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ArlingtonAcclaimed art teacher Blanche Kirchner dies at 98

Acclaimed art teacher Blanche Kirchner dies at 98

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Blanche Kirchner, who brought her zest for art to likely thousands of students through the Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation, died April 14, just a few weeks shy of her 99th birthday.

Kirchner, an Arlington resident for 85 years, was the widow of Vince Kirchner, an electrical contractor and longtime Arlington stalwart who died in 2012. They had five children.

In her honor, the Sun Gazette is reprinting coverage from May 2017, shortly before Kirchner turned 95 years old.

Blanche Kirchner thinks back to the time when she first began to teach art classes to senior citizens.

“That was a riot,” she says. “They had their hats, their silk dresses, their gloves. It was fun, really fun.”

Hats? Silk dresses? Gloves? What was that: 50 years ago?

Indeed it was.

Kirchner, who turns 95 later this week, has served as an art instructor in Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation for more than a half-century. And she has lost none of her zest for the classroom/studio.

“I am just as excited today as I was when I started. It’s so rewarding; it just keeps you going,” Kirchner said May 1 [2017], perched on a easy chair as her students celebrated her upcoming birthday with a luncheon at a North Arlington home.

“I don’t know how to stop; I wouldn’t know when,” she said. “That’s why I’m still alive.”

A 2009 profile of Kirchner noted that she probably the longest serving employee in the Arlington government ranks. Eight years later, it’s probably safe to remove the “probably.”

Kirchner spends a full day each week at her own studio, but also teaches classes at for the county government. Among her students is Katherine Christophe, who travels in from Clifton but whose lilting accent gives away her North Carolina roots.

Why schlep over the highways and byways of Northern Virginia to take a class with Kirchner? “I just fell in love with her. She is so cute and so witty,” said Christophe, who dabbles in a variety of artistic media.
“She gives constructive direction in a humorous way. She’s very candid – that’s the only way to improve,” Christophe said.

In the 1960s, Kirchner was recruited not only to teach art classes to Arlington seniors, but also to the community’s African-American population, at a time when segregation was only slowly receding into the background of daily life.

She recalled being asked if she would be willing to teach aspiring minority art students. “I said, of course I would,” Kirchner said, even today showing irritation at the assumption a white woman would have qualms about teaching black students.

Those who came to pay homage to Kirchner on May 1 [2017] said she has made their artistic efforts rewarding in many ways.

“It’s Blanche, her style and it’s the people in the class. Everybody has a good time,” said Jean Hurley, who has been taking instruction for eight or nine years. “It’s a high-class class.”

The students can be somewhat mischievous, too. Kirchner makes it known she doesn’t cotton to a particular color of green in student art. So her students – “like kindergartners,” Christophe admitted – make a point to pick up knickknacks, baubles and tchotchkes in just that color when they are out and about, then present them to her.

But it’s all in good humor. “This is recreation; this is not a school of art,” Kirchner said. “You’ve got to make the classes enjoyable.”
And apparently they are: There currently is a waiting list for those eager to get into Kirchner’s class.

Kirchner said it’s easier, in some ways, to teach women, who are more adaptable and can take constructive suggestions. “Men? Their heads are made up [when they come in]. It’s a challenge and a victory if you finally get a man to come around,” she said.

That said, “I love my men,” Kirchner said, noting that, for whatever reasons, the males in her classes through the years most often were named George or Robert.

A resident of Arlington since 1936 and graduate of Washington-Lee High School, Kirchner spent the entirety of World War II working in communications at Fort Myer. After the war, she met her future husband Vince; they had five children who since have produced a growing brood of grandchildren. Vince Kirchner – “Vinny” to many – died in 2012.

Although she did not start studying art in earnest until she began to raise her family, the avocation (and talent) runs in the family: Kirchner said her father, sister and late brother all showed artistic ability. Her children? “They go after their father, for sports,” she said.

It might be seen as slightly patronizing, if well-meaning, to say someone doesn’t look anywhere near his or her true age. But in the case of Kirchner, it’s true – she’d pass for decades (plural) younger than her near-century lifespan.

“The cab driver [who took her to the party] said I looked like 75,” she said. “I gave him a big tip.”

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