Irwin Golden: A lifetime of talent spills onto the canvas

Inside the Belmont Village Senior Living’s Westwood facility, a large, 5-by-4 canvas hangs on the wall in the third-floor hallway. It’s an abstract artwork, a complex tapestry of mostly earth tones and a varied geometric scheme of squares, cut-off triangles and shapes that fall in between. 

An untitled piece, it’s located just outside Room 323, where 90-year-old Irwin Golden grins merely at the mention of it. And for good reason — he painted it.

“I like the big ones,” he said. “But there’s not enough space in here.” 

A recent move into a cozy white-walled studio unit has limited his workspace and storage capabilities. As a result, Golden has been forced to operate on a smaller scale of late, evidenced by a slew of recently completed abstract pieces crowding the floor and countertop of his narrow hallway kitchen. 

“For him, it’s like working on a postage stamp,” said his daughter, Sharyn Klein. 

At 90, Golden has the deep belly laugh of a man much younger. 

“I played offensive tackle in high school,” he said when asked about his younger years. Sitting comfortably in his armchair, a walker in front of him, his impressively built frame still doesn’t escape you. “But I was big and clumsy,” he added, letting out that laugh that invites you to join in. 

Still stuck on his own clumsiness, Golden recalls a fresh-faced Gene Kelly charging $5 for dancing lessons in Golden’s mostly Jewish Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill where he grew up. Golden enrolled, but, as he remembers it, the future Hollywood star wasn’t pleased with what he saw. 

“ ‘Come on, fat boy. Move your ass!’ That’s what he said to me,” Golden said.

Being different turned him on to art, Golden said. A young Walt Disney paying a visit to his elementary school in the early 1930s didn’t hurt either.

“I still collect Disney watches to this day,” Golden said with pride, extending his wrist to show off a vintage Mickey timepiece, one of 12 designs that he owns. The influence also can be seen in a painting Golden made for his grandson, featuring Mickey and trusty dog Pluto bounding through a vibrantly surreal, balloon-filled setting. 

As a teenager, Golden designed the stage sets for his high school’s class plays and painted in his spare time. The latter was met with disdain from Golden’s father. “He told me I was a sissy and that boys don’t paint,” Golden said. 

After three years of service in the South Pacific during World War II with the U.S. Army’s 98th Infantry Division, Golden returned to Pittsburgh and married his high school sweetheart, Shirley. He attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill and was classically trained, honing his still-life and landscape skills (which he dismisses as “the boring stuff”). As part of his training, he worked with oils and re-created the works of greats such as Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall. 

He took a job in the display department of a department store, and his interests veered toward home furnishing and interior design. At the age of 22, he and Shirley moved to North Hollywood, where he opened a custom drapery business. 

Golden eventually moved his family to Mission Viejo. He wasn’t painting much, but his artistic background helped with other community projects. As a member of Temple Judea in Laguna Woods, Golden designed the stained-glass windows. As president of the local chapter of American Red Magen David for Israel, Golden designed Jewish New Year’s cards and tribute cards for fundraising. He retired at 62. 

Not one to sit idly by, Golden signed up for art courses at Saddleback College, where he discovered a connection to abstract art. “You get out of [abstract] what you see in your mind,” he said. “I was very into it.”

Over time, Golden developed and strengthened his abilities. He said he began to see works in his head, then transposed the visuals onto the canvas. This internal mechanism prevented bouts with macular degeneration and glaucoma from coming between Golden and his passion, enabling him to bypass his physical limitations. 

“It all comes from up here,” Golden said, pointing to his head. “I can see it in my head and my fingers just have to put it on the canvas.”

Golden’s work of late favors earthy browns and greens. Leading lines often direct attention to distinct use of deep reds and blues accompanied by a variety of spheres. There are also works integrating formless cloudlike visions of contrasting warm and cool colors. 

His mind is still razor-sharp, recalling memories and conversing with ease. Although hard of hearing, Golden softens considerably at every mention of his wife, wistfully stealing glances at a picture of her resting on a bedside table. 

“That’s my best piece of art,” he said, nodding in the direction of Shirley’s picture. 

Four years ago, while Shirley battled dementia, Golden stopped painting to be by her side. She died this past February after 69 years of marriage. For her, he completed a still-life painting of flowers, one of his few recent forays into that genre. 

“She liked flowers,” he said. 

Hoping to occupy his time, Golden resumed painting after Shirley died with renewed vigor. The dozen or so pieces that now litter his studio’s walkways have been completed over the last few months, his daughter said. 

A man who found his artistic voice in his 60s, Golden is still evolving.

“It’s fulfilling for me,” he said. 

With 90 years behind him, Golden looks forward. He’s eager to keep working, confdent his best work is still within him. 

“Look at this,” he said, his eyes scanning the room before finally coming to rest on a window overlooking Wilshire Boulevard. “I’ve got to find more space to work in.” 

New documentary ‘Altina’ gives success a different definition

Ambitious girls looking for role models among successful and accomplished women of the past might turn to scientist Marie Curie, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart or social-justice champion Eleanor Roosevelt.

And then there was Altina “Tina” Schinasi.

Tina grew up in the opulent splendor of a New York mansion, became a painter and innovative sculptor, then film producer, inventor, business executive, backer of Martin Luther King Jr. and helper of Jewish refugees.

With all that, she was a thoroughly liberated and independent woman whose fourth husband testified to her undiminished sexual appetite when she was in her 60s and 70s.

Sounds like a great character for a biopic, and because she was also blessed with children and grandchildren who became filmmakers, the documentary feature “Altina” is now ready for public screening.

Altina Schinasi Sanders Barrett Carey Miranda (1907-1999) was raised in a white marble mansion with 12 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, now an official New York City landmark that is still standing at Riverside Drive and West 107th Street in Manhattan.

The master of the mansion, Morris Schinasi, arrived in New York from Turkey as a penniless Jewish immigrant, going on to invent a cigarette-rolling machine at a time when people still rolled their own. He branched out into making and selling his own brands of cigarettes, packed with strong imported Turkish tobacco.

Schinasi managed to build this business empire without learning how to read or write, but he spoke eight languages fluently.

Tina attended a predominantly Episcopalian boarding school, where she got her first youthful taste of anti-Semitism.

Despite her family wealth, she went to work during the Depression designing window displays for Fifth Avenue stores, collaborating with surrealist painter Salvador Dali on some assignments, and also studying under German exile artist George Grosz.

Annoyed by the unflattering spectacles worn by women, Tina created Harlequin — or cat’s-eye — frames, which swept the country in the 1930s. Subsequently, she established her own company to distribute her invention.

Striking out as an artist, she experimented with bold paintings, showing the influence of Picasso and Chagall. Then, turning to sculpture, she created “humanistic” benches and chairs, which she dubbed “chairacters,” depicting lovers in passionate embrace or coolly turning their backs on each other.

In the 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles and directed her talents toward making a documentary film. Titled “Interregnum” (“Germany Between the Wars”), the 1960 film tracked the artistic and political career of her ex-teacher Grosz, whose biting anti-Nazi caricatures led to his forced exile when Hitler came to power.

This first-time effort won her an Oscar nomination and the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

During the civil rights confrontations of the 1950s and ’60s, she befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and obtained his consent to make a film about his life and struggles. The project was too controversial at the time, and Tina was unable to get studio funding and backing, said Peter Sanders, her grandson and director of “Altina.”

During the communist-hunting era of the 1940s and ’50s, Sanders noted, Tina sheltered in her Beverly Hills home movie director John Berry, who was trying to avoid a congressional subpoena.

Parallel with all these varied activities, she married a procession of husbands. In chronological order, they were architect Morris Sanders; Eric Barrett, a Viennese doctor; Charles Carey, who co-produced “Interregnum” with her; and, finally, Celestino “Tino” Miranda, a creative refugee from Castro’s Cuba who joined Tina in her painting and sculpture studio.

Miranda makes for one of the more arresting figures in the “Altina” documentary. He married the considerably older Tina in 1981, when she was already in her 70s, but, speaking in Spanish, he tells the film audience, “She was hot; she liked sex. She didn’t just lie there; she had the stamina of a 25-year-old.”

To borrow from satirist and songwriter Tom Lehrer’s paean to the much and famously married Alma Mahler, “A woman like this makes one realize how little one has accomplished in one’s own life.”

In making his documentary, director Peter Sanders was greatly aided by the discovery of footage shot by Morris Sanders, Tina’s first husband, during their honeymoon. Even more valuable was a two-hour interview filmed by Tina’s son, Terry Sanders, when she was 84.

During the last decade of her life, Tina and husband Celestino lived in Santa Fe, N.M., and Peter Sanders joined them for half a year at their combination homestead and artists’ studio.

He remembered his grandmother as cool and private, not the hugging type, but an almost surreal person as an artist.

