Written by STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO
T heodora Ilowitz didn’t set out to become an artist. As a girl she dreamed of becoming a musician and set her mind to earn a living doing what she loved.
But destiny had another plan for Theodora, who turned her creative sights to art about 50 years ago.
Luckily, Theodora’s love of art was equal to her passion for music.
Like her art and her music, Theodora exudes vibrancy, texture, movement, intelligence—even whimsy—in her appearance and manners.
Her Newbury Park home epitomizes artistic grace. It’s decked out with enough sculptures, paintings, etchings, bronzes and masks to be an art gallery, but the homey touches and photographs warm every room.
And, Theodora is a feast for the eyes. A thoroughly modern woman at 94, her highlighted hair has an upward buzz at the nape of her neck that shows she is not only chic, but trendy.
A Renaissance woman, Theodora works in many art forms. A glance around her home reveals a sleek sleeping swan made of alabaster, a bronze ballerina, marble African masks which stand in stark contrast to her modern, abstract paintings, intricate etchings and multimedia creations.
Her Native American sculptures are carved out of rock and demand close examination to fully experience the bold faces that seem to naturally emerge as if the stone itself were just waiting to be chiseled to expose the face that was always there.
“Sometimes I think somebody up there is helping me,” Theodora says of her art.
A native New Yorker who studied at the Art Students League and the Art Center of Northern New Jersey, Theodora has studied printmaking, sculpture, brush painting and many other art forms with notable artists including Roberto Delamonica, Richard Mayhew and Luis Montoya. She eventually ran the Art Students League in New York.
Her work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, colleges, cultural centers—even at Bloomingdale’s—in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and California, and she has won numerous awards over the years for her paintings, etchings, sculptures and other artwork.
But before she discovered the artist in her, a young Theodora worked as a jazz musician. When just 18, she formed Teddy Mack and Her All-Girl Orchestra. She played piano, clarinet and accordion, and conducted and arranged the group’s music.
The band landed job after job in hotels in the Borscht belt of the Catskills in upstate New York and also in Manhattan’s 52nd Street jazz clubs. Theodora managed to earn a living throughout the years of World War II, when money was hard to come by.
While performing with her dance band at the Concorde Hotel, Theodora met her first husband, Cantor Moishe Oysher, a famed vocalist and liturgical composer back in the day.
She remembers that within an hour of their first meeting, Moishe said he was going to marry her. He was right. Within two and a half months, the two were man and wife. Theodora left her all-girl orchestra, but continued to make music alongside her husband, playing piano for him.
The lovebirds traveled the world performing liturgical music. “He was a matinee idol,” she says of her Romanian-born husband. “He was very suave.”
Moishe, 22 years her senior, died 13 years into their marriage. They had one daughter together.
After a year as a widow, Theodora married her second husband, Joe Ilowitz, a CPA and budding artist. At her new husband’s suggestion they attended art school together.
“That’s how it all began,” Theodora remembers. “I was 38 and I loved it.”
Life with Joe took her to Florida for 10 years, where she worked at the Montoya Studio and studied sculpting. As her love of art grew, she entered competitions and was invited to exhibit her work.
Theodora and Joe moved to California at the urging of her daughter, Rozanna, who convinced her that the West Coast—and her grandchildren—were beckoning. She now loves living close to her two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Joe died six years ago.
The artist has immersed herself in her new community. In 2008 she donated “Benin,” a black, megalithic stone sculpture, to California Lutheran University. The piece, inspired by the Benin tribe of Nigeria, was the first to grace the Uyeno Amphitheater on campus.
“Art is Teddy’s passion and her sanctuary which, no doubt, helps her maintain a pleasant, upbeat and positive disposition no matter what life throws at her,” says Craig Morton, a member of the Agoura Hills Cultural Arts Council and the Westlake Village Art Guild.
“Teddy has a strong sense of community and has long been a dedicated volunteer in support of enhancing the vitality of the visual arts in the region.”