“What a magnificent spot they found for my painting!” Ellen Lapidus Stern comments in a voice full of gratitude.
The artist was referring to her recent work Hadar, a 5-meter-high oil on canvas, now prominently displayed in the lobby of Building One in the Jerusalem Municipality. She proudly describes the work as “a big promise of hope” that incorporates familiar themes such as the first fruits; the embrace of the lion and the lamb; the three pillars of the Jewish religion supporting a slightly unstable world; and some lacy discs evocative of those illuminated Hanukkah street decorations.
Lapidus Stern is well known in Israel and internationally for her colorful and imaginative oil paintings. Many of them are on permanent exhibition, others in private collections.
Looking back at her long career, she remarks, “Now I am a master painter. It takes a long time to develop as an artist – many, many years until you feel unselfconscious about expressing yourself. I was about 40 years old when I could stop worrying whether it [my production] was good or bad. When you get to the point that you are not thinking about yourself, what’s on the canvas, who would like it – your mind is empty. You are an artist.”
“Now I am a master painter. It takes a long time to develop as an artist – many, many years until you feel unselfconscious about expressing yourself. I was about 40 years old when I could stop worrying whether it [my production] was good or bad. When you get to the point that you are not thinking about yourself, what’s on the canvas, who would like it – your mind is empty. You are an artist.”Ellen Lapidus Stern
She believes that artists constantly renew themselves. “Each canvas is an adventure. You go to a place in your development where you have never been before.”
"Each canvas is an adventure"
Lapidus Stern was raised in a comfortable home in Brooklyn, New York. Though her father, a child psychologist, was drafted briefly during World War II, he remained in the US. Her mother volunteered regularly during the war, and later completed a college degree to become a teacher of special education. At the early age of 14, Lapidus Stern joined an after-school class in life drawing at the Brooklyn Museum. During three sessions each week, she filled many sketchbooks that later formed an impressive portfolio.
In 1959 she completed her fine arts degree from Bennington College, Vermont, and Brandeis University. After graduating, she left for Paris.
Besides caring for her two daughters who were born there, she had a unique, enriching experience. She was mentored in the intaglio printmaking workshop of famed artist Stanley William Hayter, who helped develop viscosity printing. Hayter’s Atelier 17 was a nurturing hub for many young artists for several decades.
“My first two daughters were always with me in Europe. It was hippie years, though I wasn’t in that category,” she explains. “However, I enrolled the girls in foreign or international schools. Always! They speak several languages besides Hebrew and English.”
In 1967 while back in New York, Lapidus Stern was awarded a Danforth fellowship for women to study for her master’s degree in fine arts.
“I painted all the time. It was wonderful,” she exclaims.
The scholarship enabled her graduate studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she subsequently worked as a teacher of life drawing and art history.
BEFORE THE family made aliyah in 1979 with a third and youngest daughter who was born in New York, she wanted to go somewhere beautiful, “which is why I went to Spain and lived near the sea in Ibiza and Mallorca, the Balearic Islands.”
After her arrival in Israel, she commuted for a time between Mallorca, where she took doctorate courses in art, and Mitzpe Ramon, her home for 23 years. She would take out her easel and paint outdoors. “I painted distance, weather, seasons, wind, gazelles and friends.”
Lapidus Stern now lives in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem. In recent years, her focus as an artist has shifted somewhat, as she explains to the Magazine.
“My interest in the hills of Judea that absorbed my work for a number of years has waned. I’m now committed to linear brush work, drawing, so to speak, with the brush.
“The abstract, remembered or imagined, expressive, female nude has been my subject matter for the past year and a half. Two events triggered the change: corona and the passing of my husband. Sometimes the paintings embarrass even me. I try not to communicate the idea of unclothed figures. They are clothed in oil paint. According to Rabbi Kook’s understanding of Rabbi Akiva, I should paint whatever comes to mind and what is hidden as well. No limits!”
Besides her active career as an artist, Lapidus Stern has found time and space in Jerusalem to broaden her perspective on life. “For the last 12 years, I have attended many classes at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies. I now consider myself an educated Jew. It is incredible what Matan has done for me.”
The artist admits how her life has been enriched by catching up on Jewish studies. “I was a fighter before, never willing to give in – if I was somewhere first, for example.” Judaism, she discovered, emphasizes kindness and compassion.
Now widowed, she is glad to have all her offspring living in Israel.
“My older one settled on a kibbutz and now lives in the Galilee. The other two live nearby in Jerusalem. They have first and second university degrees. They are beautiful and brilliant and Zionists. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are also, thank God, beautiful, brilliant and Zionists,” she announces with pride. ■
ELLEN LAPIDUS STERN (LAPIDOT), 85 FROM BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, (WITH SOME DETOURS IN FRANCE AND SPAIN) TO MITZPE RAMON, 1979