“I tried to decode what her paintings and sculptures meant,” he said. “And everywhere there were animals, inside and outside, peacocks, sheep, Chinese roosters and Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Tina was not a conventionally beautiful woman, yet she attracted men throughout her long life. The reason, Peter Sanders believes, was partially her wealth and social standing, but even more her sense of fun, artistic sensibility and sexuality.

Asked about the Jewish aspect of his family tree, Sanders observed, “My grandmother Tina was proud of her Jewishness, deeply affected by the rise of the Nazis, and personally furnished 13 affidavits to enable Jewish refugees to enter the United States. But we were never practicing Jews in the religious sense.”

An upbeat aspect of the film is the musical score, including ragtime and jazz, reflecting different decades of Tina’s life.

Following five years of work, “Altina” came in at a budget of about $250,000, mainly underwritten by Tina’s granddaughter Victoria Sanders, who first conceptualized the film, and by executive producer Diane Dickensheid.

The documentary opens Sept. 19 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Lucian Freud, noted British artist, dies

Lucian Freud, one of Britain’s most noted artists, has died at the age of 88.

Freud, who was a grandson of Sigmund Freud, the pioneering figure of psychoanalysis, died at his London home on Wednesday.

Born in Berlin in 1922, the future artist fled with his family to England at the age of 10 after Hitler took power in 1933.

A figurative painter, he was famed for his portraits and paintings of nudes.

“The vitality of (Freud’s) nudes, the intensity of the still life paintings and the presence of his portraits of family and friends guarantee Lucian Freud a unique place in the pantheon of late 20th Century art,” said Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery in London. “His early paintings redefined British art and his later works stand comparison with the great figurative painters of any period.”

R.B. Kitaj — an appreciation

Amnon Barzel, the prominent contemporary art curator who served as the first director of what is now the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, says he arrived in Germany as an Israeli but left as a Jew. It is as much a comment on current German philo-Semitism (I’ve always said “now they love you to death!”) as on its opposite.

The same kind of logic could be applied to American-born painter R. B. Kitaj, who spent much of his life in Britain and died last month in Los Angeles. Kitaj found his gradual self-definition as a Jewish artist through his connection to what came to be known (probably inaccurately) as the “School of London,” a term of his own invention.

Likely under the strong spell of Francis Bacon, the group counted among its other (sort of) Jewish “members” Lucien Freud, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. At a time when variants of abstraction were giving way to pop art, these artists remained committed to a very different, even traditional, sort of figurative painting mode. But Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach were, in their own way, legitimate Brits, and thus presumably not as put-off by the odd ways in which so many British Jews yearn for invisibility insofar as their Jewishness is concerned. Kitaj, like other contemporary American Jews, never quite felt that self-denial, even when he felt no strong Jewish attachments. Despite the Anti-Defamation League’s attempts to persuade us otherwise, American Jews have come a long way from the fearful 1930s attitudes that Philip Roth so brilliantly describes in “The Plot Against America” — when we hopelessly yearned to be perceived as undifferentiated Americans.

Two important exhibitions examining the Jewish content of Kitaj’s work will open in Los Angeles in January — “R.B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory — Jewish Works from His Personal Collection” at the Skirball Cultural Center and “Portrait of a Jewish Artist: R.B. Kitaj in Text and Image,” at UCLA’s Archive of Jewish Culture. These shows will offer the opportunity to calibrate just how “Jewish” Kitaj’s art really is — as distinct from his rhetoric about art-making in the diaspora. I doubt that Kitaj would have come up with his two “Diasporist Manifestos” (1989 and 2007) had he not lived so long in the comfort/discomfort of a London that in turns admired and reviled him as an artist — and, he felt, as a Jew.

Kitaj’s art’s connection to Judaism is not just that of a “diasporist” artist, however — always on the outside in some indefinable way, and yet also wholly celebrated as mainstream. After all, this is an artist who was long represented by the prestigious Marlborough Galleries, and his portraits of friends, even notable Jews such as Isaiah Berlin and Philip Roth, don’t necessarily suggest that his subject matter is Jewish — or do they?

Nevertheless, it should be noted that Kitaj was not the first artist to find relationships between the Shoah and the Passion of Christ, though his “Passion” works, which are included in the Skirball exhibition, reflect Kitaj’s intense need as an artist to anchor himself in the traditions of western art — which is largely dominated by Christian iconography — while also figuring his own way through issues that range from recapturing bits of Jewish history to working through Jewish ideas of thinkers, such as Martin Buber.

I first met Ron Kitaj in the late 1960s, when I was living and working in Berkeley and Kitaj came there to lecture. We became casual friends and remained so; I visited with him and his late wife, Sandra Fisher a few times in London, and then met up with him again much later in Westwood, where he moved after exiling himself from London. In 1965, I was blown away by Kitaj’s first New York gallery exhibition, at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, which I saw when I was still working at The Jewish Museum. My interest certainly had nothing to do with his being a Jewish artist (I doubt that I even knew he was Jewish), but rather, his obvious talent. Here was a serious painter — in the age of Pop/Op and post-AbEx Color Field and all the other “isms” of the day — who was a skilled draughtsman with a very sure sense of using images, a sensibility that leapfrogged from that of the early 20th-century abstractionists and colorists right over a slew of subsequent modes, and did so with extraordinary self-confidence. Kitaj may not have been the unmatched draughtsman of his era that he claimed to be, but he was an amazingly talented artist, with breathtaking control of line and a gorgeous sense of color. His work is filled with imagery both suggestive and elusive, and often confounding.

Critical reaction to Kitaj’s work was often problematic, ranging from high praise to the damning reviews that ultimately led to his 1997 departure from London. The fluctuations were probably more the result of his not being easily pigeonholed — art writers need comfortable categorizations no less than anyone else — than because of the evolution of his work. Indeed, given the many decades of Kitaj’s productivity, it’s astonishing to consider how consistent his work was — in style, if not in subject matter.

That steadiness, too, has been off-putting to some critics, conditioned as we are to save our highest regard

Life, liberty and the pursuit of beautiful language

For most of his 92 years, artist Sam Fink has been obsessed with the pursuit of freedom and the beauty of language. Even though he is a painter, he calls language “the highest form of art, higher even than painting and music.”

But even Fink could not have predicted that these passions would culminate in the creation of his exquisite versions of “The Book of Exodus” and “The Gettysburg Address,” both recently published by Welcome Books.

Although it has the appearance and dimensions of a coffee-table book, his “Exodus” is a complete and genuine illustrated version of the second book of the Torah, every word, both in Hebrew and English, was hand-lettered by Fink (a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that he doesn’t know Hebrew). The words of each of the 40 chapters of Exodus are incorporated in 40 different watercolor paintings of the sky.

His other work, “The Gettysburg Address,” contain Lincoln’s 270 words inscribed and illustrated by Fink, as well as a chronology of events leading up to the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

A commercial art director throughout most of his professional life, Fink’s recently published work is a far more personal approach afforded to him through retirement. Ruminating on his American and Jewish experience — as a child of immigrants and as a soldier during World War II — both books serve as an opportunity for the artist to delve deeper into the meaning of the word “freedom.”

Fink was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1916 and grew up in a typical middle-class Jewish family, conscious of their heritage, but with minimal religious observance. Reflecting on his childhood, he recalled “Even when I was a little boy, I would look at the clouds and see all kinds of magic. I had the gift of imagination.”

He was a good student and was admitted to the then-academically demanding City College of New York. Being creative and a free spirit, he says he “rebelled” against the restrictions and requirements of a formal education and announced to his parents that he wanted to quit school in order to hitchhike to California and back.

It was the depth of the Depression and, he recalls, he had all of $50. Nonetheless, with his parents’ rather reluctant blessings, he set off. As he traveled from coast to coast, he fell in love with America and its people and “absorbed the beauty of our country.” Once again, he cited “the expanse of the sky which reflects that there is freedom all around us.”

On his return home, Fink joined his father in the commercial art field. With time out for World War II when he served as a master sergeant with the 88th Infantry Division in Italy, he eventually joined Young and Rubicam (Y&R), then, as now, one of America’s foremost advertising agencies. There he became an art director and headed their art department in Chicago. After leaving Y&R in 1970, he continued to work as a freelance art director for 20 more years, most notably on the Land’s End catalog.

After he retired in Great Neck, N.Y., Fink began to reflect more deeply on the source of his good fortune.

“I remember both my sets of grandparents,” he said. “They were illiterate, and I spoke Yiddish with them. They had children, and we prospered in this land … it’s so amazing what freedom has meant to us!”

As is his custom, Fink “spoke” to himself saying, “Hey, Sam, you owe this country.”

By way of repayment, his first “installment” was to copy the Constitution of the United States on a single sheet of paper. “In copying word by word I realized how difficult it is to achieve freedom,” he said.

He then thought of copying the Bible but his late wife, Adelle, said: “Don’t just copy it, illustrate it!” That was the genesis of his “Exodus.” As he writes in his introduction to the book, “Exodus is a cry for freedom, and that’s what it is all about.”

