Leon Sternberg and his art

He seemed too normal to be such an amazing artist. I expected some crazy story with drugs, love and God.

Paintings by Leon Sternberg (photo credit: LEON STERNBERG)
Paintings by Leon Sternberg
(photo credit: LEON STERNBERG)
It caught my eye and I couldn’t stop staring; that picture hanging in that nice art gallery in the heart of Jerusalem was too pretty to just walk by.
I whispered to my husband, “We must go in.”
I stood a few feet away staring at it from a short distance.
“Excuse me, who did this picture.”
“Oh well, that’s a Leon Sternberg, its called The Rebbe,” said the gallerist.
“It must be a digital painting, the Rebbe’s face is like in a shadow but on it are the words of the Shema,“ I say to my husband.
I love it.
At home, I mentally make space on the wall in the dining room and try to imagine that sublime piece of art hanging there.
“Dream on,” I hear a voice coming from the inner sanctum of the house. “We have a picture of the Rebbe there already, we have kids, school, after-school programs, rent, housekeeper... no space for art right now darling.” I open my eyes and swallow my pride.
Curious by nature and naturally stubborn, especially after receiving my little speech on what I must give up right now from my husband, I glide my fingers on the keyboard and look for Leon Sternberg.
A page opens up and a nice-looking middle-aged European man appears on my laptop.
“Hello, Leon,” I feel like saying. I scroll down and one after the other beautiful pictures full of colors, shapes, sizes and combinations. I see jazz, I see famous icons, I see abstract scenery and then, finally, appears The Rebbe.
The price is a little high for us right now; the only thing I can do is to download it and keep it as a screen saver.
A few days later, I post a picture of my working desk on Instagram, someone with a keen eye can notice the details of my desk, like the picture of my screen saver.
Out of all “mankind,” Leon Sternberg himself, a few hashtags later, noticed “his” Rebbe picture as my screen saver and writes me a message.
A story had begun.
It is not a love story – we are both happily married to our better halves and have children of our own – but is a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work.
You can imagine my happiness when I saw a message from Leon on Instagram, how amazing can social media be: ah, the miracles of technology...
Well, to make a long social media story short, Leon likes my writing and I like his paintings.
Done deal, let’s meet and see what happens.
Leon appeared magically at my door finally a few weeks later. The smile was the same as in the picture I had seen on his website, maybe he looked a little older, but he explained to us that the picture was taken a few years ago.
WE SIT in our dining room, kids have been closed in cupboards or something like that, so as not to disturb us.
Everything is perfect, the soda I serve him is cold and sparkly, the coffee is strong and Italian and the wall is nicely displayed in front of Leon’s eyes illuminated precisely by the last rays of sun, just like I had planned. He cannot miss it, I think to myself, he must notice that the big wall needs a picture.
What a funny world I live in, I laugh to my myself, thinking that the artist himself would actually acknowledge that my beige plain wall would look much better with one of his art pieces and that he would magically take out from under his shirt my favorite painting, expand it, hang it up himself with 3 screws he hid in his pockets and than even sign it there in front of me and my whole social media world to witness the event.
I come back to earth as Leon takes off his glasses and starts to tell his story.
“I am from a family of diamond dealers (diamantaires as they say in Belgium). I am from the little town of Antwerp, I grew up not religious to a well to do family, it didn’t take long for me to realize that business and diamond dealing was not my calling in life. I was always searching for something and didn’t know what it was exactly. I started to get into jazz and loved it. I play the saxophone and it became my passion, as you can see in many of my art pieces.” he said.
He seems too normal to be such an amazing artist, I expected some crazy story with drugs, love and God.
“Exactly where is God in all this,?” I ask him politely.
“I was not raised religious, God came at the right time. I had gotten married and lived in Belgium with my Israeli wife, we then decided to move to Zichron Ya’acov in Israel, I opened a restaurant where I would also play the saxophone at night but still, I couldn’t find my place in the world.
“One day while searching for some kabbalah class online, as one click led to another, I found myself staring at an angel face with a white beard and blue piercing eyes. His voice was sweet and his speech made so much sense I could not stop listening to this rabbi. That was The Rebbe,” said Sternberg.” Yossi and I stay glued to Leon’s face and do not make a sound. A man that looks like an English professor at Yale, is actually an artist with a tormented soul and an incredible quest for the true meaning of life and spirituality.
