Inside the wreath hanging on the front door of Maree Lubran’s Saratoga home, a bird’s nest nestles among the flowers and leaves. That the nest hides a trio of tiny eggs is just one of the surprises to be found at Lubran’s cozy cottage. The real eye-opener lies just inside the door: Visitors who step over the threshold will discover a remarkable art gallery that covers virtually all of Lubran’s wall-space.
Closer examination reveals a sea of familiar faces. Stars from Hollywood’s “golden era.” Television actors and actresses. U.S. presidents. Musicians. Sports figures, pop icons and hundreds of other notables. All are rendered lovingly in Lubran’s watercolors, both in moody black and white and an evocative color palette.Look closer still: Nearly a quarter of the paintings bear handwritten inscriptions from their subjects. Most are autographs; a large number offer personal messages of thanks to the artist for her talents. Should the curators of either the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History or the Hollywood Motion Picture and Television Museum happen to stroll down Lubran’s hallway, quite likely both would suffer apoplexy at this priceless piece of history.
Lubran has always been enchanted by faces. As a toddler growing up in Australia, she idled away naptime by picking out faces in the swirls of paint on the wall. With a father and grandmother who both created and taught art, it was inevitable that Lubran would inherit the same skills. Her earliest creation was an elephant crafted of modeling clay when she was 5 years old. “My teacher rushed around showing the other teachers,” says Lubran, 80 years after the fact. “I couldn’t imagine why she was so excited; I thought,`Can’t everyone do this?’ “Though the years have conferred on Lubran’s diminutive frame a sense of fragility, and her walker slows her progress through her gallery, behind her glasses her eyes sparkle while recounting her favorite memories. Her wit is as lightning-quick as any 20-year-old’s; her sense of humor frequently wicked. Yet, upon hearing a suggestion that her collection should be displayed in a museum, Lubran seems genuinely surprised and touched.
From the time she was a teenager, Lubran showed clear artistic talent. She took first prize in Australia’s 1940 Children’s Hobby Exhibition for her image of a lion and his mate, rendered in colored pencils. She was a frequent model for her father, who also worked in watercolors. “He gave lots of lessons, and was always asking me to sit for him,” recalls Lubran. But when puberty hit, Lubran developed other interests.
“I was a very grumpy 13-year-old, and I had all of these posters of movie stars on my walls. On Saturdays my best friend and I would go up on her roof and cut out pictures of our favorite stars from movie magazines, and paste them into our scrapbooks. We especially loved Nelson Eddy; we’d hold his photos up and tell him we were going to show him an Australian sunset,” Lubran laughs.
The star-crazed teen soon began capturing the likenesses of her idols on paper. She first drew Olivia de Havilland using pen and ink, but found the process time-consuming. Says Lubran, “I don’t know how it came to me to try watercolor, but when I did it was so much faster and easier than making all those little strokes. From then on, pen and ink were out!”
As Lubran’s skills grew, so did her collection of celebrities. Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Stewart, Fay Wray. Bob Hope, Dolores Del Rio, Marlene Dietrich. Kelly, Peck, Bacall. Name a star, and mostly likely his or her visage hangs in Lubran’s collection. Her only requirement was (and still is) that her subjects have an interesting look. And no teeth, please. “I love painting eyes; they really are the windows to the soul,” Lubran says. “If I see a photograph of a face, and it has good contrast, I’ll do a painting. It’s especially good if the person isn’t showing any teeth. I hate to paint teeth.”
Not long after Lubran began her watercolors of the stars, she hit upon the idea of asking them for their autographs. She dutifully packed up her 11-by-14-inch paintings, along with self-addressed, stamped envelopes, and sent them off.
“In those days the stars were always being asked for autographs, so it wasn’t such a big deal,” she explains. “Every time I’d paint a celebrity I’d send a duplicate of the painting, so he or she could keep it. Making a copy was much quicker than painting the original.”
Her generosity more than paid off: Hundreds of autographs and personal messages from the celebs flooded her mailbox, all saying they’d hung the watercolors in their own homes. Typical of the accolades, Psycho star Janet Leigh wrote, “I’m proud to be in your collection of paintings!” In more recent years, above his signature opera legend Luciano Pavarotti inscribed, “Brava, Maree! Nessun dorma,” while Star Trek’s George Takei wrote, “You are truly gifted, and I am the beneficiary.” Bette Davis devoted a full 27 words to one of her thank-yous, ending with her immortal line, “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.”
Alice Faye, a favorite of Lubran’s, faithfully signed every one of the paintings sent by the artist. “Her assistant was also named Marie, and she would call occasionally to chat. She told me that Alice received many paintings and drawings of herself, but`Maree’s are the best.’ I shouldn’t say so, but I liked hearing that,” Lubran admits…