Look at the 35 pieces on display at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill and you’ll notice painting techniques appearing over and over: fiber paper applied to the canvas for texture, or paint applied with a rough wad of paper instead of a brush.
But look again and notice how the techniques are used differently from piece to piece. In this one, the rough, organic texture of the fiber paper compliments an abstract geometric design. In this one, the texture subtly reinforces the quiet image of birch trees at dusk.
“They’re all different, but they all reflect a technique Lila taught,” said Barbara Rosenstein, whose husband, Yale Rosenstein, painted the forest scene, called “Trees.”
Yale Rosenstein and the 23 other students — a spectrum of ages, backgrounds and experience levels — learned the techniques from Lila Hirsch Brody, who began teaching her acrylic painting class 36 years ago. Some of her students have been with her nearly that long, drawn to her optimism about life and art, the encouraging classroom atmosphere she creates and her techniques. Their work is on display through Sept. 2.
“People don’t leave this class,” said M.J. Galanter, who started taking the class more than 15 years ago. The reason? In each class, Hirsch Brody lets slip a few tricks of her trade.
“Nobody teaches technique,” Galanter said. “Artists guard their techniques like family slander.”
Galanter’s piece, “Cosmic Conundrum,” looks like a Hubble Telescope image as imagined by abstract expressionists; yellow and white columns rise in a blue and purple expanse. The paint is dabbed, so that the colors merge and overlap into a vibrant whole.
Zivi Aviraz also started the class as an amateur, and now considers herself a professional artist. She came to Pittsburgh from Israel as a community shaliach years ago, and then moved here.
Aviraz painted a seven-canvas work called “Into the Future,” a series of yellow and orange angles floating on a backdrop of deep blue and black. The inspiration, Aviraz said, came from photographs of yellow and orange futuristic cars in an auto magazine.
“I used the motion of the car, and I abstracted it,” Aviraz said.
Learning new techniques forms the basis of each class, Aviraz said.
“Lila brings a painting, and she takes it backward,” Aviraz said. Backward, meaning: deconstructing it step by step to show how the finish work came from a blank canvas.
Hirsch Brody’s work involves many such layers. For “Nature’s Purple Party,” she soaked strips of canvas in chemicals to make the material malleable, and twisted the pieces into various forms and shapes, which she glued onto a board and painted, creating a pink, blue and purple tree rising from the flat surface like bits of bark.
“Why would you want to paint a green tree or a brown tree,” she asked, “when you could paint a purple tree?”
Some of her students set off on similar adventures.
Jerry Wolfson poured acrylic paint onto wax paper, cut the dried pieces into different shapes and glued them onto a canvas, creating “Implosion,” which more closely resembles a collage than a traditional painting.
Every year, Hirsch Brody’s class culminates with an exhibition of her students’ work. It’s a diverse group. Hirsch Brody likes to mix amateurs with experts, hoping students will learn from each other, as well as from her.
Hirsch Brody began the class at the encouragement of Anita Lopatin Smolover, a 43-year employee of the Jewish Community Center.
“She has a positive attitude and a joy of living,” said Smolover, noting the use of color in Hirsch Brody’s paintings.
That individual spirit is why Hirsch Brody doesn’t mind sharing her secrets, she said; she doesn’t believe its possible for one artist to capture the individual spirit of another artist.
“No one is going to do a ‘Lila Hirsch Brody,’” she said.
The classmates say they share more than just art in class. They share sorrows and joys, good times and bad times, sicknesses and simchot. As Denise Waldman, a seven-year veteran of the class, put it: “It’s not all about art. It’s also about heart.”
Hirsch Brody said that attitude is essential to her work.
“When I give up sharing, I’ll stop teaching,” she said. “Teaching is sharing.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)