthodox art sensibilities. So she snitched.
“Oh, yes, I turned him in in Egypt,” she said. “The average wife would not have, I realize that, but I’d been trained at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. You never touched anything in the Boston Musuem of Fine Arts, let alone take something…”
Harry was detained by a gallery guard. “This could have been really bad,” she said. “Oh, it was so awful. I was so scared. I thought I’d lost my only husband.” All turned out well in the end, as Harry used his gift for gab and, she suspects, a cash bribe, to talk his way out of the jam and keep the artifact. Said Isabella, “They didn’t turn him in. I would have lost him. He would never have gotten out of an Egyptian jail. He came back speaking Aarabic and drinking tea. But he never let me forget it. Oh, he was so angry at me. Whenever he’d get upset with me he’d say, ‘I’ll take you back to Egypt and turn you in.’” She still has the necklace.
By ‘68 she was engrossed in Futurism, That whole year in Europe she researched in Italy, where the movement began. “We lived on the Mediterranean outside of Rome,” she said. “Oh, was it beautiful.” She studied at modern art museums and the University of Rome. Her work fed the master’s degree in art she earned at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in ‘71. Her thesis subject? Futurism, of course.
Reflecting the turbulent times in her work, she created an anti-war piece called “Vietnam Fortune Cookie.” In the wake of Watergate, she made a large painting symbolizing “the disillusion of the United States into pure energy. Wait till you see this painting,” she said. It’s in her new show.
When Harry died in ‘73 Isabella reinvented herself again. She and a friend, photographer Mae Louise “Hinky” Hamilton, bought a house together at 324 So. 68th St. that became their creative base. “I went in business for myself,” is how Isabella puts it. “I couldn’t have done it without Hinky Hamilton’s help. She put in $25,000, I put in $25,000. I helped her in photography, she helped me in art.”
Threlkeld Art Industries employed artists to create commissioned murals, many for area schools. That business became Threlkeld Art Studios, which found Isabella giving private art lessons to youths and adults and providing professional appraisals. She’d often lead students on field trips to local-regional museums: the Joslyn, Lincoln’s Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, the Des Moines Art Center, the Nelson Atkins in Kansas City, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Denver Art Museum. Several students, such as Paul Otero and Stephen Roberts, have enjoyed successful careers as artists. Already established artists sought refuge at her salon.
Over the years she hosted UNO graduate exchange students from Japan, China and Nepal. Interacting with young folks from around the globe invigorated her. “The one from Nepal changed my life. I mean, she really changed my life,” she said. “Her name was Amoura Lohani She was from Katmandu.” The political major introduced isabella to Hindu traditions. Isabella, who took in Lipani’s family, always thought her Asian guests were compensation for her never visiting the Orient.
She stopped hosting international students awhile ago but she was still doing everything else out of her home up until January, when relatives prevailed on her to give up the large studio/residence. That’s when she moved into Mable Rose Estates. “It was not my idea,” she said. How much does she miss her own place? “A lot,” she said, her voice breaking. “A lot.” She appreciates all that staff do to make her feel at home. “They spoil me. They invent things to make me happy. Well, they’ve never seen anybody like me. You can believe that can’t you?”
An October estate sale liquidated a lifetime’s worth of fine artworks, books, furniture, decorative objects. Many of her prized possessions went to Collectors Choice. Sad to see it all go. As usual, she learned something in the process.
“Because of that estate sale I sold thousands of dollars worth of art to men, to corporations, to businesses, not to little old ladies with pretty little houses. The point I’m making is I’d never been in a gallery where I sold art. It taught me about the buyer and where the money is. I had so much to learn and boy did I learn a lot about money. Men control the money.
“We had 400 people at this the first day, 500 the second day, 400 the third day. Can you imagine the amount of art?”
The sold art included works in various mediums by local artists she’s championed.
Just because she’s moved doesn’t mean she’s retired. She continues doing appraisals right out of Mable Rose Estates. She jumps on the Internet to research items. Some real treasures have surfaced. “It’s wonderful the things they bring to me,” she said. “A lot of times they (clients) don’t know what they have.”
Making art remains her main escape. Her show has her all “revved up,” she said. “I want people to see this show on Futurism. It’s big. I don’t mean just in area. It’s big. You’re going to see outer space, the energies of outer space. E-equals-mc-squared. Super novas. Other universes. You’re going to see the future in my work.”
Forever an artist and searcher. “My life has been a mess of dirty smocks,” she said.
- 19 reviews of Albert Einstein (rateitall.com)
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