The source of the Hebrew text in Fink’s “Exodus” is the Torah, and the English translation is the 1917 Jewish Publication Society version. Fink’s watercolors reflect the tenor of the chapter they illustrate.

While he does not claim to be influenced by any particular artist, some of his “skyscapes” are reminiscent of Rothko and others of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The bottom line, however, is that they are Fink originals. He hopes they “will entice people to read about the price of freedom.”

In “The Gettysburg Address,” Fink’s portrayal of Lincoln varies from page to page and is somewhat reminiscent of the style identified with the Jewish Italian artist Modigliani.

Fink had originally intended his work to be a gift to his children and grandchildren. However, on one of his many trips to Israel to visit his son, David, and his seven grandchildren, he stopped in an airport bookshop and picked up a book published by Welcome Books. Figuring that they might be interested in his books, he sent a proposal to Welcome founder and CEO Lena Tabori. Even though she rejected his proposal, she invited Sam to lunch. As a result she eventually agreed to publish, not one, but each of his works.

Looking back, Fink said, “I can’t believe I did it; something happened which made me bigger than I am.”

Schnabel dives into another mind with a visual poem

“Don’t give up your day job!”

That’s what I really wanted to tell Julian Schnabel during our interview at New York’s Regency Hotel.

Our era keeps pushing the limits of excessive art hype to promote overpriced underwhelming art, and Schnabel exemplifies this trend as distinctly as any American artist. The range of his paintings — some of them perhaps best understood as sculptures — early on defied easy classification in regard to any single style or trend in the art of our time.

Indeed, the only evident trend was a sense that Schnabel’s art depended as much on being outrageous, and was promoted for its outrageousness, as for any inherent sense of quality.

For me, his significance as a painter was primarily in the ability to pick up on ideas that had already been beautifully explored by others — Bruce Conner, Eva Hesse, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, etc. — exploiting someone else’s explorations. And then gradually one realizes, contemplating Damian Hirst’s so-called pushing at so-called boundaries, that rip-offs (politely called “appropriations”) are not only part of the eternal art cycle, but that Schnabel himself becomes an artist to be appropriated. I’m never certain whether this is poetic justice or a continual dumbing-down in contemporary art.

I had to rethink some of that when I saw Julian Schnabel’s newest film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” This poignant and painful visual poem is clearly informed by the painter’s sensibility and, I would argue, by the painter’s Jewish sensibility. My first impression was to wonder why such a talented filmmaker would bother with the scrappy hype-driven world of galleries and collectors and museums. But who would argue that the film world is any better, especially if one makes a movie that, despite its wonderfully rich human resonances, is unlikely to reach a mass audience? Although this is Schnabel’s third film, it is probably his most accomplished, having garnered him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. That’s no mean feat for a painter whose public persona has often revealed an ego as outsized as some of his paintings.

Schnabel told me to check out W.H. Auden’s 1940 poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” as a clue to his work in this film, and its opening lines reveal something about the unity in the totality of the artist’s work, for which I might previously not have had enough respect:

“About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an extraordinary memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French Elle, who was suddenly struck with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome that turned a vibrant young man into a quadriplegic with all his mental capacities intact. The book was “dictated” to Bauby’s therapist-companion by eye blinks that identified each letter of the alphabet, and was published two days before Bauby’s death in 1997. It’s not surprising that one might find in this courageous book the potential for a film. But that Julian Schnabel was able successfully to accomplish the beautiful and sensitive transformation of this book to film is almost as miraculous as Bauby’s own triumph over unimaginable adversity. The puzzle of finding oneself inexplicably “locked in” and then dealing with the despair, which moves to somehow handling the cards one has been dealt — “acceptance” or “overcoming” are not quite the right words — almost strains credibility. But from the film’s very beginning Schnabel tries to get the viewer into Bauby’s eyes and body, and eventually even his imagination; how and why this succeeds as a film is almost as inexplicable as is any mysteriously compelling work of art in any medium.

As Schnabel explained it to me, he is simply “a human being using a camera to communicate,” and although he has himself never really been sick, Schnabel was challenged by imagining how to get into a whole body.

“Getting inside someone is art. Making you think about what life is — that’s art!” Here’s where Auden’s finely tuned poem — a meditation on Pieter Breughel’s 1558 painting, “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels — serves as a key to Schnabel’s impulse not only to unlock a door that lets him inside another person, but also to uncover the means to take us with him.

But I also sensed something very Jewish here. At the Passover seder we are not simply commemorating our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt. Rather, the haggadah clearly specifies that each of us is responsible for annually understanding that we ourselves experienced that Exodus. Schnabel’s film sensitively manages to take the viewer inside a forbidden place — someone else’s body and mind. And unlike what we have become accustomed to in so much of contemporary art — especially photography since Diane Arbus’ work gained prominence — the viewer of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is never a voyeur. That’s an amazing achievement!

I don’t recall anyone ever classifying Schnabel as a “Jewish artist” — even if his mother was a Hadassah president and his father an active member of B’nai B’rith. Unlike the parody of pushy Jewish parents aiming their son at medical school, Schnabel says that his parents encouraged him to do anything he wanted — which may explain a kind of restlessness as an artist that sometimes feels like a lack of focus, and an oeuvre of uneven quality and interest. But if the result is a work of art as accomplished as Schnabel’s latest film, then such antsy-ness is laudable.

And while he continues to paint and exhibit his work all over the world, it’s even more exciting to contemplate Schnabel’s next film project: He told me he wants to make a film about Palestinian women growing up in Israel.

Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

Artist-Writer Maira Kalman creates illustrated memoir

When asked why she became a painter and writer, Maira Kalman, author of “The Principles of Uncertainty,” an illustrated memoir, says, “I can’t do anything else. I clean very well. I’d like to be a maid for the Duchess of Devonshire.”

That Kalman, who will be appearing Oct. 30 at Los Angeles’ downtown Central Library for one of its ALOUD events, would seek, even somewhat jokingly, a job outside the United States is no surprise. She has lived in Rome, was born in Israel to Russian-born parents and now lives in New York. She is also a Francophile, and the bold use of color in her exquisite paintings shows a clear connection to the work of Matisse and Cezanne.

As much as she is celebrated as a painter and illustrator — her work has adorned the cover of The New Yorker and has been exhibited at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan — Kalman says, “I guess I consider myself a writer.”

“Principles” is not her first book. She has previously written and illustrated a dozen children’s books and, as befitting her New Yorker pedigree, she illustrated a new version of Strunk & White’s classic, “The Elements of Style,” a text whose introduction was first published by The New Yorker.

A series of ruminations on life and death, as well as desserts, hats and walking, “Principles” conspicuously invokes Proust in its stream-of-consciousness style. But Proust is not the only literary figure who turns up in Kalman’s text. She also writes about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka; visits a friend named Molly Bloom; calls her daughter Milton, and draws a painting of an androgynous Nabokov, wearing what appears to be lipstick and women’s shoes, while reading a book on the science of butterflies and moths.

In fact, Kalman only writes about one painter: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who painted as a hobby, but of course is better remembered as a wartime statesman, orator and writer, and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are occasions when Kalman suspends her penmanship, idiosyncratic in its inconsistent use of capital letters within words, a bit harsher than the soft lines that often characterize women’s handwriting and types captions for illustrations.

She explains that she typed the chapter on February because “I didn’t want the handwriting to be lyrical, since February is such an impossible month…. It’s cold and gray and sad and rainy.”

She also sometimes includes blurry photographs of people walking, instead of her gouache-on-paper paintings. “I take hundreds of photos a week,” said this cross-disciplinary artist, who also has designed fabrics, clocks and umbrellas and is now working on an opera of her book with composer Nico Muhly.

A strain of melancholy runs through “Principles” — in the tales of the death of her husband and aunt, the Holocaust and Israel’s recent war against Hezbollah. But Kalman, who was in Israel last year during the war, seems to be heartened by the rudeness of an Israeli, who in the midst of the conflict flicks the remains of rotting cherries off his car onto her shirt. And she notes that the ice cream man is still selling his wares on the beach, and the secondhand bookstore and flea market in Tel Aviv are still filled with customers.

The final illustration of a river rippling down a falls into a pool leaves us with an image of tranquility and vibrancy. On the flip side of the page is a message from a World War II poster that still resonates today, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Maira Kalman will appear in conversation with Louise Steinman on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m. For information call (213) 228-7025.

Desperate times forged painter’s creative legacy

Charlotte Salomon perished in Auschwitz at the age of 26, but the astonishing legacy she left behind will be celebrated this month in an exhibition and on stage.

In her short life, Salomon was a prolific painter, but her style and sensibility were so unique that critics still have difficulty describing her artistry.

“An enormous and breathtaking visual instrument … a great work of European, Jewish and women’s culture … one of the most important art works of the 20th century,” writes art historian Archie Rand.

