The full picture

Evelyn Walg is presenting her first solo exhibition at 72, but she has been painting since she was 11.

‘Spring Arrived,’ 521 (photo credit: Images courtesy of Evelyn Walg)
‘Spring Arrived,’ 521
(photo credit: Images courtesy of Evelyn Walg)
‘This is my very first interview,” says artist Evelyn Walg as we sit down to discuss her “very first” solo exhibition, “People in Motion.” This exhibition, currently on display at the Efrat Gallery in Tel Aviv, shows 16 paintings the likes of which you have probably never seen before. And while words like “interesting” and “unusual” are often the kiss of death when used as compliments, they speak well of Walg’s depictions of lonely, alienated people reaching out to each other and trying to draw closer together.
Whatever way you respond to these paintings, you will doubtlessly walk away from “People in Motion” realizing that you have just seen something truly original, and wondering why this artist, now 72, has never had a solo exhibition before this.
The road that has led Walg to this point in her life has been long and winding, with many an unexpected turn, reflecting the tumult and trauma in the lives of so many European Jews in the past century. Walg was born in Belgium at the start of World War II. Her father was Dutch, her mother was Polish. Both parents realized that flight was imperative as the Germans quickly advanced.
“I was a baby when I left Europe. It was at the beginning of the war,” Walg recalls. “My parents were lucky enough to escape, but in a very hard way – over the Pyrenees by foot, with me in their arms. I don’t remember much about what happened, but I have flashes. My parents didn’t have any papers, so my father had to go to jail because on the train they caught him without papers. My mother sat next to somebody from the Spanish army, and the authorities thought they were together, so that’s why she was saved. So we stayed in Madrid for a long time until my father came out of jail,” she recounts.
“Because my father was a Dutch citizen, we were able to go to Curaçao, a Dutch island in the Caribbean. But before getting there, we had to stop in Jamaica, in a refugee camp. My sister Leni was born in that refugee camp. From there we went to Curaçao, a very nice place, but very hot. My parents were desperate because my small sister wasn’t eating because of the hot climate there. She was sick. So we had to move.”
Venezuela welcomed the family with open arms. After a while, however, Walg’s parents decided to try to move the family again, this time to the US. While traveling to scout out a prospective new home in Los Angeles, the parents were killed in an airplane crash, leaving the girls orphaned in Venezuela – Evelyn at boarding school, and Leni in the care of a cousin. Attempting to deal with the twin traumas of sudden loss and the abrupt end of her childhood, Walg turned to art.
“At the age of 11, I had to learn how to survive on my own and to take responsibility for my younger sister. I had to be strong and go on with my life, without the love, support and guidance of my parents. My way of expressing my feelings was through the painting classes at school, which I loved very much. The paintings could say what I could not say in words,” says Walg. Even today, she says, “When I paint, I abstract myself. It’s a way for me to fly, to not be here. When my husband was very sick, I could not go out much because I wanted to take care of him. So I used to sit out on the balcony and paint.”
IT WAS in school where Walg met her first art teacher, the C a t a l a n painter Miguel Renom. His encouragement and support were crucial, she says, in forming her passion for art. She won first prize in an art competition at school, while continuing to develop as a painter. After completing high school, Walg studied interior design at Centro Artistico Villamsil de Leon. More painting classes followed, with Belgian painter Marcela Haye in Caracas. Remaining in Venezuela, Walg married an Israeli, and the couple had three children and seven grandchildren. In the early 2000s, Walg’s husband died. Her children, now grown, decided to move from Venezuela to the US.
“I lived a long time in Venezuela, until [President] Mr. Hugo Chavez arrived. And my children left. When my children left, I was a widow already. What was I to do alone in Venezuela with that man in the government? So I came to Israel. I fell in love with the country. I stayed six months. And I made wonderful friends,” Walg says.
And though she eventually left Israel to live in Miami, closer to her children, Walg’s heart remains here. “I love Israel. And that’s why my first solo exhibition had to be here.”
Asked why this exhibition is coming only now, at this relatively late date, after almost a lifetime of painting, Walg cites pressure from friends to properly showcase her talent and display her work. After many years of painting and only rarely letting anyone see her previous works painted in a style she calls “whimsical realism,” Walg began creating the kind of paintings she is showing in this exhibition “around four or five years ago,” she says.
However much they differ from each other, the paintings that make up “People in Motion” all conform to the same stylistic motif: The viewer looks down from an elevated perspective – sort of a bird’s-eye view – upon groups of little people below. The people, dressed in a variety of colors, are all without faces. Regardless of what the little people are doing below – running, dancing, bicycling or reaching out to touch someone else – the viewer sees only the backs of their heads. No faces.
“I don’t have many influences,” Walg says. “I like surrealism and fantasy. I am free-spirited and don’t like to go by the book. I fly.”
Referring to the paintings in her exhibition, she says, “I don’t have a name for this. It is simply my art. It’s realism and surrealism, juxtaposed together. Like in this painting, the trees and the steps are real, but the people are not. And I choose happy colors because that is what I would like the world to be.”
What is wrong with the world as it is? “I find that people are very far apart from each other. When you have a birthday, you get a thousand congratulations because of Facebook, Twitter, etc., etc., etc., and you are home alone at night. Everybody is in contact, and nobody is together. And that’s what I try to address. Most of these paintings have people touching each other, people being together. People leaning on each other’s shoulders, looking for a helping hand,” she says.
“These are people in movement,” Walg adds. “If you look at them well, you can see yourself in one of them, if you want to. I take special care to give each of my little people his or her own distinct personality. There is even occasionally the odd rebel, one who is running away, who does not want to touch or be touched.”
Why do the little people have no faces? “Because we are all anonymous. We each live within ourselves, but we need to be together with others. We belong to a group. We cannot be isolated. If we are isolated, we are unhappy and we will become monsters.”
So do these paintings depict “the lonely crowd” finally coming together?
“Yes,” says Walg, “in order to no longer be lonely.”
“People in Motion” is showing until April 3 at the Efrat Gallery, 21 Gordon Street, Tel Aviv. Tel (03) 523-7624. Gallery hours: Monday to Thursday: 11 to 1 and 5 to 7; Friday 11 to 1.