November 19, 2018

Artistic family does monumental work immortalizing sports figures

Outside Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles stand the larger-than-life bronze statues of sports legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Luc Robitaille, Magic Johnson and beloved play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn. Soon to join them, in March, will be a statue of Shaquille O’Neal, depicting the former Lakers star center hanging from the hoop after a slam dunk.

The artists behind these statues are the Amrany family of Fort Sheridan, Ill. 

In late November, Omri Amrany, 62, his wife, Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, 58, and their son, Itamar, 28, returned to Los Angeles to unveil their latest work: a Los Angeles Kings monument commemorating the team’s 50th anniversary. The monument, which conveys the intense dynamics of hockey, took close to five years to create. An icelike surface of glass and granite forms a backdrop to six white bronze sculptures that lead into a water wall and a green wall where visitors can reflect and, of course, take selfies. 

How did this Jewish family of artists come to commemorate sports greats and other legends in bronze? The story begins in 1985, when Omri Amrany traveled from Israel to Pietrasanta, Italy, to study marble carving. “It was cheaper than studying in a university in Israel, and at my age I didn’t want to
spend four years studying,” he said. “So, Italy was the best option and the kibbutz approved it.” 

After his release from the Israel Defense Forces as a parachutist, Omri returned to Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov in the Jordan Valley, where he was born and raised. There, he worked with the Israeli Scouts organization in Haifa, overseeing the education of 5,000 youths near Mount Carmel. 

Born to a Yemenite father and Russian mother, both artists, Omri always was drawn to art. But only at the age of 31 was he allowed to pursue his passion. “As a member of the kibbutz,” he said, “you learn early on that the first priority is the country, the second is the kibbutz, then the family, and only in the end it’s you.”

Chicago-born Julie Rotblatt had made a similar journey to Italy from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was working at the College of Marin and assisted on a mural for the Oakland Museum of California. She first went to study in Perugia and then moved to Pietrasanta, the region where Michelangelo had created many of his masterpieces. There, she met Omri. The two fell in love and, a year later, after they both finished their studies, Julie joined Omri at his kibbutz.

 “Life in the kibbutz was very different from anything I knew before,” she said in a phone interview from her studio north of Chicago. “Here I was, among 300 people who live a communal life, where the group was more important than the individual. It was quite different from the way I was raised, but I’m glad I got to experience that because it helped me understand my husband’s background and where he came from.”

After the birth of Itamar in 1989, the couple decided to pursue careers in the United States and moved to the Chicago area, where they initially endured financial hardships.

 “I worked as a handyman to make ends meet,” Omri said. “It was difficult but I did what I had to do to support my family.”

One day, exhausted from work, as Julie prepared dinner, Omri reached out for a book on a shelf. “It was a book about the life and work of Michelangelo that I took from my parents’ house,” he recalled. “On the first page, I noticed a dedication to my parents: ‘Dear Shifra and Saadia, Mazal Tov on the birth of your baby boy.’ It was a gift for my birth given by the ladies at the laundromat in the kibbutz. Michelangelo had been my inspiration my entire life and I always followed his path. It was kind of a sign for me.”

It wasn’t long before Omri said goodbye to his work as a handyman and began to focus entirely on his career as an artist.

In 1992, Omri and Julie opened The Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt-Amrany, an educational center and workplace intended to duplicate the ateliers they encountered in Europe.

Itamar, who was raised in the studio, was inspired by the art that surrounded him and became an artist himself.

 “It’s hard to say if I would have become an artist if not for my parents” he said in a phone interview from London, where he studies architecture. “I was also a hockey player, and I was bouncing between this
and the art. It was a really good balance and my parents were very open to whatever I wanted to do. In the end, I decided not to
go with hockey professionally, and so I
chose art.”

Working with his parents at the studio brought the family closer together. “We’ve been working together for six years and it is an amazing experience,” Itamar said. “I’ve learned so much from them and from being in the studio.”

Life as artists, admitted Omri, has not always been easy. “One of the first things that people give up in times of financial hardships is art,” he said. “We had some very difficult times, but kibbutzniks are like cats — they always fall on their feet.”

Throughout the years their studio, which has an impressive history as part of a former military base and the office of U.S. Gen. George S. Patton, has trained some 300 artists. The couple also operates Timeless Creations Inc., which bids for civic- and sports-related artwork commissions in the United States and abroad.

This part of their work has proved to be profitable and successful. They have completed 250 commissioned works around the world, honoring, among others, the Chicago White Sox, the Detroit Red Wings, the Green Bay Packers, Michael Jordan, Pat Tillman, Johnny Cash and their largest single project, the 9-acre Community Veterans Memorial in Munster, Ind. The memorial, which opened in 2002, comprises six vignettes that include bronze sculptures, bas reliefs, laser-engraved images and found art.

Even martial artist and actor Jackie Chan couldn’t resist their work and commissioned his own statue, called “Battle of Harmony,” which features a dragon fighting with Chan. It stands in front of Chan’s JC Film Gallery in Shanghai.

Omri said he is very proud of their work, which captures moments frozen in time.

“Our statues and monuments will stay here long after we’ll be gone,” he said. “One day, I believe, our statues will be placed in museums because they are part of history and tell a story which people will be interested in learning.”