Denfeld News

May 10, 2015
Duluth News Tribune

Two Harbors artist dies at age 104
By LaReesa Sandretsky

As she neared age 60, facing adversity and sorrow, Grace Zemlin picked up a paintbrush for the first time — and proceeded to paint a new path for her life.

Zemlin, a Duluth native and longtime Two Harbors resident, went on to become a prolific artist well into her 90s. She died April 30 in Two Harbors at age 104.

“I’m just amazed at how sharp she was right until I’m sure the day she passed away,” said Sandi Pillsbury-Gredzens, a local artist who was in an art group with Zemlin. “She was 104. I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

It was adversity that brought Zemlin to painting. Zemlin’s daughter, Yvonne, was in and out of the hospital battling diabetes in the late 1960s, before passing away in 1969 at the age of 38.

“I needed to do something for me,” Zemlin told the Duluth News Tribune in 2010. So, just shy of her 60th birthday, she took up painting.

After her daughter died, then later her husband and son, Zemlin continued to paint as a way to cope, she told the News Tribune.

Zemlin didn’t show an artistic drive early in her life. She went to high school at Duluth Denfeld, meeting and falling in love with John Zemlin at a football game and marrying him just after graduation in 1928. They moved to Two Harbors, where she raised her children Yvonne and Willard.

After she took up painting, she painted prolifically until her 90s, when she packed up her brushes for good. She had her final show when she was 93. In 2010, at age 100, Zemlin told the News Tribune she still found inspiration in the natural world of the North Shore.

“Sometimes I see things and I would love to paint them,” she said. “But my seeing is going.”

Zemlin’s husband passed away in 1990 and her son in 1998. Zemlin remained independent until the age of 102, when she finally moved into Ecumen Scenic Shores Assisted Living in Two Harbors. When the News-Chronicle interviewed her in 2012, she said the move was mostly for convenience — she no longer wanted to wash her own laundry or cook dinner.

She shared meals at Ecumen with Phil Dufresne, 100, a cousin of her husband who knew Zemlin for more than 80 years. Last week Dufresne recalled trips to Fort Myers, Fla., and states in the American West that he had taken with the Zemlins over the years.

“She was a real good person, I’ll tell you that,” Dufresne said Wednesday. “She got along with everyone.”

Every Friday night for most of her older years, Zemlin would make the trek from her apartment to a local restaurant to meet her “rowdy” friends for dinner.

After Zemlin turned 100, the trips became a little more difficult for her to make. But she was such a vital part of the group that her friends started bringing dinner to her.

“We’d bring food and go up to a couple tables at Ecumen and have Friday night dinners,” said Arlee Wilkes, a longtime friend of Zemlin. “We always had a great time together.”

Wilkes met Zemlin through painting. She said she was a talented painter and an excellent critic. She continued to critique art for friends even after she stopped painting herself.

“She was very good at critiquing things without making the artist feel bad,” Wilkes said.

Pillsbury-Gredzens agreed, citing Zemlin’s quietly commanding presence at group critiques in Voyageur Artists meetings in Two Harbors.

“When Grace said something, everybody was just completely silent and they just hung on her every word,” she said. “She was astute and she had some really good insights.”

“Grace was a very classy, honest person,” Wilkes said. “She wasn’t afraid to tell you what she thought.”

Zemlin would have turned 105 on Aug. 9. She is survived by a daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A service is planned for June 27 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Two Harbors, with the time to be announced.

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