The street artist

Meet Ruth Gresser, the Beersheba painter who has become a part of the scenery herself.

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
January 3, 2007 11:23
The street artist

ruth gresser 88. (photo credit: )

Many locals who take visitors on city tours seek out Beersheba's Ruth Gresser for a short visit, if they can find her. Not only are her watercolors interesting and original, but her insights on Beersheba from an artist's perspective are well worth the time. Gresser's favorite sites tend to cluster either around the Old City's tree-lined streets, or in her home neighborhood of Schunah Heh, where the misholim walls overflow with bougainvillea. 'I paint the light,' Gresser says, 'so I look for striking contrasts, light and shadow, green foliage and lots of color. I love old walls, ancient buildings and interesting pathways.' When Gresser, now 49, was just old enough to hold a paintbrush, she began learning painting techniques from her father, Jack Stoll, also a fine artist. Street painting didn't become a passion until she moved from her native London to Israel. "In 1980, right after graduation from the Birmingham Polytechnic School of Fine Art, I came to Israel for three months, but stayed a year and a half. I was at a secular kibbutz, studying Hebrew, and had one of those 'significant moments' in the laundry room. I was sorting clothes, and one of the kibbutzniks asked me if I was Jewish. 'Yes', I said. Then she said, 'So are you going to live here?' The question surprised me - I'd never thought about living here, but after that, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I felt at home in Israel in a way I'd never felt in England. "Only then did the other part of her question grab me: was I Jewish? Of course - but I didn't have any real idea what that meant. That set me off on the next path toward being observant." Ultimately, Gresser's visit to Israel included working with Livnot U'lehibanot in Safed, studying at Pardes in Jerusalem, working as an art teacher, as a nanny, as a secretary and any number of other odd jobs that would support her painting habit. Moving between Jerusalem and Safed, street scenes became her focus. "In England, I'd painted portraits and interior scenes because the light wasn't right. But here in Israel, the strong light and shadow captured my attention." Gresser paid her dues as a starving artist. "I lived very frugally," she says, telling about one of her tiny garrets. "I was thrilled when I sold my first painting. Beit Canada was holding an art exhibit for new immigrants, and they accepted two of my paintings. One sold - an oil I'd done in Safed, an ancient path, trees and ruins. In those days, my work was very detailed - it took weeks to do a painting. But to sell a painting? That meant I was a real artist!" In 1984, Gresser - who was then Ruth Stoll - met Dr. Moshe Gresser at a friend's home in Jerusalem. "Moshe was from Chicago, so after a three-continent family-meeting spree, we were married in Jerusalem, then moved to the US for seven years. During that time we had four daughters, and constantly plotted our return to Israel." The Gressers came home for good in 1994, and settled in Beersheba. "We wanted a place where the cost of living was low, one that had a religious Anglo community. Moshe didn't have a job, but we were sure he'd find work teaching. We had two more children - a fifth daughter, and our son Mayer, who's now five." Now, with only three children left at home, the passion for street painting that started in Safed has flourished. "Working on a public thoroughfare is fascinating," she says. "Sharing the streets with pedestrians never gets boring. I learn something every day." There's more to choosing a site than just the scene. "In Beersheba, I need a shady place to stand, and it has to be safe. A couple of times, I've almost been backed-into by cars. That's it - I set up my easel and go to work. People stop, look over my shoulder, and lots of times, start to chat." Gresser's experiences range from being asked to paint a portrait - "right now" - to being propositioned. "There was one lady who yelled at me for days, but then she became my best friend. The most common question is, 'What are you painting?' "I never really know how to answer that one," she says, laughing. This being Israel, many also feel compelled to offer advice. "One lady watched for a while, and then shrugged and walked away. 'You know, you really don't need to do that,' she said. 'You could just take a picture.' And I loved the little kid who wanted to know how much I'd charge for the painting. 'Five hundred shekels,' I said. He was stunned. "No way! I could buy it down the street for fifty!" Listening is another part of the job. "I'm a captive audience, and I listen. People tell me their life stories," she says. She's never been afraid on the streets, Gresser says, but she'd make a good spy. "I'm in the same place for several days, with mostly the same people walking by. By the time I'm done, I know what's going on in the neighborhood." The street-side visibility also helps sales. "I've sold several paintings in progress - they weren't done, so the buyers couldn't take them right away. When they're finished, I deliver the paintings myself - it's nice to talk with people who appreciate your work. Now I'm selling from my website, www.ruthgresser-ruthart.com, so there, I lose the personal touch." Economics have dictated other changes. "Back in art school, I was an idealist. I said I'd never want to make a living from art, because I'd have to compromise. Well, I've adjusted to economic reality. For one thing, right now I'm doing more watercolors and fewer oils - watercolors dry instantly. Oils can take weeks. At the moment, I need to do saleable paintings more quickly than that." Gresser also teaches. "I have a women's class that's gone on for years," she says. "Sometimes I add a children's class. I've also done some corporate work, designing logos, or selling my paintings for company advertising or greeting cards. One of my favorite paintings was commissioned by the Weizmann Institute, a watercolor study of their entranceway. For several days, I rode the train to Rehovot and painted. It's exactly the kind of scene that appeals to me." For a street artist, passers-by present both the best and worst parts of the work. "When someone stops and watches me very intently, I get edgy and tend to mess up, so I stop," she says. "But by far the best part of the whole enterprise is when I help people see what I see. "Most of us, when we're familiar with an area, don't pay any attention to what we see. So there I am, painting a scene they see several times a day - but they've never really seen it. So when they stop, look at the painting, and see their own neighborhood through my eyes, they see something beautiful they've never appreciated before. I love it when that happens."


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