Lilian Broca was 12 years old when she found out she was Jewish.
Until then, the Canadian artist, born in Romania under Communist rule, knew little about religion, except that, during funerals, the local Orthodox church would give out food.
“God was not a word that I heard in my childhood,” said Broca, who starred in a documentary about her return to Romania, called Return to Byzantium – the Art and Life of Lilian Broca.
It was at a church, while vying for a treat, that she saw her first piece of Byzantine art – a colourful icon depicting Mary and the infant.
“I remember looking at these beautiful icons. The colours were so bright. There was so much gold. It left a wonderful impression on me. Those days were so grey. My childhood was in black and white. The only colour was in church.”
When Broca was 12, her parents decided it was time to leave Romania. Canada, the family’s first choice, refused them entry, so Broca’s parents settled on Israel.
Finally, Broca found out she was Jewish.
While studying Hebrew, Broca started learning about biblical stories, which she would eventually base her art around.
After moving to Canada, Broca studied art at Concordia University before getting her master’s of fine arts in New York’s Pratt Institute. Fuelled by her love of mythology and religious heroines, she started working on the first of three series devoted to strong heroines, all of whom were tied to mythology and biblical stories.
“There were three women. Each took (around) six years to do. Each was used as a metaphor for (female) self empowerment,” she said.
Lilith, Adam’s first wife who left the safety of the Garden of Eden, represents independence.
“She was a very good metaphor for gender roles and equality,” Broca said, adding this series is made up of paintings and drawings.
Esther, a Jewish woman chosen by a Persian king to be his wife, was an example of sacrifice and strength. Esther eventually used her courage and wit to save the Jewish people from destruction.
While working out how the series would unfold, the artist realized that in Esther’s kingdom, the floors would have been encrusted with rubies.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. This is mosaic,’” she said.
Broca had learned mosaic art in Concordia, and had even kept some leftover glass with her for about 35 years.
Mosaic, according to Broca, is a painstaking process.
“The challenge wasn’t creating (the sketches), … it was interpreting these into glass,” she said.
After completing the Esther series, Broca moved on to Judith, a widow who used her beauty and intelligence to win over, and then kill, an enemy general.
“Judith, in a way, sacrificed also. But she was a warrior. She was proactive. She knew what she wanted to do,” Broca said, adding this mosaic series is a work in progress.
The complete series will be exhibited at Toronto’s Joseph D. Carrier Art Gallery in 2016, Broca says.
Broca’s documentary, which will air on CBC this fall, follows the artist as she explores her roots in Romania.
When she was approached by Adelina Suvagau, the film’s director, Broca was skeptical of the idea.
“I actually laughed. I said, ‘Nobody’s going to fund this.’ She kept telling me, ‘You don’t have faith in yourself. Leave it to me.’ And she did it.”
In the documentary, viewers get a glimpse at the mosaic process, as well as Broca’s life as a child.
When visiting her old home in Romania, Broca led its new inhabitants to the attic, where her father’s name was scrawled in the cement.
“I had goose bumps,” she said. “I remember being overwhelmed.”