“So when did you actually start to create your art pieces?” I delicately whisper not to ruin the moment but still wanting to know when he became my superhero.
“Only 10 years ago I finally found my path, it started in the most simple way while doing some scribbles with my super pen on my Samsung phone. I started to notice a pattern, I thought I could actually translate what is in my mind and brains and create a painting without even knowing how to draw! One of my first pieces, of course, featured my beloved saxophone; four saxophones that create a geometrical shape. You have to look at it a bit to understand what it is,” Sternberg said.
That’s the beauty of a Leon piece, it’s not clear right away what is it, you have to think and look at it a few minutes. Each person gets his own interpretation, you can not stop at the surface you have to dig deeper and dive into the piece,” said Sternberg.
Just like Leon himself, if you stop at the surface you think he sits down and has tea and scones every day at five o’clock in the afternoon, but there’s a whole tornado inside those eyes.
Although now he transmits peace and wisdom as if he found what he wanted. Religion and being God-fearing has for sure forged his character even though it happened at a later age, he is hungry for knowledge and literally reads all that he can in holy books.
SINCE HE started creating art, Leon has been exhibiting his works for the famous and the rich, although now, thanks to social media, Leon has made his art accessible to all “pockets.” I imagined a crazy art studio where he works from, only to be fooled again by his shy smile, “Nah..., “ he says, “I work from a computer, so no paint splashed on the wall or wine cups thrown on the floor, I can see where you’re going...” He smiles as if he knows me already.
He explains that he uses painting techniques to create his digital paintings directly on the computer. There are various brush choices and painting styles that are digitally styled to represent the traditional mediums like oils, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, pen and even media such as airbrushing. When the piece is ready it either is printed on metal, glass, or canvas.
“Sorry to let you down,” he concludes, “I work at a clean desk usually during the day like any other normal person.”
“Lighting is very important,” he adds, “Once the piece gets hung, I would say it’s vital for the piece to come to life.”
Leon’s pieces feel like once they find a wall where to hang, they start “living” and finding their true dimension, each one to its own.
There is a gray-colored Einstein, a sexy Marylin Monroe, an iconic Liz Taylor, and even the supreme Dali with his mustache.
His anachronic collection is a feast for the eyes. A combination of traditional paintings mixed into today’s world “well enough to create a well-balanced plastic art anachrony,” as it says on his website.
I want all of them.
I laugh thinking I never even cared about art or paintings. Until now.
When you see Leon’s work you get obsessed, you want to see them all, absorb all the colors, it makes you want to change the style of your house and place one of them right in the middle. You don’t need furniture, you don’t need family pictures you don’t need anything.
Just good lighting.
Each piece screams for attention.
“Growing up in Belgium, I had it all, I was well off and spoiled. It was the biggest curse and the biggest blessing. It pushed me to understand the real reason we exist and what is the reason for my existence; it made me discover God and the infinite love I found for the “real world,” for spirituality and religion. It made me discover my art. It made me discover The Rebbe – as a spiritual leader and eventually becoming a piece of art – one of the most sold pieces of my collection,” sums up Sternberg.
I get up from the chair as we are ready to part, I feel I just watched a movie and now the lights went up.
Leon’s smile embraces me, I run to my room and get one of my favorite books, its called Daily Wisdom; it is inspired by the teachings on the Torah portion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
I give it to him, I know he will like it.
We say goodbye and just like that Leon disappears as if he had never existed.
I forgot about my empty wall waiting for a Leon Sternberg.
One day soon, it will smile down at me.
For now, I smile at the piece I just finished writing about Leon and his beautiful story.
Leon Sternberg lives in Zichron Ya’acov with his wife and three children. His pieces can be seen at www.sternbergart.com; reach him at 050-445-7662.
The writer is from Italy, lives in Jerusalem and heads HadassahChen Productions. A director and performer, Chen also heads the Keren Navah Ruth Foundation, in memory of her daughter, to assist families with sick children. [email protected]