I first came across Abe Pinchuk’s paintings when I was on a Birthright trip. My grandfather was a strong supporter of Israel, and he both frequented and donated to the Holy Land on a regular basis. So, at age 24, I was ecstatic to finally brave the legendary Masada.
After two hours of sleep, a cliché sunrise hike and an hour-long trek down the winding snake path, my legs were weary and my system drained from the unbearable July heat. I stumbled into the air-conditioned visitors’ centre ready for a nap, but instead experienced an unexpected awakening.
At first, I thought what was standing before my eyes was a mirage – that I was delirious from dehydration. However, I quickly realized that the 10 gargantuan oil paintings of Negev landscapes more beautiful than the real deal were in fact tangible.
It only took one round of playing the all-too-familiar game of Jewish geography to discover that, by an act of serendipity, Rachel Meland, my new friend from the trip, was the artist’s granddaughter. Seeing the pride she took in her grandfather’s paintings on display at Masada inspired me to reach out to Abe and unravel their history.
“I had been to Israel a number of times, but on the last trip I made, I spent some time in the Negev and fell in love with the way the desert is formed – the mountains, the erosions, the way the light hits the sand – to me as an artist, it was spectacular,” Abe explains in an interview.
While some take photographs, Abe travelled from Masada to Sde Boker to Mitzpe Ramon with a sketchbook and pencil in hand, capturing the desert landscapes in rough form. Scattered among the sketches were little poems, keepsakes for the return home.
Upon returning to his hometown of Montreal, Abe was completely taken with his experience abroad. “I wanted to do one painting of the Negev, just to remind myself where I had been, but once I did that one painting, I had so many ideas in my head that for the next couple of months, I did nothing but paint one landscape after another… I completed nine large-scale paintings in a period of less than two months,” Abe says, chuckling to himself.
I flip through the coffee table book of paintings from the Negev collection in confusion. “But there are 10 paintings in the Negev series,” I say.
Abe explains that the last addition to the series was, ironically, the painting of Masada itself. Abe completed it after being asked to display his other nine pieces in the gallery.
“I didn’t originally include Masada in my paintings, because I viewed it as a tourist spot. I didn’t want to paint pictures of tourist traps; I wanted to keep my collection raw. For instance, with the 36- by 48-inch Bedouin Camp, I didn’t want to portray their dwellings as a collection of broken-down tents. I wanted to give the Bedouins the dignity that they deserved.”
However, a combination of fate and happenstance led Abe to agree to complete his nine Negev paintings with a 10th, featuring Masada.
This story of happenstance includes three other important figures: Nira Freedman, Salman Abu-Rukum and Eitan Campbell. Nira Freedman, a sabra by birth, married a Canadian and moved to North America. She taught for 25 years in the Montreal Jewish school system, but remained very actively involved with Israel during that period.
“None of this would have happened without Nira,” Abe emphasizes. It was Nira who invited Salman Abu-Rukum (the director of foreign relations in the Israel Nature and Parks authority at the time) to a dinner party that Abe and his wife were hosting in Montreal.
While inside Abe’s home, Salman inquired about the paintings on the walls. “He was quite enthusiastic about them and asked me who the painter was. I told him that I had painted them and asked if he was interested in viewing a series of paintings I completed on the Negev.”
So, Nira, Abe and Salman ventured to Abe’s studio, and after viewing the paintings, Salman was so impressed that he encouraged the artist to sell his works to the director of Masada, Eitan Campbell. Salman brought Campbell photographs of the paintings, and he immediately approved the exhibit.
I found it an incredible indication of Abe’s altruistic character that when asked how much he’d sell the paintings for, he responded, “If you find them a home in Israel, I’ll donate the entire collection and cover delivery costs.” (The delivery wasn’t cheap. It cost upward of $15,000 to ship all 10 paintings to the Middle East, which his children covered because they, too, wanted to be involved in the project.)
The Canadian artist never dreamt his Negev collection would end up in Masada. He painted it out of “sheer love,” in an attempt to record the deep feelings he had for the desert and the State of Israel. He even asked Campbell why they hadn’t sought out a local painter for the job. Campbell informed Abe that the board of directors had struggled to find anyone able to capture the Negev as well as he had, in a style that was both realistic and relatable as opposed to abstract.
On June 18, 2012, Abe flew to Israel with his wife and two of his children to reunite with his large-scale paintings for the grand opening. Campbell insisted the artist hang each picture himself on the newly renovated walls of the visitors’ centre, which led to a gallery of artifacts excavated from the top of the ancient fortification by Masada archeologist Yigael Yadin.
Abe pauses in his story to recount his twin grandsons’ interpretation of the hanging. After the paintings were hung, my friend Rachel’s twin brothers went on an organized trip to Israel. One of them asked the leader of the trip if they could go to Masada, because that’s where his “Zaide was hanging.” Abe cracked up on hearing his grandson’s misinterpretation.
It was clear throughout the interview that three things truly matter to Abe: Israel, art and family.
Four years later, over one million visitors have admired the 10 paintings by Abe Pinchuk, and the permanent exhibit will draw tourists, art enthusiasts and curious bystanders for many decades to come