Her method varies, from single images to storyboard-like sequencing. Her early work, depicting childhood memories, is very colorful, but the work became increasingly abstract as she explored her internal musings, including painful images of her mother’s and grandmother’s suicides.

Both the exhibition, which opened April 12 at the Goethe Institut, and the stage production, opening in previews Thursday, April 19, at the Met Theater, go under the identical title of “Charlotte: Life? Or Theater?”

The title is taken from Salomon’s visual autobiography of more than 1,300 watercolor gouaches, which she painted in southern France between 1940 and 1942, before she was seized by the Nazis.

Salomon was born in Berlin, the daughter of a prominent physician and academic, and, in a rare exception for a Jew, she was admitted to the Berlin Fine Arts Academy in 1935, during Hitler’s regime. She was expelled three years later and found refuge with her grandparents in Villefranche, near Nice.

There she learned of her tragic family history of five suicides, all women, including her mother and grandmother. This awareness brought her to “the question,” as she put it, whether to take her own life or “undertake something crazy and unheard of” — an autobiography in art.

Just before she was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz, married and pregnant with her first child, she gave her massive collection to a friend, telling her, “Keep this safe, it is my whole life.”

Salomon’s father and stepmother, who survived the Holocaust by going underground in Holland, discovered the hidden treasure and gave it to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
The exhibition is made up of digital reproductions of 26 of Salomon’s paintings.

The stage production of “Life? Or Theater?” subtitled, “A Three Color Play with Music,” was created by Elise Thoron and Gary Fagin, and has been performed at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, London, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

Director Louis Fantasia commented that “Charlotte Salomon created vibrant, original art as a ringing affirmation of life in the face of impossible odds.”

The stage production, he added, is “a brilliant piece of musical theater, emotionally charged, politically astute and filled with remarkable tunes. It is perhaps as close as we can come to a three-dimensional staging of the theater of the mind, of paint, water and paper, that she strove so brilliantly to create in the last two years of her life.”

Exhibit hours through July 30 at the Goethe Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, are Mondays 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Fridays 9 a.m.-3 p.m. For additional information, call (323) 525-3388.

Following previews beginning April 19, the play will continue with regular performances at The Met Theater, 1089 N. Oxford St., April 26-May 27. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations, phone (323) 957-1152. The play is presented in cooperation with the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

For more information, visit

Charlotte Salomon art

MLK Observances; Beethoven @ LACMA; Alpha Dog Rising

Saturday the 13th

Craig Taubman’s regular “One Shabbat Morning” service gets a special theme for this one Shabbat. Dedicated to families who have children with special needs, this morning’s affair will begin with guest speaker and educator Dr. David Ackerman discussing his experiences with the special-needs community, followed by a service of song and celebration and Kiddush lunch.

9:15 a.m. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426. ‘ target=’_blank’>

6 p.m. Free. 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000. ‘ target=’_blank’>

Tuesday the 16th

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In a colorful, patchwork-reminiscent style, painter Bonnie Stone touches on themes of women’s roles and family life, as well as Judaic subjects. Tobey C. Moss Gallery presents some of her recent watercolors, in “Bonnie Stone: A Woman’s Touch,” featuring works like “Game of Chance” and Voyager,” which pay homage to both Marc Chagall and Stone’s Jewish heritage.

Opening reception Jan. 13, 2-5 p.m. Jan. 13-March 10. 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523. ‘ target=’_blank’>

Friday the 19th

End the week on a spiritual note with one more event honoring the message of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This evening, Rabbi Stewart Vogel and the Temple Aliyah choirs collaborate with Grammy-winning gospel artist and pastor Andrae Crouch and the choir of his New Christ Memorial Church. The result will be a Gospel Shabbat, weaving ancient liturgy with gospel music for an inspirational interfaith service.

8:15 p.m. Temple Aliyah, 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 346-3545.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday the 29th

The most avant-garde comics find a gorgeous forum, once again, with the release of the sixth edition of editor Sammy Harkham’s anthology, “Kramer’s Ergot 6.” Geeks celebrate its release tonight at the Hammer Museum, which features performances by Kites and The Mystical Unionists, films by Paper Rad and a presentation by painter and “Raw” contributor Jerry Moriarty.

9 p.m. Free. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000. ” TARGET=”_blank”>

Monday the 31st

“Look, but don’t touch” is the unspoken challenge to viewers of the Gatov Gallery’s new exhibit, “Soft Art.” On view are the vibrant textile works of Israeli artists Udi Merioz and Johanan Herson, created with a technique employed by only four known artists in the world. Pieces come together by applying brilliant colored textiles onto a soft canvas, and pressing them into one another with a special needle. The gallery at the Alpert JCC hosts the show through Aug. 15.

Open daily, times vary. Free. Alpert JCC, Weinberg Jewish Federation Campus, 3601 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 426-7601.

Tuesday the 1st

Our interest in, and relationships with varied species of the animal kingdom makes up Fahey/Klein Gallery’s new show, “Not All of Man’s Best Friends Are Dogs.” Photographers Richard Avedon, Garry Winogrand, Shelby Lee Adams and Steve Schapiro are a few of the contributors who depict people’s interactions with bird and beast.

10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Through Sept. 2. 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-2250. ” TARGET=”_blank”>

Thursday the 3rd

Multiple loveless affairs, a lustless marriage and in-vitro pregnancy are some of the bigger manifestations of one young woman’s fear of abandonment. Her journey to lead an emotional life appropriate with her age is the subject of Jessica Bern’s one-woman comedy, “Days of Whine and Roses.” It opens today.

8 p.m. (Thursdays). Through Aug. 31. $20 (in advance). Elephant Lab Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 960-1056.

Friday the 4th

Neil Simon laughs for all this month. In the Valley, the Secret Rose Theater offers the classic “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” Simon’s homage to the time in his career spent writing for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” takes us into a 1950s TV writer’s room. Or, head to the 90212 for “Rumors,” in which hilarity ensues when an anniversary party goes awry; the host shoots himself in the head (a flesh wound), his wife goes missing and the guests must entertain themse

“Laughter”: Through Aug. 20. Secret Rose Theater, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. (866) 811-4111.

“Rumors”: Through Sept. 3. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills High Campus. (310) 364-0535.

Artists Dream in a Golden Age

Sam Erenberg spends most of the day, nearly every day, alone in a 1,000-square-foot box.

“It’s like a temple,” the painter says of his artist’s studio.

A lonely temple, that is.

“I’m the rabbi and congregation all in one,” he says with a laugh.

Working as an artist can be isolating, especially in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. And what good is inspiration without community?

The Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California exists for artists like Erenberg. The group, consisting of about 30 members, constitutes one of the nation’s first organized networks of Jewish artists. Its aims are twofold: to create a support system for local artists and to transform the way the Jewish community relates to art.

On a recent evening, Erenberg sat among other artists in a garage-turned-studio in Larchmont Village. He, for one, was happy for the company.

“This is my ad-hoc family,” he said to the painters, photographers and sculptors who had gathered there for the group’s monthly meeting.

The Artists Initiative emerged three years ago, when Amelia Xann of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles approached USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Xann wanted to create a program to promote visual art by Jewish artists.

The organizations decided to found a group that would put on exhibitions, host a lecture series and provide a space for artists to explore the relationship between their Jewish identities and their art.

So, the Artists Initiative launched, with $40,000 in foundation grants for a speaker series and Web site.

The group staged its first exhibition in 2004 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Too Jewish — Not Jewish Enough” showcased paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, ceramics and digital work that incorporated Jewish themes or adhered to “a Jewish sensibility.” (Art with a “Jewish sensibility,” Erenberg explained, exhibits “a kind of longing, a feeling that you’re connected to a long history.”)

The second exhibition, “Makor/Source,” concentrated on the sources of the artists’ inspiration. The exhibit opened this year at the Hillel: Centers for Jewish Life, at USC and UCLA.

Members are planning a third exhibition, which will likely have a California theme, to open in the next year or so at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Art historian Matthew Baigell will curate the show.

Ruth Weisberg, a nationally recognized artist and the de facto leader of the group, said the initiative has ambitious goals.

“We really want to be another porthole, another entrance into Judaism,” said Weisberg, who is dean of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts. “Younger people, especially, are often more at ease entering the Jewish community through cultural events than any other way.”

Weisberg, who illustrated the Reform movement’s new haggadah, said she hoped the group would also encourage Jewish artists to treat Jewish themes in their work.

“Many Jews who are involved in the art world keep their Judaism in one part of their life, and their cultural [expression] in another,” she said. Jews may fear being categorized — or even dismissed — as Jewish, rather than mainstream, artists. But keeping art and religious identity separate “is, I think, unnecessary and not that productive.”

Not all of the group’s members agree.

“I’m here protesting,” Channa Horwitz announced at the last meeting.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m an artist, but I’m not a Jewish artist,” said Horwitz, who uses complex patterns and bright colors in her work. “I don’t think art has anything to do with religion.”

