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INTERVIEW Artist, Ellen Lefrak


Ellen Lefrak at work in her studio in Dooncastle, Westport.
?Ellen Lefrak at work in her studio in Dooncastle, Westport.

Tones of character

Ciara Moynihan

Like the music of the jazz artists she paints, her work is full of bold, confidently asserted tones that could clash, but somehow don’t. And, like the music, her paintings pulse with movement, life and character.  
Born into a Jewish family in Yonkers, New York, Ellen Lefrak has been coming to Ireland every year since the 1980s. She now splits her time between Jerusalem and her studio in Dooncastle, Westport – a converted cow shed, complete with pot-belly stove. Her New York twang is strong. Jewish mannerisms and turns of phrase gently accent her speech and body language.   
“Growing up in Yonkers was good. It’s a fairly big place, but because it’s so close to New York City, it never really developed. I would be out on the street playing my whole childhood.
“My mother could draw, she could paint … My father was musical, and my brother was brilliant musically. He played the piano. He had perfect pitch. I played the flute, and if I was playing the wrong note on the other side of the house, he’d shout at me to tell me which note I should be playing,” she recalls, laughing.
Ellen now rarely plays the flute, but music was to remain an influence her whole life – as a muse for art. After school, she studied at the Tyler School of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, before travelling to Israel in 1962. She graduated with a degree in archaeology and Jewish history in 1968 and led a team of archaeologists at the first ever excavation of the Southern Wall in Jerusalem, where she worked for five years. In 1972, she returned to art full-time, enrolling in the Bezalel Acadamy of Arts in Jerusalem, receiving a degree in Fine Arts in 1976.
The road to her artistic career, and even her decision to move to Israel, was not without bumps, however. Her family back in New York had only wanted her to stay for one year, and her mother had different ideas about her life’s direction.  
“My mother wanted me to be a teacher, because that was her big dream in life, but her mother said ‘Oh teachers don’t get married!’ and forced her to do a commercial course. So she was resentful … and she thought I should be a teacher. But I kept saying, ‘Don’t try to do to me what your mother did to you. I’ve no desire to be a teacher.’”
Ironically, Ellen has wound up regularly imparting her knowledge to (mostly) willing students. “Today I do teach, but I’m not good with kids … I’m terrible with discipline, absolutely terrible! But with adults it’s a pleasure; I learn from them too. But yes, I discovered I quite like teaching in the end.”
Life in Israel during the 1960s was, Ellen says, ‘quite quiet’. “Well, Israel is always volatile, but it was quiet enough, although ’67 – the big war – that period was extremely tense.” She can recall when air-raid sirens would sound, when air-raid shelters would be packed with children only, when adults would cower in ditches by their houses.
Despite living in Jerusalem through turbulent times, and despite her interest in archaeology, Ellen has chosen to paint people. Social and political commentary is eschewed, man-made structures rarely appear – unless you count instruments. “I’m political in that I have my opinions, but I’m not ‘political, political’,” she explains.
“During a lot of wars, there are artists who get in there, and they’re doing things war-related and they’re making exhibitions… I can’t create in that sort of environment. The last thing I would want to do in the middle of a war is to do something related to being in a war. Art is an escape too, you know?”
Music is also an escape for many. Perhaps that is why Ellen is drawn to capturing those who make it. “First of all it’s the music, and the colourful people and what they wear, and the lights,” she says. “But it’s also that they’re creating in front of you. That I find fascinating.
“I always like to capture people not when they’re looking at the camera smiling, but when they’re lost in what they’re doing.
“When I first left college, I used to do a lot of paintings of old people on park benches, that sort of thing. It sort of fed into my later work. They had great, strong lines.”
Ellen’s love of the strong line is striking, and a natural progression too from years of working in silk screen. Now she works mostly in pastels and oils.
She has also recently branched out from figurative art to embrace landscape painting. Her landscapes are as distinctive, and as full of movement, colour and character, as her people-centred artworks.  
“Before, I never even dreamt of doing landscape … But here in the west, the landscape just spoke to me … I know I see it differently to others. I see all the bright greens. A lot of people see the black clouds and the darkness; I see the colour. I’m probably looking at it with a Mediterranean eye,” she says.
Ellen’s take on landscape is a refreshing reminder to never feel hemmed in by over-familiar surroundings, there’s escape there too: The west’s ever-changing light and weather mean that the view is never static. “I like when you’re sitting outside here, and it changes all the time. You can play with it, ’cause it’s already gone, what you saw two seconds ago,” Ellen says, wistfully. Itching to capture the fleeting moment.

Ellen Lefrak has exhibited in Ireland, Israel and the US. She has published two books of images – ‘The Irish Connection’ and ‘Jazz Gallery’.
For more information on Lefrak, her work or her courses, visit www.ellen-lefrak.com or email ellefrak@yahoo.com.