The journey from accounting to watercolor artist

Making aliya in stages leads to a satisfying new career

George Freudenstein (photo credit: Courtesy)
George Freudenstein
(photo credit: Courtesy)
George Freudenstein’s voice exudes passion as he speaks about three masters who have inspired him in his work. Those who know Freudenstein, 63, from his career as a financial professional in the United States might imagine that he is speaking of business titans, such as Warren Buffett or Carl Icahn, or perhaps Milton Friedman, the world-famous economist.
But these days, Freudenstein’s heroes are not financial stars, but rather famous artists, such as Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper.
Ask Freudenstein what his profession is today, and he replies, “watercolor painter.”
Freudenstein was born in New York City and grew up in Lakewood, New Jersey. He recalls the town, which would later become famous as the home of the Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva outside Israel, was in those days “a small American town, with a shul, mikve, shohet [ritual slaughterer] and a day school.”
In 1970 the family moved to Riverdale, New York. Freudenstein graduated from Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy, and attended New York University. In the fall of 1973, he took a break from college to study at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, where he spent the next year and a half. In Israel, he dated his future wife, Riki, and returned to the States in 1975, where they married, and he resumed his studies at Baruch College.
Freudenstein displayed aptitude in music and art, forming a popular band in his college years and drawing and sculpting in different media. As a child, despite not having any formal training, he was able to draw better than most other kids, he says. Nevertheless, he chose the more practical field of accounting, because “I understood that if you want to eat, you can’t be in the arts.”
Freudenstein became a certified public accountant and was the chief accounting officer of a large, municipal- bond insurance company. In August 1986, George and Riki moved to Israel with their three daughters, arriving first at the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion and eventually moving to the Ramot Bet neighborhood of Jerusalem.
While the family quickly adapted to life in Israel, Freudenstein’s professional transition was not as smooth. “When I came in 1986, I naively believed that I would find something to do. I was a qualified professional. But I did no advance spade work to made sure I had a place to go.”
He tried his hand at several things that were loosely connected to his previous work – economics, quantitative analysis, independent consulting – but none of those activities bore fruit. “I found myself after five or six years in a situation where my family had integrated themselves into Israeli life and were flourishing, but I was not very happy. I was not actualizing my potential.”
He considered looking for work outside Israel and wrote to the founder of the company where had first worked, who had since founded a mortgage- guarantee insurance company.
Impressed with Freudenstein’s skills, he asked him to become chief financial officer of the new company, but there was one problem – he would have to move to Chicago. Says Freudenstein, “The job opportunity was both a blessing and a curse. It was great that we had the opportunity, but my family was devastated that we were going to leave.”
The Freudensteins and their children reluctantly moved to Chicago. They rented out their Jerusalem home, with the proviso that they would return each summer, to ensure that the family’s connections with Israel would remain active.
The Freudensteins spent five years in Chicago, from 1992 until 1997, before returning to Israel. George was successful in his new job, and together with business acquaintances made in Chicago, brought the first mortgage-guarantee insurance product to Israel. He remained with his Israeli company, EMI, until 2005, and worked with insurance conglomerate AIG as a consultant.
By 2008, he had completely exited his business and was financially secure, allowing him to pursue his lifelong passions.
“I had a lot of interests and hobbies that for most of my professional life I had put on hold, so I said to myself, this would be a great opportunity.”
Freudenstein produced a CD of Jewish music that he had composed over the past 30 years. He enjoyed the experience, but his inexperience in sales and marketing in the field left him with 800 unsold disks in his attic. He dabbled with writing and music, but ultimately all the other things fell by the wayside, and painting, what he calls his “real love,” was left. He attended classes in watercolor painting in Jerusalem and his work improved. He enjoys painting immensely and began to paint at home, outside the regular classes.
In January 2013, he held the first public exhibition of his work. He began to take his work even more seriously, and spent increasing amounts of time improving his skills. Freudenstein does not draw abstract scenes, but paints realistic images from photographs using watercolors.
Initially, he painted pictures of interesting scenes from his journeys – New York, Tuscany, Amsterdam and others.
Nowadays, he says, he paints images of exclusively Israeli scenes, depicting what he calls “local color” in scenes of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other places.
Speaking with great enthusiasm, he explains, “What I am interested in doing is capturing the atmosphere of a location, by showing a typical local type, doing some local activity in a local setting.” An exhibit of Freudenstein’s paintings, titled “Local Color,” was shown at the Jerusalem Theater earlier this year.
Freudenstein says that his daily painting sessions can last from two hours to eight, with a couple of breaks in between.
He completes about a dozen paintings per year and has had 16 exhibitions so far. As an active grandfather of 11, he devotes a good deal of his time to his family, which he says are all “part of his team.” His son, Shmuel, snaps the photographs which George uses as his subjects, and daughter Yael, a graphic artist, designs the graphics for his exhibitions.
What does his family think of his artistic career? “It wasn’t clear to them,” he says, “that it would be anything.
Now, they see it is not just a little hobby… When you do enough of this, there is some validation.”
With a trace of wistfulness, he concludes, “Notwithstanding their success, almost every work-related activity that I’ve ever engaged in has come and gone.
The accounting firm merged with another company. The municipal bonds company disappeared. The company in Chicago merged and became something else. I am hoping that there is something that I am supposed to have done that has left a mark here. Maybe it’s the painting.”