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Not Just Another Pretty Picture

In an age when just about anyone can point, click, and get a reasonably good picture, is there still a place for a portrait one painted in oil? According to artist Michele Horowitz, there most definitely is — even though you’ll find nary a portrait on the walls of her Jerusalem home

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Maybe it comes with the profession, but I’m always curious about the homes of the people I interview. The partially read book left on the dining table, the musical instrument sitting in the corner of the room, the choice of plants versus flowers — I can’t help but feel that the object will offer a clue into the person’s inner life, an entry point into the world that is uniquely hers. That’s one reason I was so surprised by what I saw — or rather didn’t see — while I waited in the Har Nof dining room of portrait artist Michele Horowitz. During the three or four minutes before Michele appeared, my gaze went from one wall to the next, and each time came up blank. Literally. While there were a few small pictures hanging on the walls, there wasn’t a single oil painting on display. Michele’s entrance into the room also surprised me. She looked so normal. Like her home, nothing about her appearance screamed, or even whispered: Artist! Only later did I realize that Michele’s ability to separate and achieve a balance between her multiple roles was the very clue I’d been looking for. A Passion for Paint Michele was born and raised in Freehold, New Jersey. While she always had an interest in drawing and painting, the fact that she is able to earn a parnassah as a portrait painter came as a pleasant surprise. Her family became Torah-observant during the 1980s, when she was a teenager, and when she enrolled at Syracuse University she originally thought she’d use her talents to design tzniyusdig clothing for women and girls. “Back then the tzniyus clothes weren’t at all up to date,” Michele explains, “and so I saw there was a need to design better-looking clothes for frum women. But when I realized it was going to be years of learning pattern making and sewing before I would get to start drawing and designing again, I decided it wasn’t for me.” Instead, she switched to studying illustration and fine arts. Ever practical, she assumed she’d earn a living by working in advertising or illustrating children’s books. She did indeed do some book covers and illustrations for Targum Press. But after her marriage to Rabbi Mendel Horowitz, a family therapist and rebbi at Har Nof’s Derech Etz Chaim, her husband encouraged her to concentrate on what she did best: paint. “My husband is amazing,” says Michele. “I was raising a family and I was working — I had part-time jobs as a secretary at Neve Yerushalayim, I was a kindergarten teacher for some time, and at one point I taught fine arts and color theory at Neve’s Maalot program — but he always encouraged me to make time to paint. Then my husband’s sister got married and her father-in-law, David Daskal a”h, was a rare book dealer who had clients all over the world. He was very impressed with my work, and he introduced me to his clients. He said, ‘I’ll help with the business side. You just paint.’ ” Today, Michele mainly creates portraits using oil paints. When asked why she prefers oil to other mediums, such as watercolor, she replies, “When I take my daughter to the zoo, we’ll take watercolors and drawing pads and make paintings and it’s a load of fun. But with oils there is a lot more depth to the painting. If you want to do a portrait that really shows the life in the face, you need layer upon layer upon layer of paint. Light gets reflected back and forth through those layers, and that’s what gives an oil painting its sense of aliveness. “There’s also a physical sensation of painting with oils. The mixing of the paint, the application of the paint, the color — it draws me in. Sometimes, when I’ve been exclusively drawing, I even dream of the buttery feel of painting.” A Family Commission While Michele may be her family’s resident professional artist, creativity is taken seriously by every member of the Horowitz household, which includes three boys and two girls, ranging in age from five years old to teens. “We’re a consciously creative family,” comments Rabbi Horowitz, who joined us for a few minutes. “Whether it’s how we do Shabbos, how we prepare a sheva brachos, or how we decorate the kids’ rooms, it carries over into everything we do.” Rabbi Horowitz adds that he grew up in the Sh’or Yoshuv community, where he had a close relationship with the community’s founder, Rav Shlomo Freifeld. “Rav Freifeld was a big influence on my family’s life. Creativity was very important to him. To have a vision and make it live is something I got from Rav Freifeld, and it’s something I try to transmit to my children and my students.” Since Michele also has a connection to Rav Freifeld — her sister married into the Sh’or Yoshuv community — it’s no surprise there are portraits of Rav Freifeld in her body of work. But since the oil paintings can be inspired by well-known photographs, I can’t help but play the philistine and ask, “Why go to so much trouble? Why not just buy the print of the photograph and hang that on the wall?” Michele’s reply is illuminating. “When you look at a photograph, you see a record of life; when you look at a painting, you see life itself. As the eye moves across the canvas, the light is changing, the color is changing, and that movement creates life. “Also, a photograph can show you what someone looks like, it can show a smiling face, but it can’t express personality in the same way. When I do a portrait, I really want to connect to the person I’m painting. It’s not just, ‘Does the nose go like this or like that?’ I want to know who this person is. When I was working on the portrait of Rav Freifeld, I listened to his lectures while I was painting. When I get a commission to paint someone’s rebbe, I’ll ask them, ‘What did he mean to you?’ ” One powerful example of how paint portrays layers of complexity is the portrait Michele did of Rav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, the author of Eim Habanim Semeichah who perished during the Holocaust. The person who commissioned the portrait wanted it to express the idea that this was someone who saw his world blown apart, but could see the future in Eretz Yisrael. To convey the idea of a fractured world, without painting burning shuls or other scenes of destruction, Michele used a technique that the modern artist Pablo Picasso used in his own work: cubism, an art style in which objects are fractured into geometric forms and then reassembled, sometimes using multiple or contrasting vantage points. “But the person who wanted the portrait had to tell me why this rabbi was important to him, what he learned from him,” Michele explains. “Afterward, I could then create something that would express all he felt.”

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