Philanthropy Snapshot: Judith Hendler

The Huntington Beach artist is focused on keeping young people engaged with art and bringing it to the community.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Huntington Beach artist Judith Hendler has been creating her own path since she was a child. She gained national attention when her jewelry appeared on a 1980s TV show. Now she’s focused on keeping young people engaged with art and bringing it to the community.

Hendler made her statement in high-end fashion with big, bold acrylic jewelry designs. Her work sold at Saks Fifth Avenue and graced models in Vogue and Elle magazines. Actress Joan Collins supercharged Hendler’s reach by wearing her pieces on the 1980s prime-time soap opera “Dynasty.” Now 81, Hendler keeps the creative juices flowing in the art studio at her Huntington Beach home. Her success underwrites annual gifts to a dozen social causes and arts organizations. She sees art everywhere. “It’s my belief art is the basis of everything. It is the chair you sit on, the spoon you use for your cereal, the switch that you turn on. It’s not just physics, it’s not just science. Somebody had to think how to present it to the public so that you’d want to use it.” 

A streak of vibrant blue or purple in her graying reddish-brown hair testifies to her artistic sensibilities. “Too often growing up, you had to have a blue sky and green grass. Well, I had a green sky and blue grass, and my tree was always at an angle.” Art became a passion at an early age as Hendler was stoked by an aunt whose paintings still hang in her home. When Hendler was about 7, California scene painter Dorothy Sklar—a friend of her mother’s—saw a tiny bust Hendler made in a clay class. “She looked at it and said to my mother, ‘Just let her keep making things. You don’t know about these things.’ ”

There’s a stubborn streak in me, especially when somebody tells me I can’t do something. You can’t give up. You have to say, ‘This is what I want to do.’

In retirement, Hendler focuses on her charitable work. She has worked closely over the years with Huntington Beach Art Center to sponsor and guide “Collage for a Cause” community gatherings that engage people who might not think of themselves as artistic. “It’s important for people to be involved in the arts. Part of what I do is to let everybody know that they have creativity in them.” She provides collage materials from her cache of art supplies and scraps that might include bottle caps, tea bag wrappers, and other items most folks toss. She creates her own pieces in conjunction with those projects.

In 2017, a collage fundraiser for the homeless youth nonprofit Build Futures brought in $4,000, selling pieces made by ordinary people for $20 each. “A collage is something anyone can do with a little coaching and direction. People come in with that kind of hollow look in their eyes, and they leave with a little smile. I don’t think there’s any substitute for that.” 

Her Judith Hendler Design Awards—three since 2020 in partnership with the art center—have highlighted the work of community college students, near and dear Hendler’s heart, as she attended Los Angeles City College. She provides the prize money and devises the rules, requiring use of recycled materials to meet a design theme. Shoe-based artwork was featured in an “If the Shoe Fits” exhibit in the summer. Hendler believes the competitions fill practical and emotional needs. “It’s a way of saying ‘Hang in there. This is worthwhile. You’ll make it. And here’s a little help along the way.’ If you let go of your dream, you have nothing.” 

For 2023, Hendler is planning a collage-making project to raise money for the next in the series of exterior murals that Westminster High students are painting on classroom buildings. The brainchild of art teacher Daina Anderson, the murals are created under the guidance of a guest artist students invite to the campus. “I am so excited because here is a school willing to step outside of the box to support art, to bring an artist willing to work with the kids. How incredible is that?”