Artist shares techniques, faith with Brandeis Hillel kids

Artist Edna Hibel has been declared an "American treasure." Her work hangs in museums throughout the country as well as in Europe. And she's been compared to Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci as well as American impressionist Mary Cassatt.

It's not every day that an artist of international repute comes to teach at an elementary school.

But that's exactly what happened, when Hibel took over for art teacher Katina Price's fifth-grade morning class at the San Francisco campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School recently.

Hibel was one of 10 artists who taught in San Francisco schools as part of International Artexpo California. And the 83-year-old artist, who still works from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m. most days, seemed to enjoy herself as much as her students.

Donning a red apron, the petite mother and grandmother told the students how she began painting when she was just a little younger than they were. "I was 9 when I began painting," she said.

Hibel was raised in Boston but has lived most of her life in Florida. Her parents were both poor immigrants from Poland, and to them, she said, becoming American meant being not so religious.

Her family did celebrate the holidays, though, she said, but most of all, "I was brought up loving to be Jewish."

"One word that means what Judaism is to me is 'loving kindness,'" she said. "I don't even know why I enjoy being Jewish so much, but I do. It's a sense of pride almost, to be part of this fantastic people throughout the ages."

Hibel's art consists of mostly portraits. Her work is represented in more than 16 museums nationwide, as well as in several abroad. And in Florida, a public museum exists devoted just to her work. She has received a medal of honor and citation from Pope John Paul II, and an audience with Queen Elizabeth.

Most recently, she was commissioned to do a portrait commemorating the 200th anniversary of the White House, which was marked earlier this month.

It was a reproduction of this painting that she brought to Brandeis Hillel, called "The Heart and Conscience of America." In it, people of several races are featured, with the White House in the background.

"I love the whole world," Hibel said, explaining the importance of tolerance. Then she pointed to the White House. "In one of the windows, there is a person with open arms, welcoming the world."

Hibel has often tackled biblical themes in her work, making several renditions of David, Solomon and others. But she thinks all of her art looks Jewish.

"What's sitting in my art is my Jewishness," she said. "Everyone who knows me says I'm the most religious person they know."

In one of two demonstrations for the class, Hibel passed out small canvases of her White House painting and taught the students how to apply gold leaf to it.

Aryeh Canter used big pieces of gold leaf on the borders, and ended up with quite a bit in his hair. Anya Furst used it much more sparingly, in the windows of the White House.

Canter said he liked the painting because usually the White House was depicted with Secret Service agents, but this showed "that people of different races can be equal."

Furst said she liked the work because she wants to live in the White House someday. "I'm going to run for president," she said. "Will you vote for me?"

And Andrew Watt said of the people in the portrait, "It's so real. And so happy."

Chaim Heller, head of campus at Brandeis Hillel, who dropped by to take part in the gold-leaf lesson as well, said that the school had been looking forward to Hibel's visit.

Known for espousing a theme of "positive humanism" in her art, the artist also expresses positive feelings about her faith.

"Judaism has to do with morality, honesty and truth," she said.

Heller said that message coincides perfectly with what the students are taught at the day school.

"Her positive humanism grows out of Jewish ethics," he said. "There is no angst in her work, the good of people always comes through. This really resonates with what we teach, to look for the yetzer hatov, the goodness within every person."

Hibel also demonstrated how to draw a face, by sections, and explained how she makes a lithograph. Her lesson done, the children presented her with a banner welcoming her to the school, and sang "Shalom Chavera," substituting the feminine noun in the popular Hebrew song of friendship.

Clasping her hands together, Hibel told the children, "I'll never forget you."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."