Arts and Culture | Religion & Jewish Life

Painting lives: Artist helps clients mark pivot points, from Bar Mitzvah dreams to a dying wish

Artist Lori Loebelsohn paints what she calls 'life-cycle portraits.' (Courtesy Lori Loebelsohn)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Lori Loebelsohn enters other people’s lives at pivotal moments: a marriage, a milestone birthday, a Bar Mitzvah. Armed with a pen and a notebook, she discusses intimate details about the inner lives of those she has just met: their passions, their most significant memories, their dreams.

She’s not a rabbi, nor is she a therapist or a life coach. Loebelsohn is an artist whose specialty is what she calls “life-cycle portraits”: personalized works of art that commemorate a special day while also reflecting upon an individual’s lifetime. Loebelsohn draws upon influences as varied as early American quilts, medieval Jewish papercuts, Celtic imagery and 17th-century ketubahs to create an original work rich in personal symbolism.

“I end up having these deep, enlightening discussions with these people I work for,” said Loebelsohn, of Glen Ridge, N.J. “I really feel like I’m a transmitter; I’m trying to transmit what they think is important.”

Loebelsohn, who has decades of experience, recently completed her biggest project: illustrating a 20-page Haggadah created by an 85-year-old man with the intent to create a family heirloom. The project presented many challenges, the artist said, including interpreting her client’s specific ideas in a visual form and keeping a consistent style over a series of some 13 images.

But the biggest obstacle proved to be the rapidly deteriorating health of the family patriarch.

“This had been on his bucket list for years and years,” Loebelsohn said. “It gave him a sense of purpose in his old age.”

Over the course of their collaboration, which began in March 2011, the elderly man grew increasingly weak. The project became a race against the clock, as Loebelsohn worked tirelessly to finish the illustrations before the man’s final hour. He signed off on the final images last November and passed away the following month.

Loebelsohn met the extended family for the first time at the funeral. They used the Haggadah the first time this Passover.

“There was something very spiritual and deep in that relationship,” said Loebelsohn, noting the dual purpose of the Haggadah. “It’s a way of keeping the Jewish Passover story alive; it’s a way of keeping this man’s memory alive.”

It’s an extreme example, to be sure, but Loebelsohn is seasoned at working with families at momentous junctures in their lives. In addition to creating custom ketubahs, one of her more popular commissions is for Bar and Bat mitzvahs. For a fee starting at $700 for an original painting, she will meet with her young clients (and their parents) and discuss the most meaningful aspects of their lives.

Over the course of about six weeks, Loebelsohn creates an original painting. Typically a central image depicts that week’s Torah portion, and the painting is adorned with numerous personal symbols. Over the years she has incorporated images as diverse as musical notes and family pets, and once a Pittsburgh Steelers logo.

Looking back on her own life, Loebelsohn, 51, says that art — painting, in particular — was an early passion. Growing up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, “art was a big thing in my house,” she said.

Loebelsohn’s father, Joseph, was a police officer, and her mother, Carol, an artist. (Her twin sister, Alise, is a decorative painter.) Carol worked as an illustrator for high-end fashion magazines and retailers such as Vogue and Bergdorf Goodman. Loebelsohn recalls that couture evening gowns often were present in their home, even though the family was of modest means.

In 1982, Loebelsohn earned a degree in painting at Cooper Union in New York and embarked on a career as both an art teacher and an artist, working primarily on abstract paintings and, later, more realistic illustrations. In 1989 she earned a master’s degree in special education from Hunter College; since then she has worked part time as a learning specialist.

“I’m very passionate about my other career — teaching kids to read,” she said. “It’s not like I’m doing my other job like a waitress. I love both my careers.”

An artistic turning point came in 1991, when Loebelsohn was commissioned to create an overmantel painting for the Lefferts Historic House — a homestead built during the American Revolution, now a museum in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Her task was to paint what the farm had looked like in the 1700s in the folk-art style of the era.

The project “liberated” her, Loebelsohn says, and turned her on to a more symbolic style of painting. Folk art, she realized, “was more about a story rather than getting the likeness of a person. This was more about the narrative.”

Loebelsohn has been experimenting with the format. She began with what she calls “quilt paintings” — paintings inspired by traditional American quilts in which each square evokes an image or symbol. By the time her children reached Bar/Bat mitzvah age — Loebelsohn has two children with her husband, lawyer David Goldstein: Rachel was born in 1991 and Alex in 1994 — she found new inspiration amid historic Jewish manuscripts, particularly the layout of 17th-century ketubahs.

“It was still the same idea of using symbols and things, but the format had changed,” she said. “There was a kind of structure; a central image and the words, and all this decorative stuff around the image.”

The artist is hoping to complete a children’s book project, but acknowledges it’s been put on the back burner. She says she’s been steadily working on commissions since 2004.

“I have hardly had a moment when I haven’t had a backlog of paintings to do,” she said.

Loebelsohn, a Reform Jew who was raised in a non-observant home, says her work has been a way to connect with her religion.

“I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It’s been an evolution for me as an artist and a Jew.”

Her connections to her clients usually endure long after the painting is delivered, Loebelsohn says.

“It’s amazing, they’ll include me in their weddings and B

ar Mitzvahs,” she said. “They tell me everything. I’m talking to them at these pivotal moments in their lives; I’m a part of the process.

“The true meaning of what I do is over time. When that day is long gone, this image lives on.”