Jaffa watercolorist 1st Israeli to show at Sausalito fest

Leave it to a painter to compare the mindset of besieged Israelis to that of the tormented Vincent van Gogh.

Like van Gogh as portrayed in "Lust for Life," "we're faced with death all the time," says Jaffa-based artist Yoram Gal of his countrymen and women. "But we have a passion for being together in this miraculous country."

It takes Gal a while to warm up to such politically charged life-and-death topics. Generally, he prefers to live in the more halcyon interior world of art.

Fortunately for art lovers, he hasn't kept that world to himself. Gal has been chosen to exhibit his work at the upcoming 51st annual Sausalito Art Festival over Labor Day weekend. He is the first Israeli artist to have his work included in the juried event, and he's coming to town for the occasion.

Gal will bring with him 160 watercolors of varying sizes. Most are languid landscapes, often of scenes from his Jaffa neighborhood. Others are not so languid.

"Many come from my imagination," he says, "often from plays I'm writing, acting or directing. They're figurative, featuring mythological caricatures, sometimes sexual, sometimes violent. You might call them grotesque."

Apparently, his admirers do not find them so. In another U.S. trip a few months ago, Gal showed his work in Denver, New York and Connecticut, selling many paintings and setting the stage for his Sausalito debut.

"For me, it's a big mystery," he says of public reaction to his work. "I never know how people will feel, but when I was in the States before, people seemed to love my paintings."

Gal talks rapidly in vivid near-perfect English. He has much to say about art, with plenty of commentary left over on his other areas of expertise: theater and cinema.

"I decided when I turned 50 to stop apologizing about doing all my art forms intensely," he says. "I paint every free minute, but there are periods I hardly touch the brushes at all. Or I'll paint 14 hours a day nonstop."

He owes that erratic painting schedule to commitments as a playwright, actor and director for both the screen and the stage. However, such artistic quadrophenia is nothing new for him.

Gal began painting at age 12, going on to earn a BFA in theater at Tel Aviv University. Being Israeli, he accomplished this in the shadow of perpetual war. "All my life, there was a feeling of panic because we were threatened with destruction," says Gal. "I experienced it as a boy in 1956, when we put tape on all the windows."

Though raised secular, Gal never forgot his Jewish origins. And if he ever started to, there were anti-Semitic hooligans to remind him.

"I lived in London for six years," he recalls. "While the Beatles were singing 'All You Need Is Love,' I was beaten up by skinheads. When I came home, I understood what a Zionist state meant, and that Jews needed a country."

Meanwhile, Gal began carving out a career in art, film and theater. He went on to write many plays, with at least 15 of them produced in Israel. He also acted on the stage and in films (such as 1982's "Remembrance of Love" starring Kirk Douglas, and "A Woman Called Golda" starring Ingrid Bergman).

Each time he landed a part, Gal would take his preparation further than most devotees of method acting: He engaged in method painting.

"With every role, I would paint at least 50 watercolors to accompany the process," he says. This was his way of working through the inner life of the character. When it was a theatrical role, oftentimes the paintings were mounted in the theater and offered for sale.

He would do the same for his film work, painting elaborate storyboards that were works of art in their own right. Gal received several awards for his work, most notably first prize at the 2001 Alternative Film Festival in Picciano, Italy, for his film "Wild."

Despite his success, Gal feels squeezed. "It's difficult to be an artist in Israel," he says. "Because we are so small, it's very tight here. Our people are talented, but there's not enough of an audience. We have 6 million, including 1 million religious, 1 million Muslim, so that leaves 4 million: That's your audience."

On top of that, Gal notes, the audience is stressed to the gills. He bemoans the tension level in Israel and fears there's no relief in sight.

"We realize we shall never have peace, at least not for several generations. It's very sad and grim. We are stuck, not stuck with Danes or Americans as neighbors, but with Palestinians and this kind of hatred and barbaric behavior. But there is something about this country. Whoever is born here cannot desert the place."

Despite that sadness, or perhaps because of it, Gal is more determined than ever to live out his artistic creed.

"I'm just now trying to make the most of each day on Earth," he says. "I'm like the Chassidim on Simchat Torah, experiencing the joy of life, dancing to the end of your senses. That's the most important thing: to have a celebration of life."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.