CANTON — Outside Isadore Waber’s apartment is his tribute to cans and caffeine: a life-size sculpture of a fitness buff working out on an actual exercise cycle.
Switch it on and it shakes, rattles, and roars. It’s made from genuine coffee cans (Maxwell House, Folgers — you name it, no favorites here) topped by a blond bob of twine hair.
The can man (or woman?) is just one example — and hardly the most unusual — of the vast range of art that Waber has created in a life that spans a century.
Yes, century: Waber turned 101 in December, and Orchard Cove, a Hebrew SeniorLife retirement community in Canton, is celebrating his life’s work with an exhibit of 20 pieces that range from sequined paintings to a painted sports coat celebrating Mickey Mantle.
Waber no longer has quite the get-up-and-go of his can man. His memory is a bit spotty and his legs a little weak. But age has not diminished his sense of humor. He speaks gently, but wields a sharp wit.
The can installation was born in his native Philadelphia, after a door-to-door salesman persuaded him and his late wife, Helen, to buy the motorized fitness bike. “When she got tired of it, I sort of inherited it, and I thought about the cans,” Waber said.
Trouble was, his wife ground her own coffee and so Waber had to look elsewhere. “People couldn’t understand why this guy with a Cadillac was rooting through their trash,” he said.
While primarily self-taught, Waber did take drawing classes when he was stationed in London during World War II. He cites Picasso as one of his favorite artists.
Many of his works depict nudes, usually in an exaggerated or distorted way. His daughter, Deborah Waber, recalled that one day he placed a small sculpture on his wife’s baby grand piano: a woman with enormous breasts that embrace a tiny man reading the newspaper. “My mother was pretty strait-laced,” said the younger Waber, a researcher at Children’s Hospital who lives in Brookline. “I don’t know what she thought about it. I just sort of didn’t want to go there.”
The sculpture — which Waber said comes from the “younger, audacious time of my life” — sits in his living room near a painting that depicts a eight women. They happen to be nude, but what captures your attention are their heavily mascaraed eyes, rouged faces, and expressions that range from astonished to coy to alarmed. Oh, and then there are the fish: Eight of them dangling in the foreground.
What was he thinking? “I haven’t the foggiest idea how it came about,” Waber said. That answer doesn’t surprise his daughter; when people would ask him about his art, she said, “He would just sort of smile. . . . He was never really interested in talking about what it meant.”
She compared her father with Walter Mitty: a mild exterior and a wild interior.
The art “was almost like an extension of his inner self,” she said, speculating that he probably didn’t want “people mucking around in there.”
Waber, born in 1911, amused his family as a youth with his drawing and impersonations, including a dead-on Jimmy Stewart, said his brother Bernard, 91, a children’s book author best known for his “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” series.
“He would sketch, and write and sink into kind of a world of his own, which I always admired,” said Bernard. “I idolized him. I wanted to be him. If he told a joke, it became my joke. If he wrote, and it was illustrated, that’s what I wanted to do. I was inspired by him.”
But while Bernard went on to earn literary fame, his brother didn’t even exhibit until he was into his 90s. “He just enjoyed the journey” of making art, Bernard said.
Before the war, Bernard said, he would tag along to watch his brother dress the windows at a pharmacy. He would start with the price tags, making numerals that “flowed like an ice skater.”
After the service, he held various jobs including handling advertising for an electronics company. Eventually, he founded his own firm making the forerunners of today’s power strips and surge protectors. Google “Waber,” and you’ll find his name lives on in the world of electrical equipment. As with art, he pretty much learned about business and electronics on his own; he didn’t even graduate from high school, receiving a GED instead.
While the business didn’t leave him much time for art, he found other outlets for fun. His daughter recalled that for Passover seder he would devise an elaborate way to set aside the Afikoman, the matzah children ferret out after dinner for a prize. He put it into a contraption that consisted of a box attached to a bathroom plunger that was stuck on the ceiling.
“You can imagine my mother going nuts,” Deborah recalled about the less-than-elegant addition to the décor.
After selling his company around 1970, Waber uncorked his imagination, and the creativity flowed for the next four decades. Some of his earlier pieces are fairly straightforward and representational, but most in the exhibit and his apartment astound with their detail, variety, whimsy, and occasional starkness.
“I was absolutely thrilled to see what he can do,” said Natalie Wolf, who for decades has bought art on behalf of Hebrew SeniorLife, including the more than 1,000 pieces that decorate NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, a sister community to Orchard Cove. “Overwhelming,” Wolf added, as the best way to describe Waber’s work.
Some work has a political edge, such as a painting mocking America for being hypocritical with its immigration policy. Another depicts newspaper-like cartoon panels, showing talking heads on TV debating a proposal by Ronald Reagan to cut costs by eliminating the use of the ampersand.
Waber also channeled his satire into plays and a novel, “U2 Can Grow Up To Be . . . ” (Xlibris, 2008), which skewers the corporate and political worlds. He incorporated the book into one of his collages, which depicts a couple in bed. A woman is reading the novel and munching on chocolate while her frustrated husband tries to get some sleep. Among the materials Waber used for the blankets are satiny yarmulkes. The skull caps serve no symbolic purpose, Waber said. “They were available.”
A table laden with art supplies still stands in his living room, though Waber says his failing eyesight has kept him from working in recent months. “You get to past 100, these things go with it,” he said.
When it became too difficult to use paint, he turned to foam peanuts, the colorful material used to pack fragile objects. His art has helped to keep him going since his wife died in 2008.
So, too, has the attention his work has received at Orchard Cove, where the couple moved in 2000. Besides being among the most prolific, he’s the dean of Orchard Cove’s artists. Some 50 of them have exhibited at the home over the past couple of years, according to Jane Baker, community marketing specialist for Hebrew SeniorLife.
Waber’s current exhibit has no settled closing date.
Now Waber’s major concern — and that of his family —is the fate of his more than 100 pieces, many of which are in a storage unit at Orchard Cove.
While Waber may have shunned the limelight, he clearly wants to leave a legacy.
One of the most painstaking works in the exhibit is a painting of an elaborately decorated upright piano, complete with all 88 keys (count them). The upper half of the case appears to be a tapestry of sequined flowers; the lower half wood carvings dominated by a lion with sequined eyes. Candleholders in the form of long-necked birds jut out from each side. Inscribed in the center just above the keys is a Gothic logo: Isadore Waber.Steve Maas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.