From a distance, Helen Ann Licht’s paintings are so bright, so colorful, you’d think they’d belong in a contemporary art museum.
Instead, they are on display at a museum of biblical archaeology.
That’s because Licht, of Lafayette, paints ancient stories based on the Bible, but with a contemporary approach. Two dozen of her paintings are now on display at the Badé Museum in Berkeley, and another painting will be in an exhibit opening today at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.
Her paintings are vivid and playful, as though a box of 64 crayons melted onto her canvases. She creates her work in an Oakland studio, housed in a nondescript cinder block building just under the BART tracks.
Inside, she has hundreds of painted canvases and one wooden easel. Some of her paintings are as big as a dining room table; some are as small as a laptop. They are all stored in plastic wrap, stacked like books on a shelf.
Licht grew up in Weiser, Idaho, a small town known as the fiddling capital of the world for its annual fiddling competition and festival. Her family was one of five Jewish families in town. Her mother ran a Sunday school out of her basement
Licht arrived in the Bay Area as a college freshman at Stanford University. She became fast friends with other Jewish students (they still see each other many decades later) and they often went to art museums together. She graduated with a degree in history, then lived and worked as a travel agent in San Francisco for several years.
Not until she was 37 years old, when her three children were all school-age, did she begin painting. Her first art class: “Bible and Art” at her synagogue, Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah.
“I thought it would be a good subject matter,” she recalled, “that would allow me to paint whimsical things.”
After showing her work at a number of street festivals and galleries, she decided she needed more formal training. She went back to school and earned a second undergraduate degree in studio art and art history from U.C. Berkeley.
In 2007, Licht self-published “The Many Colored Bible,” a collection of her Torah-inspired paintings with short explanations of the related stories adjacent to each print.
Three years before that, she contacted the Badé Museum about displaying her biblical art. The curator liked her work, and scheduled the show for 2009. At the time Licht felt that sounded like “the end of the world,” so she is thrilled the exhibit has finally come to fruition.
The paintings tell stories in the Buddhist and Jewish traditions. They were inspired by the Torah and the artist’s travels to India and Burma.
Torah stories show images of Jonah and the whale, Jacob’s ladder, Joseph’s coat of many colors and the temptation of Eve.
Though Licht studies the Torah before embarking on painting a biblical scene, “These all come from my imagination,” she said. “I don’t try for realism.”
Since she rarely travels with canvas and paint, the paintings inspired by India and Burma are also based on Licht’s imagination (and memory).
For instance, one painting shows a beautiful Buddha sitting in front of flowers and several male monks. On the canvas, Licht wrote “Ladies are prohibited.”
That painting is based on a true story.
“My husband and I went to a Buddhist temple, and he was allowed to lay gold on the Buddha, but I was not because of a sign that said ladies were prohibited from giving an offering,” she said.
Fortunately, that same lady is not prohibited from showing her art.
Helen Ann Licht’s Bible and Buddha paintings and prints are on display at the Badé Museum at the Pacific School of Religion, 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley. Museum hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., or by appointment. For more information, call (510) 849-8286.
Emanu-El exhibit brings return of past artist
Helen Ann Licht will display her paintings alongside other Jewish painters, sculptors and metalsmiths at an exhibit opening today at the Elizabeth S. and Alvin I. Fine Museum at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., San Francisco “Old Friends, New Work” will be on display through June 1.
Artists featured in the exhibit have all shown at the Fine Museum in the past. They are: Harriete Estel Berman, Kate E. Black, Bruce Chaban, Aimee Golant, Archie Granot, Laurie Gross, Lane Davidson Heldfond, Elizabeth Kavaler, Licht, Liz Mamorsky, Merl Ross, Morris Sachs and Beth Weissman.
The museum galleries are open to visitors during docent hours, Tuesday to Thursday, 1 to 3 p.m. or by appointment.On weekends, when synagogue offices are closed, the galleries remain open to those attending religious services or participating in religious education classes.
For more information, call (415) 751-2535.