Judaica artist melds N.Y. scenes and biblical themes

Israeli Ari Gradus says his success as a Jewish artist stems from the fact he doesn't paint "oy vey" art.

"Many Jewish artists paint scenes depicting the sadness of the Jewish people," Gradus said in a phone interview from his studio in New York. "I paint the joy of the Jewish people. I'm an optimistic person."

His first West Coast show, which opens Sunday at The Burlingame Gallery, is also the South Bay gallery's first exhibit of Judaic art.

Gradus, who has been painting for 35 years, didn't start out to create works with Judaic content. Born in 1943 in Karkur, a small agricultural village between Haifa and Tel Aviv, he wasn't encouraged to develop his artistic talent.

"I never thought of being a painter," he said. "My mom worked in the orange grove and my father in a small bakery in town. This was the pioneer era in Israel. Making art was not a priority of anybody."

Gradus started painting at the age of 8 as a means to express his feelings.

"My mom still has all my old paintings. Recently I looked through them and saw a boy with a broken kite crying. That boy was me. Even then, the feelings of the painting were present."

When Gradus came to the United States in 1966 to complete his formal education at New York University, he painted "Americana things."

"That was not really me," he said. "Then I started painting with colors so vivid, like a child. For the last 18 years, I've been painting from things my grandfather taught me. Like feeling the joy of being Jewish."

Gradus' art evokes profound feelings in the viewer, said Burlingame Gallery owner David Tehrani, an Iranian-born Jew who has lived in the South Bay for 30 years.

"Ari's paintings make you think deeper than just viewing the average piece of art."

The show runs through Sunday, April 22, with appearances by the artist tomorrow and Sunday. Tehrani will be donating a portion of the sales to the Joanne Salman-Tehrani homeless fund at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, where he is an active member. The fund is in memory of his late wife, who died in 1996.

Tehrani, who said he has always loved Judaic art, "started looking for a Jewish artist to show because we are in need in this area." He said San Mateo County does not have a gallery or store featuring Judaica. "Where does one find Judaic art, beyond the synagogue gift shop?"

When Tehrani began looking for artists on the Internet and browsing the art magazines, "most were too Orthodox, usually depicting rabbis," he said.

"What I like about Ari is his variety. He paints everything from traditional holidays to market-street scenes of the Lower East Side to the spiritual. One of his works, 'Jerusalem 3000,' has doors on it which actually open."

The show will feature several of Gradus' signed serigraphs.

"For the serigraphs, I do a sketch, then translate them into color," he explained. "I separate the colors on a silk screen, then use a squeegee to pull through the colors, some 80 or 90 of them. Each edition takes four or five months."

How aware is he that the end result is often reminiscent of Marc Chagall?

"I don't do that purposely," he said, chuckling. "Though I do love Chagall's movement and use of color. And his passion."

Gradus shares that passion.

"Every time I work on a piece, that's the most popular one to me," he said. "Then, when I'm finished, it's not mine anymore. It's like I have a love affair with the picture."

That passion extends to Israel, as well.

"I spend half my time in Brooklyn and the other half in Karkur. This way I never feel I've left anyplace. I go back to Israel to charge my batteries through my connection to the land."

Gradus, listed in "Who's Who in American Art," has won numerous awards and his work hangs in many public collections, including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City and in the mayor's office in Jerusalem City Hall.

Currently he is working on a commission for New York City's subway system.

"They want to liven up the subway," he said, "and bring it some optimism."

Where does Gradus get his ideas?

"Ideas are the hardest thing," he said. "I've been painting for 35 years, and execution is the easiest. During some periods, nothing hits me right. Then, during some cycles, I can't stop."

Ideas have not been a problem for a commission he's working on for Temple Kol Ami in Tampa, Fla.

"They gave me the subject, Psalm 100, which I read very carefully. Then I painted beings dancing up from Earth to heaven, reaching the gates.

"Once I get the concept, I don't need words any more."