Unhappy heart creates wonderful art

Despite a prestigious prize and a new husband, both acquired this year, Orit Akta-Hildesheim is choosing to paint a doom-laden reality.

Orit Akta-Hildesheim 521 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Orit Akta-Hildesheim 521
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Any way you look at it, June 2011 was a pretty good month for Orit Akta. The 40-year-old scion of a Yemenite family, born and raised in Eilat, still cannot believe her good fortune.
First, she won this year’s Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realistic Painting. Awarded annually since 2008, the Shiff Prize confers both a tidy cash award of $10,000 and the guarantee of a solo exhibition at the venerable Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Then, to celebrate, she booked a dream trip to Paris for herself and her children. And as though all that was not enough, she also got married.
Drawn by several word-of-mouth descriptions of her extraordinary style of painting, Metro recently visited the artist in the Rehovot house she now shares with her new husband, musician and music teacher Gilad Hildesheim – also 40 – her three children, and his two. This is the second marriage for both.
“Hildesheim was the name of the town in Germany my ancestors lived in and had to flee from,” says the new husband, helpfully.
Whatever the name’s origin, the artist has resolved to be known as Orit Akta-Hildesheim from now on, starting with this article.
As for her recent run of good luck, she says simply, “I still can’t believe it! I’m really overwhelmed!” Asked what she is planning to do with the cash prize of $10,000, she laughs, and says, “It’s already spent. Nothing is left! I spent all the money before I even received it!” Akta-Hildesheim has been involved with art, in one form or another, throughout her life.
“I was always attracted to art,” she recalls. “I began to draw and paint when I was small – but I grew up in Eilat. There weren’t a lot of artistic activities going on there; in fact there was nothing. It was the desert. So I decided to study fashion design, which I was also attracted to. I always liked to design things, redesign things, even to just rearrange the furniture in my room.
“So I came from the desert to Tel Aviv to study fashion design at a small private school. I can’t even remember the name now.
But once I got to Tel Aviv, I was exposed to art – real art – for the first time in my life. So I quit fashion design in the middle of my studies when I realized that the only thing I really wanted to do was paint.”
She did not, however, study painting at that point. Akta-Hildesheim is essentially self-taught.
“I am an autodidact,” she says. “I got married at the age of 24 – my first marriage – and there was no time to study art or anything else. So until 2001 I studied art by myself.
After that, I took some informal lessons in technique with a painter named Meir Natif, here in Rehovot.”
Akta-Hildesheim’s paintings are beyond “figurative” and “realistic.” They are virtually photographic. Never particularly interested in abstract or conceptual painting, she says, “I was always attracted to painting that comes closest to visual reality, both technically speaking and from the heart. I want to paint like reality.”
AS IT happens, however, the “reality” that Akta-Hildesheim chooses to paint is almost invariably sad.
Much of it is inspired by what she describes as a miserably unhappy first marriage.
“When I was a child, every girl wanted to be a bride. Getting married was an automatic given in life. And I grew up in a very happy family. My parents are a very happy couple.
“When I got married, I realized very soon that my marriage wasn’t going the way it was supposed to. For 14 unhappy years, I hung on to the dream that it would someday get better.
I hung on, like from a rope.
Me and the marriage, hanging from the end of a rope.”
But, as the history of painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater and literature shows us again and again, an unhappy heart often produces magnificent art.
In what is perhaps her most iconic painting, for example, Akta-Hildesheim portrays a wedding ring – presumably her wedding ring – hanging from the end of a rope, like a prisoner condemned to death.
Other paintings make liberal and rather depressing use of her wedding dress. We see it hanging forlornly from a nail in the wall; dejectedly from a clothesline; and starkly from what seems to be mid-air, rolled up and wrinkled, with the wedding ring lying on the floor below it.
We see several haunting portrayals of a woman who appears lost within a gigantic bridal veil, blindfolded and trying desperately to find her way out. In others, the woman almost seems as though she is being smothered to death by the veil. A series of these paintings depicts the woman becoming progressively fainter within the bridal veil – as though she were being absorbed by it – until in the final painting, we see only one hand frantically trying to claw its way out.
The woman, of course, is supposed to be Akta-Hildesheim herself.
“My paintings deal with the pain in my heart, and all of the painful experiences in my life,” she says. “Painting for me is as much psychological as artistic. I bring out all of the sorrows, disappointments and frustrations I have experienced. I paint to deal with my life.”
Here is where it gets complicated, however, because while the paintings are all about her, they are not paintings of her.
“I cannot paint myself,” she explains. “The only [picture] I painted of myself was as a bride. That’s all. One day, maybe I will be able to paint myself. It’s too difficult [now].”
Thus while she is the subject of every one of her paintings, the models for the paintings are Akta-Hildesheim’s children, aged 17, 15 and nine.
Thus, we not only see a daughter as the woman trapped in her bridal veil, we see several paintings of the same girl naked and trapped in a crushingly small space – a coffin, or perhaps a marriage. Some paintings show the girl struggling to get out; others render her as hopeless, huddled tightly with her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms around her legs.
The daughter is in the paintings, but the paintings portray the artist, with all of the artist’s emotional traumas and scars projected onto her child.
Other paintings show a younger girl. In one, she has been found hiding in a large box or steamer trunk. Her facial expression and hand gesture beg the viewer not to reveal where she is hidden. Another painting shows her sitting on what appears to be an oriental carpet, gazing up at the viewer with a look of abject loneliness.
“That’s my daughter – but it’s me,” explains the artist.
Instead of canvas, Akta-Hildesheim paints with oil on linen, which seems to make the painted images sharper and more compelling; she says it makes them “harsher.” Most of her paintings are untitled.
She explains: “Titles tend to be a large part of the viewer’s first impression of a painting.
Sometimes they can overly influence the viewer’s experience. I want the actual painting to speak for itself.”
With all the good things going on in her life at present, one wonders if it might not be time for the award-winning, Paris-bound and newly married Akta-Hildesheim to start painting happier pictures.
“I have been told I have to start painting happy subjects,” she acknowledges, with laughter. “I am a happy person, but there are still things I have to deal with, and work through. There are still old wounds.
“It is a very long process. A picture sometimes takes me as long as two years. The many hours I spend involve making a dialogue with the painting.”
“A dialogue with the painting?” “All the time,” she replies. “I resolve a lot of issues through my paintings, and with my paintings.”