As a teen, Lawrence Kushner was something of an art prodigy, winning numerous awards and seemingly destined for a career as a painter.
Instead, he answered the call to the rabbinate. Kushner laid down his paintbrush — and kept it down for 50 years.
Two years ago, however, the muse alighted on Kushner once again. Since then, the prodigal painter has been making up for lost time.
His first solo exhibition, “Street Light: The Urban Impressionism of Lawrence Kushner,” opens with a
4 p.m. reception Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael.
Why start painting again after a half-century furlough?
“I guess I’m a creative kind of person,” says Kushner, 70, a Kabbalah expert who has served as scholar-in-residence at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El since 2002. “I’m thrilled and delighted. My eyes still work. My hand still works.”
As the title of the exhibition implies, the 28 canvases highlight Kushner’s fascination with San Francisco street scenes. Most of the oil-on-canvas paintings depict hilly tree-lined avenues, bustling cafes and snaking lines of cars, all illuminated by the shimmering afternoon sun.
Not surprisingly, the rabbi sees kabbalistic parallels between the light depicted in his paintings and the spiritual light that guides him daily as a rabbi.
“The spiritual enterprise and aesthetics are the same in that what you’re looking for is there already,” he says. “You develop a sensitivity to find the sacred and the beautiful in increasingly less likely places.”
A native of Detroit, Kushner was ordained in 1969. He served for 30 years as a congregational rabbi in Sudbury, Mass. He simultaneously fostered a successful career as an author, having written 18 books about Judaism and spirituality.
When Kushner and his wife, Karen, moved to San Francisco more than a decade ago, they fell in love with the Bay Area (their daughter, Noa Kushner, is the founding rabbi of The Kitchen, an alternative synagogue in San Francisco).
Says Kushner, “We’re lucky enough to live on Russian Hill, where we get the setting sun and that mysterious pale yellow light that pervades everything in the city. For about two hours before sunset I’m on another planet. I go gaga for the light. I see things, and light just blasts out of it to me. I see that as my job.”
Kushner’s modus operandi is to take photos of scenes that interest him, then choose the best images for painting. He set up an easel in his study and usually paints in the mornings. After a few hours, he says, he feels exhausted but artistically fulfilled.
Cityscapes are only one genre in his paint box. He also paints landscapes, including scenes from up and down the California coast.
Though his paintings would fall into the category of “realism,” Kushner says he plans to attempt other styles, including his own take on abstract impressionism.
Collectors can buy Kushner’s work; he is represented by George Krevsky Gallery in San Francisco. Though he doesn’t need the money, the rabbi concedes art aficionados tend to take a painter more seriously when there’s a little red dot next to the canvas on the wall.
“I’m happily in a situation where I don’t have to rely on [painting] for money,” he says. “If someone my age paints, people say ‘Isn’t that nice.’ But if I sell one, they pay attention to you in a different way.”
Meanwhile, Kushner is paying attention to the paintable world all around him.
“You can’t go looking for it,” he says of the next perfect image to capture. “You have to be ready.
“Just like you can’t go looking for religious experience, you just prepare yourself for when it lands. In my case I have a small paint box and a camera with me whenever I’m away from home.”
“Street Light: The Urban Impressionism of Lawrence Kushner” runs Monday, Sept. 8 through Nov. 4 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. An opening-day reception with the artist will take place 4 p.m. in the Isaacs Gallery. Free. www.marinjcc.org