Horwitz’s response reflects the diversity of the group, which includes Jews across the religious spectrum, from around the world, including the United States, Israel and Russia.

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, members find value in the group.

“It’s really great to sit in a room with people who get it,” said Laurel Paley, whose use of Hebrew text in her art has been criticized as “obfuscation.”

Members hope their network will become a model for communities across the country. To increase membership and public awareness, the group is updating its Web site. It has also applied for another foundation grant.

Should funding arrive in the fall, the artists hope to launch new projects. One idea they bandied about involves creating a Jewish community center for the arts, where the public can come not only to view art but also to create it.

As the artists speculated about the future, a sense of what could be — if only they had the world as their canvas — invigorated the group.

Exciting things happen when artists get together, said Bruria Finkel, a sculptor with works on display at the New Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The Dadaists and Cubists of the 20th century began by meeting in groups, Finkel said. Now, with Jewish artists flourishing in the United States, especially on the West Coast, who knows what this group can accomplish?

“It’s a golden age,” she said.


An Artistic Homage to Big Brother

Not many artists begin an ambitious new series at 76, but Arnold Mesches did just that after receiving a large box stuffed with FBI documents in 1999. It had taken the Jewish American painter three years and dozens of letters to obtain the 760-page dossier, his FBI file from 1945 to 1972. The papers — obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — chronicle his left-wing activities from the Communist red scare of the 1950s to the Vietnam War era.

Bronx-born Mesches, now 80, wasn’t surprised to learn that FBI agents had tailed him. “The usual variety of cropped hair, suit and tie shadowers, the clichéd kind seen on TV,” he said in a statement. He remembered how “they’d phone, on the pretext of selling car insurance … or snap your picture at a protest march.”

What shocked him were the “special informants” — friends, colleagues, lovers — who had apparently been recruited to spy on him. “[There was] a student who joined us for beer and pizza after class, a close neighbor whose children played with ours, a fledgling artist [I] helped get into an exhibition, a comrade in a meeting, an as– — buddy you trusted with your heart and being, a confidant whose life’s torments were deeply intertwined with your own,” he said.

Their reports not only revealed that Mesches had applied for membership in the Communist Party in 1948, but also the kinds of cars he drove and the hospital where his children were born.

“They knew what papers and magazines I subscribed to…. That I earned my living as a commercial artist, an art teacher, a film-strip artist, as the art editor for frontier, a magazine unfavorable to the FBI, as a lunch truck driver, an exhibiting artist, the director of an art school that — horrors! — showed a Czech film,” Mesches said.

One statement theorized he was a Communist because he “dressed like a Communist” in “rolled up blue jeans with paint spatters, a T-shirt and an old jeans jacket.”

Mesches, who said he was wearing a similar outfit during an interview from his Gainesville, Fla., studio, found the documents dismaying and “creepy.” Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the blacked-out sections that reminded him of color sketches by the late abstract expressionist Franz Kline.

His response was what one might expect of a contemporary artist known for turning personal history into art. He created 57 collages and paintings combining pages of his file with news clippings, photographs from his personal archives, 1950s-era commercial art, magazine illustrations, elements from his own paintings, drawings and handwritten texts. Files reporting that mesches had picketed during a Hollywood strike or the postcard he wrote to president Dwight D. Eisenhower protesting atomic weapons are juxtaposed with media and pop culture images: Sputnick, Batman, Nikita Kruschev, Marilyn Monroe, motorcycle gangs, the Hollywood sign, moviegoers wearing 3D glasses and an ad for Winston cigarettes.

His composition was inspired by a medieval art form: “Just as monks preserved cultural information through illuminated manuscripts, I was trying to preserve a segment of history, albeit my own,” he said.

“Arnold Mesches: FBI Files,” which opens today at the Skirball Cultural Center, is part of growing body of work that explores fears about the misuse of surveillance. The trend includes films such as 1998’s “Enemy of the State” and exhibits like “CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother,” which opened in Germany soon after Sept. 11.

While “Files” resonates after that tragedy, the show’s curator, Daniel Marzona, said he was drawn to the series for a different reason.

“I didn’t respond to it so much because of its connection to the Patriot Act or what the Bush administration is trying to do,” he said. “For me, what was fascinating was how Arnold had aesthetically dealt with his own past and the shocking discoveries in his FBI file. At first glance, his collages are well-composed and visually pleasing, but if you look closer, you see they depict very frightening events.”

Many of the pieces mirror the strange, surreal feelings the artist — whose work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum — felt upon perusing his dossier. One diptych juxtaposes an image of sculptor George Segal enshrouding a model’s head in a cast with a fuzzy 1959 photo of Mesches, taken from a camera that had been hidden in a student’s tie.

“I remember that guy,” said Mesches, who lived in Los Angeles from 1943 to 1984. “I couldn’t stand him coming to my private drawing class in mid-August, when it’s hotter than hell in L.A., wearing a white shirt and a tie. I remember saying to him, ‘Hey, take that tie off, relax,'” and he said ‘no, no, no.'”

Other collages recount the years of the Communist witch hunts, when Mesches marched for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and did a series of paintings inspired by their case. He said the paintings were stolen from his Melrose Avenue studio in Los Angeles on Aug. 6, 1956.

As for “Files,” he hopes the exhibit warns against the government’s recent call for citizen informants — lest America become what he considers “a nation of spies.” If that happens, “The times I’ve lived through will seem like a Zen garden,” he said.

On Jan. 31, 2 p.m., there will be a discussion at the Skirball with Arnold Mesches and experts on, “Censorship and Civil Liberties.” For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

The Skirball will also be holding a class on “The Art of Social Protest: Mesches and Beyond” on Feb. 7 and Feb. 14, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. $80 (general), $60 (members) $40 (students). For more information, call (310) 440-4651.

7 Days In Arts


They’re breakin’ out the fine china for two big Jewish entertainers today. As if seven Emmy’s and five Golden Globes weren’t enough, Ed Asner racks up another award “for his tireless contributions” to FirstStage Theatre, an organization dedicated to helping writers refine and develop their work for theater and film. You can attend their 20th anniversary gala honoring Asner for the bargain price of $75, proceeds from which will benefit FirstStage. Those with more to spend may consider dropping a cool $300 (or as much as $1,000) for the chance to see another legend. Burt Bacharach gets the “Mr. Wonderful” award and sings for his dinner at the 48th annual Thalians Ball tonight, too. Proceeds from this one benefit the Thalians Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai.

FirstStage Theatre Gala: 8 p.m., United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-6271.Thalians Ball: 6 p.m. (cocktails and silent auction), 8 p.m. (event). Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles. (310) 423-1040.


You might’ve missed the celebrity elbow-rubbing Thursday night, but for those whose budgets don’t afford $150 cocktail receptions, there’s still time to check out the main event this weekend. Eighteen bucks gets you into Barker Hangar for the run of the ninth annual L.A. Art Show. Promising 60 vendors and dealers from the United States and Europe — and more than $50 million worth of works by “Old Masters to cutting edge contemporary, including photography” — it’s a veritable flea market of fine art. Israel Hershberg’s works will be among those displayed at the show. Those taking a liking to it should consider Forum Gallery’s “Special Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Israel Hershberg,” which remains on view through Oct. 18.

L.A. Art Show: Oct. 10, noon-8 p.m.; Oct. 11, noon-7 p.m.; Oct. 12, noon-6 p.m. Barker Hangar, 3021 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. (800) 656-9278.Forum Gallery: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday). 8069 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 655-1550.


Seven Days’ wacky event of the week award goes to the Australian aboriginal art auction taking place today. Milking the Aussie thing for all it’s worth, the event planners have booked a kangaroo — to do what, we’re not sure; Outback Restaurants will provide the catering; and John Olsen, consul general of Australia, is scheduled to attend. With the restrictions the Australian government places on the exportation of native treasures, it’s rare that pieces like these are up for sale. Holocaust survivor Simonne Levi-Jameson, whose life story is being made into a movie, is the owner of this collection, from which 18 paintings will be auctioned off. Proceeds partially benefit UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders.Fax invitation requests to: (310) 657-1761.


Tuesday brings you more very fine art. Painter Kamran Khavarani’s big and vibrant “Color of Love: My Dreams and Visions” exhibit at the Gallery on Lindbrook is a blending of impressionism, expressionism and abstraction inspired by the poetry of 13th-century Persian mystic philosopher Rumi. See the pretty pictures alongside works by fellow celebrated Iranian expat artist Jalal Sousan-Abadi through Nov. 1.Noon-6 p.m. (Tuesday-Thursday), noon-8 p.m. (Friday and Saturday). 10852 Lindbrook Ave., Westwood. (323) 656-2000.


Shimon Peres is back in town this week, stepping up to the podium to help kick off the new season of the Distinguished Speaker Series of Pasadena. The speaker has distinguished himself in various ways, including being a former Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Hear what he’s got to say for himself tonight.8 p.m. $38-$50. Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. (626) 449-7360. Peres will also be speaking on Nov. 12 at Stephen S. Wise Temple, Nov. 13 in Thousand Oaks and Nov. 14 in Redondo Beach.


