Portrait of a centenarian

Al Albrektson received a number of surprise visitors on his 100th birthday Monday. Pictured: Albrektson hold a cake given to him by West Warwick Town Councilor Maribeth Williamson, Rep. Jim Jackson (Dist. 26, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick) and Rep Tom Noret (Dist. 25, Coventry, West Warwick). They also issued Albrektson a citation and gave him an American flag to show appreciation for his military service.

WEST WARWICK — There are many words that can be used to describe West Warwick resident Al Albrektson. He’s an artist; a teacher; a veteran. And as of Monday, he’s also a centenarian. 

“I sure don’t feel 25,” he said with a laugh, as he reflected Tuesday afternoon on his storied life. “But I feel pretty good for my age. There are people who are 100 who do better than I do, and also people who do worse than I do.”

Albrektson sat in the living room of the home where he’s lived for some six and a half decades. On a coffee table beneath the front window, a bunch of red roses and sunflowers gifted to him by a friend rested beside a stack of citations from Gov. Gina Raimondo, Congressman Jim Langevin and the General Assembly recognizing his milestone birthday.

Born in Sweden, Albrektson was three years old when his family moved to Rhode Island to be close to friends they had in the area. 

“There was a time I could speak a little bit of Swedish,” Albrektson said. “In my home, there was always a mishmash of Swedish and English, and so I picked it up. Of course, then I got onto the streets and learned all the bad words and everything else.”

For Albrektson, who’s made quite a name for himself as a watercolorist, art has defined much of his life. From sketching during his childhood, to attending art school for college and later teaching classes in watercoloring, Albrektson’s passion for making art has followed him through the decades.

“Why does a piano player play?” he said. “Why does a singer sing?” 

Art, Albrektson added, “is just something I’ve done most of my life.”

“I don’t tend to paint any one particular kind of thing,” he continued, sitting in his living room, its walls filled with works by various artists. “I do a little bit of everything.”

In Albrektson’s dining room, dozens of framed images leaned against one another. Created over some five or six decades, the paintings show a variety of subjects. In one, splashes of color combine to portray Newport’s Cliff Walk; another depicts a bouquet of flowers in shades of purple; a still life shows a sliced apple, a bowl and spoon, a can of tomatoes. 

“We used to always have cats,” Albrektson said, as he pulled out a painting of two black cats, Mike and George, perched on a green table. 

Albrektson next month will present those and several other of his paintings — around 70 pieces in total — during a retrospective at the Providence Art Club, where he used to teach classes and where he’s still a member.

“I go there with a friend of mine who belongs to the art club,” he said. “Three hours in the studio, an hour for lunch, then I’m home.”

After graduating in 1938 from Cranston High School, Albrektson attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he majored in graphic art. 

His recollections of college are numerous, and they’re varied. 

In one of those memories, the glass skylights above Albrektson’s classroom rattled intensely, as wind and rain pummeled the old building during one of the most destructive storms to ever hit Rhode Island.

“We didn’t know there was going to be a hurricane,” he said, recalling the 1938 New England Hurricane. “It was pretty bad.”

Albrektson recounted being released from class early, and his friend and him fighting their way through treacherous conditions to catch the bus home.  

“We didn’t know what to do, and there were hardly any buses running,” he said. “And all of a sudden, water started rushing around the corner of a building, and in no time at all it was up to our knees.”

Albrektson eventually made it safely home, having trekked the entire way to his house on Park Avenue in Cranston. 

In 1941, at the end of his junior year at RISD, Albrektson was drafted to serve in World War II. He served for four years in the Army as a radio operator, before returning home, marrying his wife Evelyn — Evelyn died in 2008, and the couple had two children who still live in Rhode Island — and beginning his career in advertising.

Albrektson worked for 28 years as the executive art director at an advertising agency in Providence, and eventually opened his own business, Albrektson Studio. He retired in 1990, and began teaching at art schools and clubs around Rhode Island and Massachusetts. 

“It became sort of a second career,” he said of teaching. 

Nearly 30 years after retiring, Albrektson still finds joy in painting. And while he no longer does it daily, he doesn’t see himself giving up on his passion anytime soon. 

“You know, I’m not good at math. I’m not scholarly,” he said. “But I can draw and paint.”

Albrektson’s retrospective exhibition opens on Oct. 13 and will run until Nov. 2 at the Providence Art Club.  

kgravelle@ricentral.com

 

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