Muralist brings his vision of Wall to Vallejo synagogue

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Although Stephen Biering has never seen the Western Wall in person, his vision of it is painted on a Vallejo synagogue.

Shades of orange, red, purple, yellow, white and green wash over the westernmost wall of the courtyard at Congregation B'nai Israel.

In the mural, a woman peers through the loosely woven mechitza; only her back is visible. The viewer sees all that this woman sees — a boy holding a prayerbook; a man wearing jeans and a kippah; a soldier wrapped in a prayer shawl, an Uzi strapped across his back; four Orthodox Jews dressed in black, davening.

Bits of vegetation and scraps of paper peek through crevices in the Jerusalem stone.

"People say they get the impression they could walk right into the wall," said 39-year-old Biering, a member of B'nai Israel for about two years.

A mechanic by day and an artist "all the rest of the time," Cordelia resident Biering painted the Wall's likeness to "contribute something to the synagogue." The concept, he said, stemmed from a conversation with B'nai Israel's rabbi, David Kopstein.

"I looked around the synagogue and saw paintings and sculptures. I wanted to give a part of myself too, but there wasn't much wall space left [inside the building," Biering recalled. "So I thought, `Outside mural.' I was sitting in the rabbi's office talking about this when I looked at the poster on the wall behind him and it clicked.

"`Yes, the Western Wall. That's it.'"

And with that decision, Biering embarked upon perhaps his greatest challenge — painting something he had never seen in a style that was "not intrusive, but instead makes people feel good when they see it."

Yet Biering admits a tendency toward the extreme, painting exaggerated forms and figures in mostly garish colors. The style stems from his youth, from a time of artistic rebellion when it seemed no one appreciated his work.

Biering, a native of Los Angeles, never enrolled in art school. Instead, he attended classes from time to time and taught himself to sketch, paint, sculpt and weld. His work can be seen in local juried shows, at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Fairfield and at B'nai Israel.

When painting the Western Wall, Biering said, he had to "be careful. In a sense I had to put reins on myself. The synagogue is a safe place and the mural had to reflect that.

"I wondered, `Can I pull this off?' Painting at the synagogue is different than painting a stretched canvas in a studio. [The synagogue] is a hallowed area. We all own it. It's beyond personal."

Because Biering had never visited Israel, he depended on Kopstein's photographs and his fellow congregants' descriptions to create his own interpretation of the Wall. Alone and with Kopstein, he studied various texts to discover the size of the Wall's stones and the kind of mortar used to bind them. He learned how and where the builders mastered their skills.

"Painting a picture is reconstructing in a different medium. I needed this knowledge," Biering said.

In January he began his toils. After working all day at his regular job, he went to the temple and spent three hours — sometimes four — mapping out grids and vanishing points on the courtyard's 20-by-25-foot wall, using a wooden two-by-four and a charcoal pencil, creating a skeleton to be filled in with outdoor acrylic enamel.

Biering painted the mural "from the perspective of the women's side" of the Western Wall.

The viewer faces the back of a woman, looking over her shoulder and through the mechitza, watching the men pray. Biering said he consciously chose this vantage point as a way of representing both men and women.

"The male personae usually dominates photos of the Wall. But we're a Reform congregation. So I wanted to illustrate both points of view," he said.

In the mural's beginning stages, congregants would squint curiously at Biering's work in progress. Later they returned to view the changes that had taken place during the week.

It took Biering more than 60 hours to finish the mural, which was unveiled in time for the synagogue's Israel Independence Day celebration May 7.

"[The congregation] gathered in the courtyard and sang songs about the Six Day War," Rabbi Kopstein recounted. "There's one about men with hearts of stone and stones with hearts of men. It's a song about the Western Wall, about the stones with human hearts. And I talked about Steve's very human heart," Kopstein said.

"When I was finished, Steve tore down the tarp covering his mural and signed, `Biering 5755'" — the current Hebrew year — "in the bottom left-hand corner."

Congregants have commented again and again that the mural "looks like the real thing," Kopstein added. In fact, he said, one member asked where to put her prayer — alluding to the tradition that visitors to the Western Wall write prayers on slips of paper and push them into the spaces between the stones.

B'nai Israel congregant John Campbell is building a wooden box just for that purpose. Posted near the mural, the box will serve as a temporary repository for members' prayers.

Kopstein plans to bring the prayers to the Wall on his next congregation tour to Israel in 1998.

Biering has already reserved a spot on the trip.

"I think it's the ultimate culmination for him to come and put his own prayer in the Wall," Kopstein said.