Dreamlike art, prayer images inspired by Israel, family illness

After a trip to Israel in 1977, everything Sara Glater drew changed just a bit. Before, she had drawn figures from childhood fantasies — houses with limbs growing out of them, roots snaking into the ground. But when she came back from her trip, her dreamlike paintings and prints were now of people in motion, reaching upward, sometimes in prayer. She has been drawing that way ever since.

Twenty years later, when the 38-year-old Mill Valley artist had a show at the Marin General Hospital featuring her paintings and her children's book, she began receiving commissions for such inspirational pieces.

"It was the greatest response I ever had," said Glater, who was selling paintings to people with cancer and chronic illnesses. "They tended to order images oriented toward finding light in darkness and of people reaching up in darkness and finding something optimistic and sparkling at the top."

Showings of Glater's work recently closed at Marin General and at the Artisans Gallery in Mill Valley. "A Wish for Wings and Other Things," her children's book about having a friend who is ill, is now in bookstores.

Incorporating simple folklike figures in a collage of wadded and colored paper, Glater's work has some of the flavor of paintings by Marc Chagall, with whom Glater shares an Eastern European ancestry. But her work departs from his not only in her use of more textured materials, but in her emphasis on images of rising and on the theme of illness.

Her book is the tale of a young girl who is sad because her friend is too sick to come out and play. In a dream, the girl gets colored wings, and she and her friend use them to fly around inside the house.

The book, Glater said, is for anyone who has been touched by illness.

Illness became a big part of Glater's life when she began taking care of her husband Richard, 40, who suffers from a variety of chronic illnesses including Crohn's disease and chronic fatigue syndrome. "We have had to live with limitations and challenges that the majority of our peers don't," she said.

They cannot travel. Richard cannot work in a conventional setting, and they must choose their social life very prudently. Entertaining one guest can deplete Richard's energy for the next few days. "We have developed an appreciation for what are often perceived as small things," Glater said.

Born in West Los Angeles, Glater received art degrees at U.C. Santa Cruz, Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and San Francisco State University. She ran afterschool programs at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and directed the San Francisco Children's Art Center before quitting a few years ago to devote herself to her husband, her art and her private students.

"With the limitations we have, we sometimes feel like we've gained insight by being hit over the head with it," she said. "We often joke about how much insight we would trade for the good health."

Nonetheless, the experience has taught them to find happiness where they can. "It's not about making illness go away but about finding freedom and joy within a situation. In my book, I think it's important that they can fly even though they're inside the house."