Had your fill of Down Under? Head downtown to the Central Library today to see some treasures from our side of the globe. Currently on view is “American Originals: Treasures From the National Archives,” an exhibition of 25 historically significant documents. Included in the show are Germany’s surrender in World War II, a complaint by Levi Strauss for infringement of his patent and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. Head back Dec. 5-8 to see the Emancipation Proclamation, which will be displayed only briefly due to its fragile condition.10 a.m.-8 p.m. (Monday-Thursday), 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Friday and Saturday), 1-5 p.m. (Sunday). Getty Gallery, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles. (213) 228-7506.


Richard Kline of “Three’s Company” fame proves he’s not just a gigolo in his performance as a very different Larry in “Boychik.” The acclaimed one-man show, written by Richard W. Krevolin, tells the story of a secular son who must come to terms with the death of his Orthodox father. It plays through Nov. 16.8 p.m. (Friday and Saturday), 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Sunday). $15-$18. The Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Ave., North Hollywood. (818) 787-0300.

Searching for Cohens

When Andrea Kalinowski was a little girl in Montreal, her father had an unusual ritual. Any time the family stopped in a little roadside town, he would find a phone book and search for Cohens. He would inevitably get excited when he found even one, amazed and proud that his people were everywhere.

However, Kalinowski was more skeptical about her connectedness to Judaism. “What really turned me off from Judaism was that it was difficult to be Jewish,” she said.

She also couldn’t relate to the stories of biblical women — the only stories of Jewish women she ever heard.

She worked as a painter for years, focusing on subjects far from her own experience and heritage, such as Asian-themed paintings. But when a museum curator suggested she find her own voice, that her own story would be more powerful, Kalinowski took her words to heart.

The result is Kalinowski’s current exhibition titled, “Stories Untold: Jewish Pioneer Women, 1850-1910.” This time, Kalinowski has chosen quilts as her medium instead of paintings — and Jewish women as her subjects. Nine large-scale canvases hang in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Ruby Gallery, each telling a different aspect of the Jewish woman’s frontier migration story. Excerpts from the women’s diaries capture their voices. These, along with photographs of the women, are printed on a blank canvas with a quilt pattern from the time period. Actual quilt pieces are then sewn onto the canvases, giving the quilts more depth and dimension.

Like her father looking for Cohens, Kalinowski had longed to find the “Mrs. Cohens” who would connect her to her past. Her search became a healing process. “I wanted to know that if I was going to be part of Judaism,” she said,”that Judaism, the culture, was going to reveal to me strong Jewish women. And this is my way of … locating them. Each and every one of them I have a heart connection to, and I’m proud to know.”

The exhibit runs through Sept. 8. For more information,
call (310) 440-4500, or visit

An Artist Suggests ‘New Meaning’

Art and culture should be a more important priority in the Jewish community agenda, internationally acclaimed painter and printmaker Ruth Weisberg told graduates of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in her May 14 commencement address at the Los Angeles campus.

“Artists are the ones called upon to make meaning, to create [Jewish] culture,” and like Jewish study, she said, “the most profound experience of art can combine and integrate the ethical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects of ourselves.” Weisberg, the dean of the School of Fine Arts at USC, delivered a keynote address titled “Jewish Experience: the Spiritual and the Aesthetic.”

“The art of the Jewish people has been overwhelmingly devoted to hidur mitzvah [beautifying a mitzvah] — celebrating and adorning a gift to God,” Weisberg said, putting forth a new definition for the role of art within Judaism: that of art itself as “even another avenue for commentary and interpretation.”

Art, she said, can shade, extend and renew the old stories, the timeless insights. “We [Jews] may understand the power of the word, but art, including paintings and drawings, can create midrash.”

She advised graduates to look at art and spirituality in new ways, by offering a new perspective on the contributions and importance of art within Judaism, presenting a stronger interconnection between art and the study of Torah and joining art and spirituality closer together. Through this, the future Jewish leaders may reach people who “may be resistant to other forms of the Jewish experience,” she said.

Widely known in art circles for her work in painting, printmaking and large-scale installations, Weisberg was commissioned by the Reform movement to create a new haggadah, replacing an older version last designed by the artist Leonard Baskin 30 years ago. The new haggadah will be published in November 2001, with the drawings touring New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. Recognized for her pioneering work in a form of printmaking called monotypes, a retrospective of her work is currently on view at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

HUC-JIR chose Weisberg to give the keynote address because “she is an extraordinarily gifted artist and an academic administrator at our neighboring institution, USC,” said the dean, Dr. Lewis M. Barth, noting that Weisberg has been involved with HUC-JIR for many years. “Ruth Weisberg is an active member of the Jewish community and is a devoted member of her own congregation. She brings all of her talents together with a Jewish interest in her own search for meaning in life and creativity.”

On her commencement address he added: “Ruth Weisberg has combined the issue of Jewish spirituality and art. Her presence symbolizes the desire of the College-Institute to bring the worlds of Judaism and creative art expression together for the benefit of Jewish religious and community life.”

Exhilarated and honored by her role as a participant and honoree, Weisberg said she found the event particularly meaningful. “I wanted to say something that was really of value to the graduates and the audience,” she said. “Art is a way of knowing, a different kind of intelligence.”

Dining With Cannibals

The documentary, “Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale,” began when artist David Shapiro found a box of old books jutting out of a pile of garbage on Avenue B in Manhattan’s East Village.

The year was 1994, and Shapiro and his sister, author Laurie Gwen Shapiro, both now in their 30’s, had long been arguing about the subject of a proposed film project. They didn’t have to look any further. Inside the box, along with dog-eared copies of “The Tofu Cookbook” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” was an intriguing memoir, “Keep the River on Your Right.” Its yellowed pages told of a gay, Jewish painter, Tobias Schneebaum, a onetime rabbinical student who disappeared into the Amazon to live (and dine) with cannibals in 1955.

The filmmakers, the grandchildren of Jewish union activists, figured Schneebaum was probably dead. But on a lark, they checked the Manhattan phone book — and found a listing. Before long, they were sitting opposite the “Heart of Darkness”-style adventurer in his Greenwich Village efficiency apartment. “We had been expecting Indiana Jones-meets-Hannibal Lecter,” David Shapiro told The Journal. “Instead, we met a witty, mild-mannered Jewish man who looked just like our grandfather.”

Amid shelves of real human skulls (gifts from his head-hunting friends), Schneebaum regaled the Shapiros with tales of his remarkable life. He was born on the Lower East Side — several blocks from the filmmakers’ childhood home, in fact — as the son of an Orthodox Polish immigrant grocer who imposed punishments for infractions of halacha. Schneebaum loved the Jewish holidays, the rituals of his “tribe,” he said, but longed to escape from the abuse. “I was preoccupied with drawing and with my need to lose myself in another world, where my father could not wallop me,” he explained in a telephone interview with The Journal.

A quiet, shy boy, he first glimpsed another world during a family trip to Coney Island, where he was riveted by a poster promoting a sideshow featuring the Wild Man of Borneo. Years later, he remembered the image when the New York art scene left him feeling hollow and his homosexuality made him feel like the ultimate outsider.

Searching for a place where he could feel he belonged, Schneebaum hitchhiked all the way to South America, riding from the Andes to the Amazon in a rickety, open-air truck. After hearing rumors of a remote mission serving the Harakhambut Indians, a people unknown in the West, he headed off alone into the uncharted Madre de Dios rain forest, without maps, equipment or footwear, except for the sneakers he wore. He chanted the “Sh’ma” or “Adir Hu” when he felt lost or lonely. His only instructions were to “keep the river on your right.”

Eventually, Schneebaum was adopted by the Stone Age Harakhambut, who decorated his body with red pigment and allowed him to sleep in the men’s communal hut (where, to his delight, the activities sometimes turned amorous).

But under a bright moon one summer night in 1956, Schneebaum’s idyllic new life abruptly came to an end. Schneebaum thought he was accompanying his friends on a daylong hunting excursion when, at dusk, they suddenly stopped outside a hut near a small clearing. Without warning, the Harakhambut charged, slaughtering all the men in the dwelling, then dismembering the bodies and roasting them in a celebratory bonfire. Schneebaum ran off to vomit, but during the subsequent feast, he felt pressured to eat the small piece of meat that was placed in his hands. He swallowed the bites of human flesh. Soon thereafter, he slipped away from the Harakhambut without saying goodbye. He emerged from the jungle a year after his disappearance, naked and covered in body paint.

“For 45 years, I had nightmares about the raid,” says Schneebaum, now a leading expert on the artwork of another headhunting tribe, the Asmat of New Guinea.

