LEAH RAAB with her self-portrait. (photo credit: Rena Bannet)
LEAH RAAB with her self-portrait. (photo credit: Rena Bannet)

Leah Raab, an American-Israeli painter, documents her life and surroundings through her artwork using artist’s tools, not much unlike a journalist who documents scenes through text. Her signature themes include lungs, landscapes, turtles, umbrellas and mirrors. 

Mirrors that reflect houses in a distorted way on the streets of Ra’anana and New York City are the subject of her current exhibition in Ra’anana titled “It All Begins at Home.” In an interview with the Magazine, Raab reveals what fascinates her about reflections. She also talks about her constant need for painting and capturing her emotions and the world around her. During the COVID-19 period, she painted masked people receiving vaccinations and participating in Zoom sessions. She reversed our new normal; Raab moved our online reality back to traditional art, from the selfie on social media to the canvas.

Raab studied at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem when she first moved to Israel with her parents. Studying art at Bezalel fulfilled her dream of studying art in Jerusalem. She continued her art education in the United States at the University of New Hampshire, Durham; Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia; and, following a long break, at New York Studio School, where she obtained her master’s degree at age 60. She exhibits in the US and Israel, and for over 35 years she has taught art.


With your latest exhibition ‘It All Begins at Home,’ anyone who hasn’t been to New York City or Ra’anana could basically visit both places but through the reflections in the convex mirrors. A very subjective tour. How did you come up with that idea?

The first time I was drawn to the concept was in Jerusalem. I was going down to the Kotel [Western Wall], and I saw the Old City reflected in the mirror. To me, it was like the past and the present because you see what’s behind you, and you are going toward the future. And not only do you see the past, but it’s a distorted image. I started to notice mirrors everywhere I went, and the reflections were fascinating. I loved the distortions in them. I painted reflections of the streets of New York and Israel – my life between these two places. I moved to Israel four times in my life.

When you said that, I saw a long bridge.

Maybe bridges will be my next theme. [laughs] The whole idea of looking at a mirror is not the truth. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you don’t see yourself the way I look at you.

You said that you must look back in the mirror in order to go to the future, but often people say the opposite, ‘Don’t look back.’

It’s true. But this is a distorted image. Not real. You are only looking at yourself for a reference. I painted all the convex mirrors in Ra’anana, the city where I have been living in recent years. I am captivated by the jigsaw-like puzzle-pieces of the buildings forming geometric configurations, the meeting between new and old constructions.

How often do you look in a mirror yourself? 

Not often, because I am aging. I felt my age when I went back to school. I got my master’s at age 60. And I thought I should have done it in my thirties or twenties. But you can’t plan your life… I don’t have any regrets. I was always painting. Even when I had my three children and was busy with them at home, I always found the time to paint. For example, I did the painting of the pile of dirty dishes and baby bottles in the sink. I thought: ‘Should I wash them or paint them first?’ I also painted my children and now my grandchildren, but not family portraits. I am not that kind of grandmother. I paint their interactions.

Your paintings reflect and document not only the lives of others but also your very personal experiences. You express them in unusual themes such as turtles and lungs…

I spent years painting lungs. My mother, Ruth Poll, died of lung cancer. She was an artist and my biggest inspiration. I learned so much from her, and I admired her work. She encouraged me to go to Bezalel. After she died, I painted images of lungs for many years.

Was it a form of therapy for you?

Yes… although I don’t want to call it therapy; rather, it’s a way of understanding. I called them inner landscapes because it was a way of understanding what was happening to my mother inside the body. I just started instinctively to paint lungs. It was not planned. And I was never planning to show these paintings to anybody or exhibit them. I thought it would be disrespectful. But one day, my sister came to visit me and she was looking through my paintings as she always does. She pulled one out and said, ‘Leah, what is this? That’s Mom, isn’t it?’

That’s powerful…

I was embarrassed. I thought it was disrespectful to my mother. I was ready to paint something else over them (I often do that; I reuse the same canvas), but my sister convinced me to keep them. In a way, she gave me permission to show them.

During those years, did you focus only on lungs or did you paint other themes as well?

For many years, mostly lungs. It was like an obsession. I also painted landscapes. They always spoke to me and also were giving me some rest from the hard stuff. Later on, the lungs became turtles.

What was the connection?

At some point, it was enough [with the lungs]. I think also people were bored with them. At that time, we were going back to America. We were leaving Israel again, and I thought – not for the first time in my life – ‘Where is my home? Where do I belong?’ And at that moment, the lungs turned into turtles. And out of the two turtles came another being. I called it ‘Mutation.’

They say that turtles are one of the oldest creatures in the world. Do you think that when you converted lungs – the part of your mother – into something that old, you wanted to give her some eternity?

I never thought of it that way, but I love it. I love that interpretation! I’m sorry I didn’t think of it myself. It’s really beautiful.

And the turtle carries its home and moves with you around the world.

I suppose… I love when my work is open to interpretation. I cannot take credit for it, but I love when people see other things in my paintings. It just proves I have to paint what I experience and what affects me.

In the painting ‘Stuck,’ also with the turtle motif, there are pieces of furniture inside the turtle.

Yes, because I couldn’t take my furniture when we moved back to America. I am not a materialistic person, but there are things you get attached to, and I had to leave them behind. So I brought them inside of me that way. I keep moving, and it’s traumatic for me. Every time I move to a new place, I must start over – again. No one saves your place of work. Even though I started at Bezalel, exhibiting and selling my paintings, I left for America for many years; and when I came back to Israel in 1999, I just started all over again.

