Taking a ‘Life Journey’ With Unusual Twists

"I always thought everyone was like me," admitted Arina Engelmann, whose current exhibit, "Life Journey," can be seen through May 26 at Obix Gallery in Old City.

Clearly, she was different.

Born in Cologne, Germany, 45 years ago and growing up as a Catholic, it was not until she was a teenager – and living in Jerusalem – that she discovered her Jewish roots.

"When you''re a child, you''re occupied with yourself, you live in your own bubble," stated the artist.

Her story goes back generations to her grandmother, Anna Marie Kunigsburger, who married Marcel Guggenheim (yes, of that famous Guggenheim family) after fleeing to Switzerland when the Nazis came to power in Germany. She was 19 at the time. From there, she took refuge in Milan, Italy, and then in France.

To keep her daughter, Engelmann''s mother, safe, she hid her in a convent in France. There she was raised as a Catholic.

When World War II ended, after coming to the United States, the family then returned to Germany where Engelmann was born. She grew up believing she was a German Catholic, attending Catholic school and going to church in Germany.

"We celebrated Christmas, with a tree and a fire in the fireplace. I loved Christmas," she said in a recent interview.

When Engelmann was just 7, her parents'' marriage dissolved, and her mother took her and her 3-year-old sister to Israel. The girls'' maternal grandmother also relocated to Jerusalem from the United States.

"It was just for a while, I thought. I had liked it there, in Germany. It was a nice time in the ''60s," she reflected. "We had Beatles parties, playing their music. The German people were trying to forget what they had done. Life was a picnic."

It was only in Israel that Englemann came to the realization that her mother, and her grandmother, were Jewish.

Thus began her "Life Journey," which resonates in the current exhibit of her painting.

Always a Painter
Engelmann had always painted. Her grandmother – now 90 and still living in Jerusalem – is a poet and an artist; her mother, too, is an artist and encouraged her daughter to do the same.

"In the beginning, I painted in black and white. When I was small, the Holocaust was something far away, something I saw in the movies, always black and white and so far away. There was no color.

"I tried to be loyal to my faith. My mother said Jesus was good and to stick with Christianity. I decided I would give Judaism a chance, but first I wanted to learn everything I could about Christianity. That was hard to do in Israel."

She remembers seeing a child eating matzah and wondering what this strange flat food was. In sixth grade, she began studying with a priest who came to her house. "He taught me Christianity and brought me lots of chocolates. Then he''d ask me to paint the lessons I''d learned in my pictures."

After art school, she spent two years in the Israeli army, and then embarked on her pursuit of Jewish philosophy and religion.

Her paintings reflect her spiritual odyssey. In her artist''s statement, Engelmann has said, "Our world is composed of pieces of reality, and our eyes put these pieces together to form one picture."

Her linear brushstrokes in works like "West" and "Unreachable" suggest the fragments she is asking our eyes to synthesize. A child of the world, she has lived in more countries than many have visited, and her canvases confirm her ongoing fascination with place – and places. They also document the evolution of her use of color.

White, and especially black, are still a strong presence, but Engelmann has also moved on, finding her way with a much fuller palette. Slowly, she let the colors come in, first blue then yellow.

"All of my colors came gradually," she described.

But red, however, was the last: "It was somehow too happy, too bright and bold."

It found its way, boldly, but more menacing than mirthful, into the blood red sky and large droplets at the center of "Red City," which perhaps represents Tel Aviv after the shooting of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "I felt Israel had changed. The sky is crying."

Her series of canvases depicting some of the cities to which she has traveled has served as a way for Engelmann to get away from what she calls "the ping-pong of Judaism and Christianity that''s consumed much of her life. When you''re building a city, it has to be straight and strong to hold it up."

Not unlike the artist herself.



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