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Crown Heights Artist Draws on a World of Experience

Crown Heights Artist Draws on a World of Experience

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Esther Zibell stands in front of one of her impressions of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo: Menachem Serraf
Esther Zibell stands in front of one of her impressions of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo: Menachem Serraf

As far back as Esther Pam Zibell can remember, she's always been drawing. Although the artist, now in her 50s, grew up in the vibrant art world of France, she decided not to attend art school in order to "keep something very fresh" in her paintings," she says.

Zibell instead found strength in paving her own path when it comes to her artwork. She admits that attending art school might have taught her valuable techniques, but she always preferred a personal, albeit more difficult, approach. In fact, it is her life and its surroundings, including the presence of fellow artists and Chassidic neighbors, that continue to inspire and influence her work.

In her earlier days, surrealist painters such as Henri Matisse and Amedeo Modigliani were role models. From the age of 15, she loved the art of Modigliani, an Italian-born Jewish painter from the early 20th-century who spent part of his career in Paris. And although Zibell has developed a very different method from Modigiliani, she says some of her paintings still bear a slight hint of his style in the long shape of her characters' faces.

She began to exhibit her own surrealist oil paintings in Paris during the 1970s and 80s.

When she became an Orthodox Jew almost 30 years ago, she turned to Jewish and Chassidic life as inspiration for her art. She focused first on universal, biblical themes, such as the creation of the world. When Zibell became a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch two years later, she says, she turned to portraying "every day Jewish life as is, [and] to feel the soul behind it, not just plain reality."

"When you become religious, you have to find yourself again," she says in reflection. "You find out you can really be yourself, you don't have to paint a certain way."

She soon discovered that imagination and creativity could be consistent with religious life.

Chassidic women appear as strong and central characters in her paintings: In "Mazel Tov" (2002, oil on canvas), a Chassidic bride and groom stand close to each other under a wedding canopy; they're surrounded by flowers beneath a dark sky as silhouettes of ancestors watch the ceremony. A violinist at the forefront plays music. The bride, who is illuminated in white, is a powerful focal point of the painting.

Zibell, though, gives men and women an equal spotlight by portraying each involved in their unique roles. She draws men involved in prayer and learning, and women at home preparing for Shabbat or taking walks with their children.

Backyard Inspiration

"V'zot hatorah" (2006, oil on canvas) Photo: Menachem Serraf
"V'zot hatorah" (2006, oil on canvas) Photo: Menachem Serraf
"[I am] always influenced by where I am living," says Zibell. And with Paris, Montreal, Israel and New York on the map of places she's lived, Zibell has a wealth of experiences from which to draw inspiration.

Finding religious life in Paris "too scattered," she says, she left Paris with her family and moved to Montreal, Canada, in 1986 for its concentrated Chassidic community. While living in Montreal, she began exhibiting her work locally.

After living in Montreal for seven years, she went to Sefad, Israel, in 1993. She says living there for two years deeply impacted her art. She exhibited her colorful paintings, themselves inspired by life in the mystical city, at her own gallery.

But the financial burden of living as an artist in Israel proved to be too great. She returned to Montreal, where she remained until deciding to move to Crown Heights nine years ago.

Although relatively new to Crown Heights as a community member, Zibell was no stranger to the area. She had made frequent trips into Crown Heights during the years she lived in Montreal in order to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory; she had always longed to settle there.

Her artistic fame in the neighborhood came when she had her first show at the local Chassidic Art Institute in 2002. The gallery featured some of her more recent paintings at an exhibition in January.

In Crown Heights, she began painting Chassidic life as she observed it on the bustling streets. Holiday rituals, synagogue scenes and family strolls at the neighboring Brooklyn Botanic Garden all made their way to her canvasses, where they have remained.

Her studio, which is the front room of her house, overlooks a wide, shady block. It also doubles as a spare bedroom that stores paintings that haven't found a spot on walls already covered by her vibrant art.

The painting she is now working on is the first in a series depicting the story of the biblical heroine Ruth.

"It's a way of showing ancient life in Israel," says Zibell. "It can push my imagination for color and landscape."

Painting With Purpose

When asked why she never attempted to paint the Rebbe, the painter responds that she doesn't believe any artist can fully capture the Rebbe's powerful gaze.

"When you paint a portrait, there's always a little bit of yourself in it, so there is always something missing," she explains. "There was something going on in the Rebbe's eyes that no painting can ever satisfy."

Instead, she makes collages using photographs of the Rebbe. A collage in her dining room displays a picture of hundreds of sheep moving toward the direction of a photo of the Rebbe, a metaphor of the many people who flocked to him.

She tells a story of the first time she saw a photograph of the Rebbe, before she came to Lubavitch. She says she always tried imaging what Moses looked like, but couldn't until she came across the Rebbe's photo.

"That was before I even learned [the Kabbalistic teaching] that every generation has its own Moshe Rabbeinu," she says.

"Becoming religious made me realize how G‑d is behind everything; G‑d guides my hand in art," she continues. "I always ask G‑d when I begin a painting that it should help someone do teshuvah or enjoy Jewish life some more."

To learn more about the artist, visit estherzibellsart.com.



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