Lori Loebelsohn enters other people’s lives at pivotal moments: a marriage, a milestone birthday, a bar mitzvah. Armed with a pen and notebook, she discusses intimate details about the inner lives of those she has just met: their passions, their most significant memories, their dreams.
She’s not a rabbi, nor is she a therapist or a life coach. Loebelsohn is an artist whose specialty is what she calls “life-cycle portraits”: personalized works of art that commemorate a special day while also reflecting upon an individual’s lifetime. Loebelsohn draws upon influences as varied as early American quilts, medieval Jewish papercuts, Celtic imagery and 17th-century ketubahs to create an original work rich in personal symbolism.
“I end up having these deep, enlightening discussions with these people I work for,” said Loebelsohn, of Glen Ridge, N.J. “I really feel like I’m a transmitter; I’m trying to transmit what they think is important.”
Loebelsohn recently completed her biggest project to date: illustrating a 20-page Haggadah created by an
85-year-old man who intended it to be a family heirloom. The project presented many challenges, the artist said, including interpreting her client’s specific ideas in a visual form and keeping a consistent style over a series of some 13 images.
But the biggest obstacle proved to be the rapidly deteriorating health of the family patriarch.
“This had been on his bucket list for years and years,” she said. “It gave him a sense of purpose in his old age.”
Over the course of their collaboration, which began in March of last year, the elderly man grew increasingly weak. The project became a race against the clock, as Loebelsohn worked tirelessly to finish the illustrations before the man’s final hour. He signed off on the last images in November and died the following month.
Loebelsohn met the extended family for the first time at the funeral. His family used the Haggadah this Passover.
“There was something very spiritual and deep in that relationship,” said Loebelsohn, noting the dual purpose of the Haggadah. “It’s a way of keeping the Jewish Passover story alive; it’s a way of keeping this man’s memory alive.”
It’s an extreme example, to be sure, but Loebelsohn is seasoned at working with families at momentous junctures in their lives. In addition to creating custom ketubahs, one of her more popular commissions is for bar and bat mitzvahs. She meets with her young clients and their parents to discuss the most meaningful aspects of their lives. Over the course of about six weeks, Loebelsohn creates an original painting. Typically a central image depicts that week’s Torah portion, and the painting is adorned with numerous personal symbols. Over the years she has incorporated images as diverse as musical notes and family pets, and once a Pittsburgh Steelers logo.
Looking back on her own life, Loebelsohn, 51, says that art — painting, in particular — was an early passion. Growing up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, “art was a big thing in my house,” she said.
Her father was a police officer, and her mother worked as an illustrator for high-end fashion magazines and retailers such as Vogue and Bergdorf Goodman. Loebelsohn recalls that couture evening gowns often were present in their home, even though the family was of modest means.
In 1982, Loebelsohn earned a degree in painting at Cooper Union in New York and embarked on a career as both an art teacher and an artist, working primarily on abstract paintings and, later, more realistic illustrations. In 1989 she earned a master’s degree in special education from Hunter College; since then she has worked part time as a learning specialist.
“I’m very passionate about my other career — teaching kids to read,” she said. “I love both my careers.”
The artist is hoping to complete a children’s book project, but acknowledges it’s been put on the back burner as she’s been steadily working on commissions since 2004.
A Reform Jew who was raised in a nonobservant home, Loebelsohn says her work has been a way to connect with her religion. “I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It’s been an evolution for me as an artist and a Jew.”
Her connections to her clients usually endure long after the painting is delivered. “It’s amazing, they’ll include me in their weddings and bar mitzvahs,” she said. “They tell me everything. I’m talking to them at these pivotal moments in their lives; I’m a part of the process.
“The true meaning of what I do is over time. When that day is long gone, this image lives on.”