So he staunchly refused when the Shapiros begged him to return to Peru and to let them accompany him with their cameras. He didn’t want to relive the most traumatic night of his life. He didn’t want to learn that his Harakhambut friends were all dead. And he was nearly 80, after all. He had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and had received three hip replacements.

The Shapiros, who maxed out their credit cards to finance the film, continued to beg him, however. When Schneebaum insisted he couldn’t remember where he disappeared into the rain forest, Laurie combed his apartment for clues. Behind a bookshelf, she found a crinkled slip of paper inscribed with a single word: Kosnipata. An Internet search revealed the word referred to a river in the Amazon forest — and led the filmmakers to a guide who believed some of Schneebaum’s friends might still be alive. The artist’s curiosity was piqued. In June 1999, he flew with the Shapiros to the Amazon, stepped into a canoe, and began a three-week journey into his past.

It was the film shoot from hell. David Shapiro and his cameraman suffered relapses of the malaria they had contracted while shooting with Schneebaum in New Guinea. Laurie endured the 100-degree heat and drenching rainstorms while battling severe vomiting and diarrhea. Mosquitoes and sand flies tormented the crew as they traveled 10 hours a day down the murky river past forests that teemed with snakes and sloths.

Every night, Schneebaum’s nightmares seemed to intensify. “He was screaming at the top of his lungs,” Laurie Shapiro recalls. “It was the most bone-chilling thing I have ever heard.”

Yet the team pressed on, and after obtaining directions from the oldest resident of a remote village, they arrived at an even more isolated outpost in the middle of an electrical storm. As Laurie Shapiro attempted to calm Schneebaum, David and his cameraman used a machete to cut a staircase in a 20-foot-high clay cliff so the elderly artist could walk up to the settlement. Inside a decrepit gathering hall, the New Yorkers found a number of Harakhambut watching “Rambo” on a flickering TV set.

Immediately, the old-timers recognized Schneebaum: They laughed as they remembered his feeble bow-and-arrow skills and cried when he produced pictures of their long-dead relatives. “Our children have never seen their ancestors before,” they told him. “Thank you for coming back to us.”

The Harakhambut revealed that they no longer practiced cannibalism and were as reticent to discuss their 1956 raid as Schneebaum was.

The artist, wiping away tears, felt he had achieved a closure of sorts. “I came full circle in a way that I never expected,” he said. “I no longer suffer from nightmares. David and Laurie were right to push me.”

“Keep the River on Your Right” opens April 20 at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. For information, call (310) 478-6379.

Deconstructing Harry

When Harry Blitzstein decided to open up his Blitzstein Museum of Art (facetiously subtitled “Formerly Moe’s Meat Market”), the neighboring merchants on Fairfax Avenue had a unanimous reaction.”They thought I was just kidding,” the painter said.

After all, area residents have known Blitzstein all of his life. Harry was the son of the owner of Fair Shoe Stop, a long-standing establishment that folded in 1984, a few months after the death of Blitzstein’s father. However, since opening his studio five years ago in the building that once housed his father’s store, Blitzstein has become as venerable a Fairfax Avenue institution as the famed L.A. delicatessen across the street. In fact, Blitzstein points out that his father, whose business originated in Boyle Heights, used to repair shoes for old man Canter himself.

These days, Blitzstein can often be found at his storefront gallery, sitting in the eye of his artistic hurricane — a dense output of nearly 200 pieces peopled with his “spirits and creatures” that sometimes literally leap out of the picture frame. These cartoonish oil portraits, rendered in quick, freewheeling swaths of paint, defy description or category; they’re something like the Cartoon Network broadcast from inside a German Expressionist’s fever dream. And that’s not even including the frenzied mural of doodles that adorns the floor.

According to Blitzstein, he opened the gallery “the same way I paint, just to see the reaction of the people.” That reaction has run the range from befuddlement among the local denizens to energized among the extended community of artists, models and writers.

They are not alone. Even Blitzstein’s grown children don’t quite know what to make of his work. And Blitzstein’s parents, whose lineage traces back to Russia, never really appreciated or supported what he does either… and that’s despite the fact that his mother, now 89, is an artist herself.

“She didn’t really encourage me,” said Blitzstein, who has been the subject of eight shows in recent years.

“My work is probably a departure from pretty little pictures. Not seeking beauty in that sense.”

Blitzstein — who paints before noon and finds drawing “relaxing, like doing a jigsaw puzzle” — admits that the spurts in which his stuff sells (prices range from $5 to $40,000) can be discouraging.

“Yes, sometimes I’ll just want to fold up for good, and then someone comes in and wants to buy a painting or make a movie about me,” said the 62-year-old artist, whose work has appeared in a handful of offbeat films, such as the beloved cult horror favorite “Puppet Master.”

“Offbeat” is a term that’s been used to describe Blitzstein’s work. Many people off the streets visiting the Museum of Art barely stay long enough to meet Art — Blitzstein’s synergistically named black cocker spaniel who is not the subject of his museum.

Although his work draws inspiration from artists such as Goya and Putin, Blitzstein is more moved by great literature and music — these days, Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer linger on his nightstand, while Mahler and Leonard Cohen spin on his turntable. Surprisingly, the world of cartoons had little impact on the young Blitzstein while growing up, save for the genius of Dr. Seuss and a casual interest in Warner Bros. shorts and Disney features. That comes as a shock given the loopy, whimsical nature of his work and the loose gestural sketches that often resemble something torn from an animator’s sketchbook.

Blitzstein keeps a portfolio that just may underscore the driving philosophy behind his work. The three-ring folder is filled with “masterpieces” of contemporary and pop art artists: Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein. The difference: each picture plane is invaded, intruded and interloped upon by a freaky-faced Blitzstein creation.

Blitzstein frankly feels that many of the darlings of the art world are overpuffed soufflés, and that critics and buyers alike cannot identify a great work of art beyond hype and celebrity.

“People need familiarity,” said Blitzstein. “They feel safe because it’s acclaimed. That’s not art, that’s commerce.”

He has equal patience for the genteel, pompous portraits and landscapes that might fill a museum such as the British National Gallery: “One boring face after another. I want to just blow that apart.”

Indeed, Blitzstein revels in blowing apart the pretentions of the modern. His art is all about escaping from the mind-numbing universe of minutiae and routine that intrudes on our everyday life. Anyone suffering from whiplash is advised to stay out of the Blitzstein Museum of Art, where you’ll spend much time looking up at the hundreds of dolphins, camels, rat-faced dogs and other critters ignoring the constraints of their canvas to reach out to you. They include dogs inspired by the knotholes in the wood Blitzstein paints on and toucans dating back to his L.A. High School days, when Blitzstein drew them on the margins of his schoolwork “so I could not listen to the teacher doing chemistry equations.” And if this zany menagerie seems to vie for your affection, that’s because, as Blitzstein puts it, “they’re little creatures that want to be loved.”

The Blitzstein Museum of Art is located at 428 N. Fairfax Ave. For more information, call (323) 852-4830.

Potent Portraits

Jill Poyourow’s preoccupation with portraits began amid the savory smell of soup in her grandmother’s kitchen. There hung an intriguing photograph of her grandma’s grandfather, who had cared for her from infancy after her own mother abandoned her to come to America. The 1910 picture revealed a devout-looking man with a long, flowing white beard, seated with his right hand resting on an open book. In the shadows, Poyourow could barely make out his worn shoes.

“Despite [his] shabby clothing, his kind eyes infused this picture with a kind of magic,” recalls the 40-year-old Los Angeles painter. “Over the years, he became godlike to me.”

So when Poyourow grew up and became an artist, it was no wonder she turned to photographs from her own family albums for inspiration. Her work includes nostalgic, embroidered copies of mother-and-baby snapshots; there is also a painted-on photograph, “The Bundt/Sisters Piece” (1991), in which the artist has playfully embellished a photo of her five aunts, wearing sensible 1930s dresses, with images of each matron’s bundt pan.

“Painting from images of deceased relatives, some of whom I never met, [has become] a form of ancestor worship,” she confides. “It is, in essence, a continual self-portrait using the biological ties of family.”

Poyourow (see sidebar below) is one of more than 20 artists whose work appears in the new Skirball show, “Revealing & Concealing: Portraits & Identity,” an exhibit that is essentially a portrait of the portrait. The pieces range from traditional commissioned likenesses to late 20th-century work; the show begins with a 1670 image of an assimilated Frankfurt “Court Jew,” artist unknown, wearing the elaborate wig and lavish lace of period gentiles. There is a moody self-portrait by the impoverished artist Lesser Ury, painted three years before his suicide in 1931, in which short, harsh brush strokes capture the artist’s psychic turmoil. There is a bourgeois image of German-Jewish life, from around the same period, by the prominent painter Max Liebermann; a portrait of Jewish baseball star Sandy Koufax by R.B. Kitaj; and “The Marx Brothers” from “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” by pop artist Andy Warhol.

