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Shades of Soul

Leah Gebber

In her tiny home in Meah Shearim, nonagenarian Huvy Elisha paints breathtaking masterpieces that are acclaimed around the world

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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LOVE OF LIFE A painting reflects the painter. To meet Huvy, sitting in her small apartment in Meah Shearim, channeling her intense love of life, her joy, her strength into the paintings is to be astounded, yes, but not surprised by the effects of her brush on canvas

Just a few short kilometers separate Meah Shearim’s winding alleys from the tourist-filled, hotel-lined King David Street, but they are different universes. Those universes collide in a small art gallery, home to the exquisite paintings of Ahuva (Huvy) Elisha, nonagenarian resident of Meah Shearim, whose art is acclaimed around the world. But if art reflects life, perhaps this is not surprising — Huvy’s personality and life experiences are tinted with as many shades as her landscapes.

Gallery of Memories

Inside the gallery, I gaze at a large oil painting: a field of poppies, a haze of mauve mountains against the horizon. Huvy’s son, Rachamim Elisha, has told me that Huvy’s childhood memories were seminal influences on her life’s work. She was born in the Bukharian quarter to Yerushalmi parents. When she was a young child, her parents moved to Czechoslovakia and then Austria, where her father had business interests, before settling in London, England.

I stare at the picture, trying to match the scene to the Devonshire countryside where Huvy was evacuated with her family. I draw a blank. Her son watches my puzzled face with glee. “You want to know where this is?”

“Yes.”

“That was my mother’s childhood playground. She would head out of the Bukharian Quarter and this expanse was her childhood playground. Meadows of poppies that led all the way up to Maalot Dafna.”

I look closer.

“When I tell people that this is Jerusalem, they don’t believe me. They haven’t seen anything like that here. But this is Jerusalem of the 1930s, the Jerusalem she loved from her childhood. The Jerusalem she returned to, later, with her family.”

I look around the gallery, stopping in front of a wedding scene: outdoor chuppah, joyous onlookers. “Ah, a classic Huvy image,” Rachamim comments. He explains that in addition to her paintings of nature, Huvy is famous for her scenes of Jewish life, and in particular, her paintings of weddings. One of her wedding scenes sold at an auction for over $100,000. These scenes reach back into Huvy’s stock of visual memories.

When the Elishas moved to Israel in 1968, one of the first scenes Huvy witnessed was a simple wedding: Chuppah held up by four men, a crowd of chassidim dancing and clapping, merrymakers lining the street. Vitality leaps out of the canvas — the joy of the newlyweds, the emotion of the crowd, the sense that for a moment, the world has stopped its journey and celebrates two souls joining as one. Perhaps it’s also a wink at her own personal history. In 1945, at age 17, Huvy married. “It was the first wedding to take place when the war was over,” Rachamim says.

For a while, there was a ten-foot tall painting of chassidim dancing, done in blue oil paint on canvas, hanging in the window of Huvy’s gallery. Today, the painting hangs in the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem

The impressionist-nature of the work means that as you look, the picture yields more secrets. I point to the fiddler at the side of the picture. “Ah, yes,” Rachamim says. “You’ll find a violinist in all the wedding scenes.”

I press him for details. “When my mother was ten years old, her father gave her a violin. She loved playing. He was a quiet man, but she was very close to him. In England, my grandmother wanted my mother to study medicine and become a doctor. But her father pushed her toward art. I suppose the violin in each picture is a tribute to her father.”

An Artist’s Eye

As a child, Huvy became adept at adjusting to new cities, new countries, new cultures. “That influenced her paintings,” her son explains. “In each place, she’d take in the architecture, the colors, the people, the Jewish sites, the quality of the light. It all gets drawn upon in each work.”

As I look around, I wonder if it also developed Huvy’s artistic eye. As artist Mary Lapos memorably wrote: “The ability to truly see, to look at this earth as a painting waiting to be born through our fingers, is what separates us artists from the rest of humanity.” To paint such arresting pictures requires both intimate knowledge of the subject as well as an eye that sees shapes and colors as if for the first time.

How did Huvy obtain this? How did a girl from Meah Shearim became an internationally acclaimed artist?

The street on which Huvy lives today is just a few minutes away from the home in which she lived as a child. Huvy opens the front door with a wide smile. Noticing a group of little girls waiting for their mother outside, she ushers all of us inside, and begins doling out orange juice and cookies. I can’t concentrate on food, though — my attention is caught by the huge oil paintings that dot the small room.

I wonder about the immense effort invested into each painting: not only the months of work, but the physical strain of working with large canvases at her advanced age. “When you love something, it’s not hard for you,” Huvy says. Her smile is warm, her voice low, her words free of pretension.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 537)

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