Apart from paintings, I also make collages. The latest collage is called Baggage. It’s a reflection in a store window of a suitcase, me and…

…and a turtle.

There was a mannequin of a turtle and a suitcase in the store window. How perfect was that!? It seemed to ask ‘Where am I going?’

 ‘MINNIE MEETS Elmo in Times Square.’ (credit: LEAH RAAB) ‘MINNIE MEETS Elmo in Times Square.’ (credit: LEAH RAAB)

This is really your journey. Your reflection in this painting looks like you were leaving Anatevka in the last scene of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’… 

Yes [laughs]. It was cold and windy that day… I had recently seen saw Fiddler on the Roof at the theater. There is a similarity… But turtles are not just about me. The first painting of a turtle was connected also to ecology; they suffered from straws and plastic bags. The turtles in my paintings were also responding to the bombing in Sderot [south Israel] because when a turtle is on its back, it is exposed and vulnerable. Just like people during an attack. I paint what I see and experience. After 9/11, which I saw on TV, I was traumatized, So I painted it, too.

Your art touches upon very difficult, intense subjects, often directly referring to your personal experiences, while other times documenting the reality around you. There are situations you notice on the street that also involve people, where all of a sudden there is Minnie and Elmo in Times Square. A very imaginative vision. It made me smile.

I really saw them in Times Square. I thought it was so funny. People dress up there as cartoon characters, and tourists pose for pictures with them. I painted them just as I painted other people. Living for a few years in New York, going back to art school, having access to all the galleries and museums were fascinating to me. I took pictures with my phone, and then painted what I saw. Minnie and Elmo were just there.

You also noticed umbrellas… 

If a turtle was my home, the umbrella is an extension of that. Umbrellas are sheltering. I go back to umbrellas a lot, but they started in New York. It was about groups of people I saw on the street. While we were in NY, there was the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh [2018]. I remember watching the funeral on TV. It was raining, and people were standing under umbrellas. Religious, not religious – people were standing together under colorful umbrellas. That moved me a lot, so I painted it. Every terror attack in Israel affects me. Every siren when we are under attack. I did a painting about that, too. When the siren went off, I could not go back to sleep; I painted the sky… It’s a collective experience. Something happens to the Jewish people, and I paint it. Painting is my way of understanding.

Another collective experience that you documented in the last few years were the masks, vaccines and Zoom sessions. People were posting selfies on social media, and you reversed the reality; you moved the online world to the traditional canvas. 

They sent me their selfies because they wanted me to paint them.

They want to be remembered in these circumstances… Did you start painting the COVID reality because you wanted to be in the moment or because you thought it would soon be over and you wanted to document it for the future, as a historian?

I document my life. When I went for a walk every morning, that is what I saw. People wearing masks. People prayed outside when the synagogues were closed. They were so lonely. When I was getting the vaccination, I could see only myself and my husband. That’s all I could paint. And then my friends and relatives started to send me photos of their vaccinations. It was fascinating. It was almost like looking into a private room.

Do they hang those paintings in their living rooms, showing the vaccinations? 

That’s a good question. I must ask my friend who bought my painting where she hung it.

People were posting their moments of vaccinations online, but it would be different to look at a painting of it hung on a wall during a Shabbat dinner, for example.

But again, I am documenting my life, and it is not always pleasant. Not only vaccines; my mother’s [bouts with] lung cancer – I painted lungs. I sold a few lung paintings, and I am not sure if they are hung in their dining room, where they are eating… But they bought them.

Do you paint when you feel the need or do you have certain hours when you paint?

I try to paint every day, even when I don’t feel the need because it’s a discipline. I consider it my job. I teach because of parnasa (an income), but I have to paint. Every day is different. I wake up very early, at 4 or 5. Sometimes I think of something and I must paint it right away, so I go straight to the studio. Sometimes I go to the studio at 6 a.m. and paint till 11 at night. Some days I work only five or six hours. When I don’t paint, I get anxious.

You keep Shabbat, so what do you do on Shabbat? 

I am frustrated. I go for walks on Shabbatot and see the most interesting sights and inspiration on Shabbat, but I cannot paint them [because of the halachot].

How do you store those images?

Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes straight after Shabbat, I go to my studio to paint what I saw. But often I am too tired after Shabbat, especially when it’s over late.

If you would compare your paintings now to when you were a student at Bezalel, is it the same person?

I think inside I am the same person. I have much more knowledge and experience, but my feelings are the same. I was looking at my early work and was surprised at how mature I was. Some of the themes I did then are relevant today. Mirrors, reflections. I paint because I don’t talk. I have trouble expressing myself with words. When I was doing my master’s, there was a course called Words for the Wordless. That was me. I felt like my work was self-explanatory. When I have an exhibition, I feel like I am exposing myself.

In your last exhibition, you looked back in order to see the future. In the current group exhibition in Ra’anana, at the Agam Gallery (open until October 2), we can see the scenes you captured in New York and Israel. What are your plans now? What does your mirror tell you?

We are going to Morocco to celebrate my and my husband’s 70th birthday this year. We got married in 1974. He was always very encouraging of my work. I can’t wait for this trip – the views. I will have all new colors and a whole new theme!

I’m looking forward to seeing it at your future exhibitions. Thank you for speaking with me. ■

More about the artist and her current exhibition: www.leahraab.com

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