“Revealing & Concealing” began, two years ago, when the museum’s fine arts curator, Barbara Gilbert, perused the Skirball’s collection and discovered a number of portraits of Jews painted during the past three centuries. A number of questions emerged: What insights can portraits offer beyond personal features? Can portraits reveal personality? Can they reveal facts about society, family or inbred cultural stereotypes?Since the Skirball’s focus is multicultural, Gilbert promptly put together an advisory committee, including representatives from L.A.’s African-American and Japanese-American museums; the resulting exhibition features artists as diverse as L.A. Jewish painter Ruth Weisberg to African-American Faith Ringgold to Tijuana-born painter Salomon Huerta, who grew up in the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A.

The identity issues explored are often complex. Chinese-born Hung Liu’s self-portrait is an enlarged “green card,” in which she has substituted “Fortune, Cookie,” for her own name – the sexual slang term for Chinese women and the stereotypical dessert served in Chinese-American restaurants. The piece is a metaphor for the artist’s sense of hovering between cultures, of feeling neither Chinese nor American.

Chicana artist Laura Alvarez, too, explores what she calls “living in the border”; while growing up in the U.S., she says, she spent summers with family in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and cleaned houses with her mother and grandmother back home in the States. Her double life, in turn, led to a watercolor series, “Double Agent Sirvienta,” which follows the adventures of a soap opera actress who always plays a maid but who is actually a spy on both sides of the border. It is, she says, “a way for me to see my position in the world as a heroine or protagonist.”

A different kind of double identity is proffered in Dennis Kardon’s “Traditional Instruction,” in which the artist appears as a bar mitzvah boy wearing a tallit and kippah, and clutching a paintbrush and palette. Standing in for his father is the French impressionist Manet, whose swirling cigar smoke hovers over a platter of lox.

Albert J. Winn’s self-portraits are far bleaker, exploring his feelings of isolation as a gay Jewish man living with AIDS. In the black-and-white photograph “Not in the Family Picture,” the widely exhibited L.A. artist is, literally, not in the family picture; his face stares next to a photo of smiling relatives, excluding himself. In the second panel of Winn’s “Family Triptych,” the artist again stares at the camera, as does his mother, who is seated behind him and wears a defeated, wan expression.

For Gilbert, the goal of “Revealing & Concealing” is simple. “We hope visitors will walk away with a better understanding to the role of portraiture within Jewish art and various minority communities,” she says. “We hope they will gain a better understanding that identity itself is multifaceted and far transcends ethnicity or cultural background.”

For information, call (310)440-4500.

Two Artists at One With Nature

Sculptress Harriet Zeitlin and painter Pat Berger share a lot in common. Friends for many decades, both artists have worked for more than 50 years, have had extensive teaching experience, were active in organizations championing artists’ rights in the 1970s, lost their husbands in the 1990s. They even own terriers (Pilot and Dori, respectively).

So it’s only natural that they should share gallery space. “Natura, Naturata,” a twin exhibit at the University of Judaism, currently displays their latest works. But make no mistake – these are two very different women with very different artistic styles and concerns.

Despite their mutual fascination with nature, there’s no redundancy in “Natura, Naturata” (the title refers to Spinoza’s famous quote “God and Nature are one”). Zeitlin’s sculptures, crafted from palm fronds, are a sharp contrast to Berger’s splashy, quasi-abstract “plantscapes,” as she dubs them.Zeitlin’s quirky artwork crowds her home studio in Brentwood: a pyramid made of discarded gloves, whimsical sculptures of abstract birds, a female built out of reconfigured neckties.”I just respond to found objects all the time,” Zeitlin says. “It’s almost as if the object comes first, and I’m just an instrument.”

Case in point: Zeitlin’s palm leaf series came about quite accidentally when, while walking Pilot around her neighborhood, she was impelled to drag some fallen fronds back home.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” she says, “but I knew I needed to bring them home.”The fronds became pieces such as “Bride” and the “Windfall” series of hanging pieces, the sleek, slick product yielding an eroticized plasticity, appearing organic and lubricated. With these creations, Zeitlin feels that she has achieved something “very sensual – a feeling of male-female intertwining.”

Initially inspired by the illustrative paintings of Milton Avery, Berger’s art has evolved over the years. She began with humorous slices of Venice Beach life, followed by a darker, socially conscious fascination with the homeless in the 1980s, and the melding of Biblical heroines and natural settings by the 1990s.Through it all, Berger has never strayed far from nature. In “Natura, Naturata,” she will delve deep into floral imagery, blurring the line between literal and abstract representation.

“I do these kind of close-ups of nature,” says Berger, who has worked for the Westside Jewish Community Center for 20 years and presently serves on the UJ’s Arts Council. The painter derived much inspiration from a fellowship stay in Costa Rica, and she has no qualms about abandoning figurative representation for now.

“It’s nice to go back to nature,” says Berger.

“Natura, Naturata” runs through Sept. 10 at the Marjorie & Herman Platt Gallery and the Borstein Gallery at the University of Judaism. For more information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 203.

Last Man Painting

There was a time when Kalman Aron was not creating art for a living, but for his life.

For the past 45 years, the Pasadena Art Center instructor has been teaching drawing and painting, showing students that “before you paint, you must learn how to draw.” But during World War II, Aron could not fathom that he would ever see the light of day, let alone the lights and darks created by a brush or a charcoal pencil. He believes that key to his survival in Latvian labor camps were his drawings of camp guards, which endeared him to Nazi personnel.

“I had to be careful,” says Aron, who had to judge whether or not a camp was conducive to this kind of artistic expression. “They didn’t want you writing. They were afraid a letter would go out to the Allies or the Red Cross.”

From the labor camps, Aron was transferred to Buchenwald, where even drawing was too life-jeopardizing a prospect. He was moved around often and finally taken to Theresienstadt, where he remained until the camp was liberated by the Russians in 1945.

Now 75 years of age, Aron lives a much more peaceful life on a beautiful, manicured block just north of Beverlywood. Before you get to the end of the long walkway leading up to his home, you can see the quaint sign for the Kalman Aron Studio hanging outside his apartment door.

When he comes to the door, Kalman Aron cuts a striking figure — tall, lanky, bald, with the look of a ’50s beatnik. Once inside the living room-cum-gallery, which offers an unobstructed view of L.A.’s downtown skyline, you become instantly surrounded by portraits of artists and models, chess players and jazz players, children and senior citizens.

A Swedish art critic once coined a term for his style: “psychological realism.” As far as Aron knows, “I’m the only psychological realist out there,” he says with a laugh. With his art, Aron always intends to “capture their character other than what they’re doing.”

Commercially, Aron has developed quite a reputation for his portraiture. He has captured the images of many wealthy children on canvas; Andre Previn, Henry Miller, former Beverly Hills Mayor Max Slater, and a pre-White House Ronald Reagan stand out as some of his star subjects.

“He was very friendly, joking around with one-liners. Shook my hand like he knew me for years,” says Aron of Reagan, whom he painted in the Valley studio where the future president hosted a political commentary program. “He wouldn’t come to my studio. I took all of my paints, and they set up my own studio for me.”

Born in Riga, Latvia, Aron started drawing at age 2. By 13, his skills were so developed that he was hired to paint the portrait of the prime minister of Latvia.

Following the Holocaust, while at a displaced person camp in Salzburg, Aron made friends with the camp’s director, whose boyfriend was a Jewish officer in the American army stationed there. She convinced him to create two drawings of that man, who, without telling Aron, submitted them to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. On the basis of two simple pencil sketches, Aron was accepted into the very art school that, ironically, spurned budding artist Adolf Hitler — a well-documented incident that fanned his hatred for the Viennese Jewish intelligentsia.

While in Vienna, Aron met his first wife, a child psychologist, with whom he moved to West Hollywood in 1949. Their marriage lasted seven years, but Aron remained in L.A. and embarked on his career of teaching and painting portraits, starting out at the now-defunct Hollywood Art Center in 1956 and beginning his long association with the Pasadena Art Center in 1964. The artist married two more times, and had a son, David, 30, with his third wife.

Aron says he “never wanted to be a full-time teacher” so that he could pursue his personal work and exhibit in shows in places such as London and Sweden.

While Aron lives near Pico-Robertson, the artist is not connected with the area’s Jewish community. He says that he’s always been too much of an individualist for any organized religion. An incident he witnessed — Nazis torching a packed synagogue — still burns in his mind.

“Where was God when the synagogue was burning, while people still inside all burned alive?” he asks rhetorically.

Aron has so many art world anecdotes that he hopes to interest a publisher in printing an illustrated memoir. In the meantime, he keeps on going, content with doing what he does best: expressing his independent spirit in charcoal and acrylic.

He has emerged from hell to find life in hope, surviving with his wit — along with pencil and paper. And long after everyone else is gone, Kalman Aron will still be standing at his easel, feverishly plugging away –the last man painting.

For more information on Kalman Aron’s portrait services, contact the Kalman Aron Studio at (310) 553-6923.