Atara London Grenadir – Painting from the Inside Out
By Bayla Sheva Brenner
“My works are ‘soul works’, not just a representation of a Jewish theme,” says Atara London Grenadir, popular abstract painter and down-home Oklahoma girl, whom Ivan Karp, founder of Manhattan’s O.K. Harris Gallery, called a “color visionary.” Twenty years ago, she sold her Ford van and all her belongings to cover the cost of her journey to New York, hoping to find her spiritual and artistic self. Hundreds of luminous canvases and life-changing encounters later, she found both. And she can’t stop painting about it.
Born of two artists – her mother a painter and illustrator and her father a designer and architect – she discovered her love of dashing color onto a blank canvas as a teenager. It wasn’t just being a Jew, or coming from a family of artist, that placed Atara squarely on the periphery of life in Oklahoma; her classmates painted what they saw, as did she, but the results were markedly different. From the start, her style leaned toward the abstract, rather than representational. “I always saw objects as forms and shapes of color and light,” she says. “I learned who I was by it, shaping my identity through this new art form.” She admired the work of Helen Frankenthaler, who painted with a distinctive stain technique on huge canvases. Atara adopted and developed this style to express her unique perception of the world, drawing out the spiritual essence of the corporeal forms around her, including herself.
Atara pursued the practical route, attaining both her Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts at the University of Oklahoma. She continued painting, booked exhibitions, and taught in the Oklahoma/Texas area. Although solidly on course towards her dream, she felt something lacking and decided to venture north to Manhattan, the epicenter of the art world. A spontaneous stop at the Jewish Museum set off an unexpected reaction. “Seeing the Judaica opened up something inside of me,” says Atara. “I saw Torah mantels, kiddush cups, things I had never seen before, yet I felt that I had. They were Jewish art forms and I felt profoundly inspired by them. I knew I had to move to New York City and find my Jewish roots.”
She moved to an apartment near the Lower East Side and took a job as a saleswoman at Bonwit Teller. “Every day I passed by a yeshiva on my way to work,” says Atara. “It stirred something, but I just kept walking.” When she wasn’t selling clothes, she explored the art galleries and took her paintings around. The pull towards finding answers to questions about life, questions she couldn’t quite formulate, kept gnawing at her.
Her days proceeded this way for a year or two until her mother suddenly died. Atara’s spiritual uneasiness sounded like a siren now. She sought solace in transcendental meditation at a TM center. “I went every week and met a man there who listened to me talk about my elusive searching,” she recalls. “He answered many of my questions and told me I needed to meet a particular rabbi.” He brought her to one of the rabbi’s lectures, an encounter that would change her life. Rabbi Meir Fund became her spiritual mentor.
Blending Abstract Expressionism With Torah Thought
She soon became a contented regular in Rabbi Fund’s Brooklyn home for Shabbat meals. As Divine providence would have it, her apartment rent went up. She moved to Brooklyn, met other singles exploring Judaism, and soon made the commitment to keep kosher. “It was a vital time in my life,” she says, “A big transformation for me.” As she had always done, she got out her acrylic and oil tubes and expressed the excitement and vivid perceptions of her world on canvas. While attending Torah classes, she painted her first series, “The Days of Creation”, a seven-canvas multihued depiction of each day of creation, as elucidated in the first of the Five Books of Moses, many of which she sold. “It was after I completed the series that I really became religious,” says Atara. She continued painting themes that related to Rabbi Fund’s “portion of the week” class and showed them in SoHo.
Viewing it as a natural and necessary next step, Atara booked a flight to Israel. “It helped solidify that this was the path I wanted to pursue, to learn about God and what it means to be actively Jewish.” Her artist’s eye delighted in the Holy Land’s beauty. “That expansive horizontal line one sees there, where the sky and earth meet, reminded me of Oklahoma.” She found that her life and her work took on a greater depth after that trip.
Along with Atara’s strengthened spiritual resolve came conflict. Although she wanted to lead her life as an observant Jewish woman, she feared being typecast as a religious artist. “People told me if I was going to be religious, I would never be a success in the art world,” she says. “My goal was to create spiritual paintings, inspired by Torah, the exalted ideals and values I was learning – through my abstract eyes.” Her rabbi encouraged her to continue pursuing her painting.
Despite the nay-sayer’s cynical prediction, Atara went on to produce several eye and soul-catching Torah-based series of paintings, skillfully blending the worlds of abstract expressionist art and Judaism – creating a vibrant and uncompromising synthesis. Her paintings depict the richness, beauty, and vitality of Jewish thought (including Chassidut) and tradition. “When I get an idea, I can’t rest until I form the psychic energy into symbolic imagery and paint it on canvas,” explains the artist. “I take risks juxtaposing colors and shapes. This challenge is my inspiration. The excitement I feel when painting is reflected back to the viewer. This is how art enriches life.”
Atara London Grenadir has exhibited her paintings across the United States, from New York to California and throughout the Southwest. She is currently a professor of art and art therapy at Touro College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
Artist’s Descriptions of Paintings
“Gateway – Pink”
The Gateways series was conceived following 9/11, when I envisioned the beginning of a new phase in our history – the Third Temple poised to emerge from above and below, awaiting our heartfelt teshuva. The Temple unites Heaven and earth, a gateway to the reconnection of all parts of Creation to their roots, as explained in Ramchal’s Mishkenei Elyon. I used the painting technique of geometric abstraction – simplification of colors and shapes – to portray unobstructed clarity, a place from which light, truth, and joy radiate. With the revelation of the hester panim, (Hashem’s hiddeness) the world will be transformed from chaos to oneness. It is my intention that the viewer, by looking at and experiencing this artwork, will feel peace, joy, and harmony nurturing his or her individual “inner temple.”
Rachel was the matriarch with whom I identified the most. To me, Rachel was the ultimate Jewish wife and mother. To avoid her embarrassment, she sacrificed on behalf of her sister Leah. She was jealous for a holy cause – to give birth to sons who would build up the Jewish nation. I wanted to paint her deep love and gratitude for the birth of her child, Yosef, and her longing to fulfill her mission, to give birth to yet another son. Yosef is wrapped in a blanket of many colors as a symbol of his destiny.
“Creation – Separation of the Waters”
Separation of the Waters (the Second Day) is from my first series, based on my introduction to the study of Torah. The diluted oil and acrylic technique was a vehicle that expressed my vision of the seven days of Creation. The black triangle in the painting represents the Torah, which existed before Creation. The gold line represents kedusha. The yellow spots hovering over the water symbolize Ruach Elokim, the spirit of Mashiach. Painting this series deepened my commitment to developing as a Jewish woman.
The Veil series of paintings, a series of meditations, was my personal Elul project to push away darkness, negativity, and extraneous thoughts, in order to connect with the light of Hashem, specifically through tefilla (prayer). I found that by visualizing a stream of light, I could better connect to the Divine spark within.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.