The Paintbrush as Sword

Samuel Bak’s first art exhibit was in the Vilna ghetto when he was 9 years old. While the Nazis killed 75,000 Vilna residents, he and his mother emerged as just two of 200 survivors.

Some of that young boy’s artwork, which depicted a culture that once was called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” has survived the 20th century and can be found in the Lithuanian capital’s Jewish museum. But Bak’s storied 45-year career in painting also brings more than 40 of his works to Los Angeles for the two-month “Between Worlds” exhibit at the Finegood Gallery at the New Jewish Community Center at Milken in West Hills.

“I had no difficulties bringing up memories that for some other people belong to a realm that is so painful that they cannot even approach it,” the 71-year-old Bak said in a telephone interview from his suburban Boston home. “I wasn’t in a concentration camp, but I was in a [labor] camp where most of the children were murdered.”

The Finegood exhibit will include a film series and Holocaust-related teacher training, both working off of Jewish historical themes in Bak’s paintings, which have a permanent home at Boston’s Pucker Gallery. Abstract masters such as Picasso have influenced his earlier pieces, while Europe’s 17th and 18th century painters have influenced his later works — what Bak called, “my more mature style.”

Although shades of Salvador Dali’s dream-driven paintings, which fused reality with fantasy, can appear to have influenced Bak’s art, the painter said that is a misinterpretation.

“I’m using reality to speak not of dreams but of nightmares,” he said.

The painter, who has three grown daughters who also work in creative fields, said he prefers broad themes because, “I cannot compete with the works of historians or documents of that time. So I go into a totally different domain; the domain that asks questions.”

“The bits and pieces for me,” he said, “are the various minds of the survivors who try to create a life of their own.”

“Between Worlds” at the Finegood Gallery, New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. For more information, call (818) 464-3300.