September 19, 2018

Making Judaism radiate with color

Hillel Smith believes art has the power to transform Judaism, and he hopes his latest creation — a 25-foot-tall mural in Pico-Robertson featuring text from ha-Motzi — can prove it. 

“I mostly connect to the sense of tradition and heritage,” he said. “I think that comes through in the work I do and utilization of brachot (blessings). I’m updating it. I’m starting with this very firm foundation and building from there.”

The Los Angeles-based artist recently completed a new mural on the back wall facing the parking lot of Bibi’s Bakery and Café, on Pico Boulevard between Crest Drive and Livonia Avenue. The vibrant piece depicts Hebrew text accompanied by some wheat sheafs that also are symbolic representations of challah.

Smith, 31, said he chose to paint the Hebrew letters because he’s always “coming up with a new way to test the boundaries of visual Judaica and contemporary Jewish design. I’m trying to make something that’s bright, bold and engaging, and has, at its core, real Jewish content.” 

American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity commissioned Smith’s mural through its WORD: Artist Grant, the Bruce Geller Memorial prize, that grants $500 to $2,000 to L.A. artists producing works inspired by Jewish text. Smith received $1,500.

The Bibi’s piece, finished Sept. 2, isn’t Smith’s first Jewish mural in Southern California. In 2013, he made a spray-painted mural on a handball court at Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai. In Hebrew, it says, “U-k’ne lecha haver,” which means “acquire for yourself a friend,” and it contains an image of an outstretched hand. 

 At the Orthodox synagogue Westwood Kehilla on Santa Monica Boulevard, he created a mural last year called “Simchat Torah,” which means “the joy of Torah.” It depicts men, women and children dancing around with both a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Torah. 

And last year, Smith worked with Tel Aviv-based artist Itamar Paloge on a mural for the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center. It is of a giant orange-and-blue Hebrew letter alef. Asylum Arts and the NextGen Engagement Initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles funded the project.

Smith grew up in Pico-Robertson, attending Gindi Maimonides Academy and Shalhevet High School, along with B’nai David-Judea Congregation. When he was a child, he said he noticed that there wasn’t much diversity in the Jewish art he saw. 

“One thing that’s always bothered me is that a lot of Jewish art is just of Hassidim on bicycles and really lovely watercolors of Jerusalem,” he said. “That’s kind of it. It blew my mind when I discovered the Jewish artists from earlier in the 20th century. They were at the forefront of their own artistic movements and made work in Hebrew.” 

After graduating from Shalhevet, Smith studied art at the University of Pennsylvania. He became interested in Hebrew typography and creating colorful illustrations, paintings and installations. 

Over the years, his work has taken him to Jerusalem — home to two of his murals — as well as Venice, Italy, where he had the opportunity to make three images for the new, illustrated Venice Haggadah. The book is to be released in 2017. 

Smith also has a blog (hillelsmith.tumblr.com) featuring something called “Parsha Posters,” which visually explores learnings from the weekly Torah portions. They are concert-style posters that feature “the crux of the story and a typographic illustration based off it,” he said. For example, for Parashat Re’eh, he made interpretive illustrations of the beasts Jews are allowed to eat, which include an ox, sheep, goat and antelope. The poster is called, “What’s for dinner.”

In all of Smith’s work, he uses vivid colors that jump off the page — or wall.