For Los Angeles painter and real estate investor Shlomo Tuvia, making art has literally been a matter of survival his entire life. The son of Holocaust survivors, he grew up with parents who were both deaf and mute. Tuvia drew pictures as a child to express his needs and to communicate with them..
“It was very dramatic,” Tuvia told the Journal. “My mom would make faces [and] imitate how people walked. It was hilarious.”
Tuvia was born in a poor North African section of Jaffa, Israel, in 1958. Donkeys freely roamed the dirt streets. His parents worked as laborers and money was tight. The family later moved to Rehovot, and as a child and teenager, Tuvia started various one-man businesses, including
selling pita and hummus out of a “pushcart” fashioned from a baby carriage, delivering flowers for a local store, and even painting (stolen) bikes and
reselling them — a practice that stopped when he got caught. “These activities really helped me learn right from wrong,” he said.
In 1980, at the age of 21, Tuvia moved to Santa Monica and stayed with an uncle and aunt originally from Romania who were also Holocaust survivors.
One day, when he was in the car with his aunt and uncle in the parking garage at Santa Monica Place, he noticed a man on a ladder painting a mural in the alley. “I can do that,” Tuvia said. He got out of the car and asked the painter how he could could get this kind of work. The painter, a solopreneur, hired him on the spot as his assistant.
Tuvia worked as an outdoor and billboard painter for about six months, then began painting private homes. That work led to requests from clients for highly decorative finishes at a time when the faux finish craze was just beginning to explode.
“While doing faux finishes for clients including Michelle Pfeiffer, Melanie Griffith, Eddie Murphy and Barbra Streisand does not an official art student make, it provided Tuvia with the opportunity to practice working with paint.”
Tuvia quickly educated himself on how to apply specialty glazes and finishes: What makes ordinary drywall look like aged plaster from a Tuscan villa? How can you use paint (or paint mixed with weed killer, perhaps) to make new wooden ceiling beams resemble century-old reclaimed wood?
Off-the-shelf glazes weren’t widely available at the time, and Tuvia had to invent techniques. “We did all kinds of finishes on floors, ceilings, furniture, cabinets,” he said.
From the mid-1980s to 2008, Tuvia honed his craft, often staying up nights and experimenting to meet clients’ requests. He soon became one of Los Angeles’ leading faux finishers, working in mansions and celebrity homes, sometimes employing 100 other painters to help with a job.
While doing faux finishes for clients including Michelle Pfeiffer, Melanie Grif-fith, Eddie Murphy and Barbra Streisand does not an official art student make, it provided Tuvia with the opportunity to practice working with paint, an important part of becoming a skilled fine art painter. He was pushing the limits of paint and logging long hours learning to make paint more glossy, viscous, slick or rough. He also worked with gold leaf, dirt and lacquer.
Tuvia wanted to paint canvasses, but his clients’ demands sidelined fine art
until he closed his business in 2008. Returning to fine art, he also began buying and selling high-end homes. Today, he continues to paint and invest in real estate. He lives in Encino with his wife, Leah, and paints there and at a second space in Malibu.
Tuvia’s love of experimentation and desire to communicate emotion still drive his artistry. His works, often portraits of individuals or couples, have an expressionistic feel. He paints people he’s imagined, or those he admires, sometimes drawing inspiration from photographs or from other artwork. He prefers paint over any other medium. “I like working with liquid. I don’t start with sketches. I go straight to the paint on the canvas,”
Among his recent paintings are his take on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring;” a larger-than-life portrait of a rabbi; actor Christopher Walken; comedian Kevin Hart; and a canvas of the ochre ruins of Jaffa rising from the water.
In the Walken painting, the actor stares straight out of the canvas at the viewer. The portrait is done in acrylic, but the background is a gold leaf appliqué with a water droplet pattern. This use of faux finish techniques sets Tuvia apart from other self-taught painters. It informs his sensibility, giving his paintings that Marc Chagall-like mystical quality and brings to them a surprising mix of deep color and fanciful, multilayered detail.
He recently began a series of African warrior portraits based on images from Pinterest. “I want to do more about Africa,” he said. “I want to share the beauty of the people.
“I’ve been inspired by a lot of Jewish artists — Chagall, [Yaacov] Agam, Rafi Peretz. But my subjects really vary. I want my work to be universal.”
Tuvia’s work is available for viewing by appointment with the artist and online at artsy.net. It will be on display with the RGB Gallery at the L.A. Art Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center next Jan. 23-27. He is planning a local benefit to raise money for Crohn’s disease. For more information, visit Tuvia’s website.
Wendy Paris is the author, with Jane Mosbacher Morris, of “Buy the Change You Want to See: Using Your Purchasing Power to Make the World a Better Place.”