One September evening in 2017, an email popped into Vanessa Axelrad’s inbox. It came from a family friend. “I would like to introduce you to a very good friend of ours who is an artist,” he wrote. “I’m attaching a few of her pieces so that you can see her style.”
The attached photos, blurry and marred by the sun’s glare, were not flattering. Axelrad disregarded them pretty quickly. But her art gallery, Gallery 133, was a family affair – her father founded it in 1987 and Axelrad joined in 2000 as its associate director – and out of respect for this family friend, she felt obligated to at least give the artist a courtesy call.
That artist was Joy Shepherd, who picked up the phone from her winter home in Longboat Key, Fla. Axelrad didn’t know what she was getting into. Shepherd is unstoppable in conversation, her mind racing ahead of her mouth. Over the phone, Shepherd excitedly detailed her artistic journey with passion and warmth. By the end, Axelrad had agreed to visit Shepherd’s home in Toronto, to view the pieces in person.
“My whole business ethic is we never judge a book by its cover,” Axelrad tells The CJN over the phone. “Some of my biggest sales, you wouldn’t think they had two dimes to rub together. I think I put that into practice in that exact situation. You never know what you’re turning down until you see it live.”
Indeed, if the blurry emailed photos didn’t do justice to Shepherd’s art, her house certainly does. Shepherd lives in the upscale Toronto neighbourhood of Hoggs Hollow, on a street where a $5-million mansion is a bargain. Comparatively, Shepherd’s home feels modest and spacious, with most of the eggshell-white walls adorned by her art, scanned and enlarged onto sheets of glass.
When Shepherd has visitors, she relentlessly offers brownies, fruit, biscotti and iced tea. “I’m a Jewish mother,” she insists. “Don’t be shy.”
Shepherd speaks in excited, sometimes disjointed narratives, with infectious enthusiasm and genuine emotion, bouncing from one topic to another – her children’s books (she self-publishes on Amazon), her love of animals (her living room couches are adorned with four pillows featuring pictures of dogs in human clothes), the time she hosted an evening with Jane Goodall (photos of which she printed and framed in acrylic serving trays) – but the subject she returns to most of all is her grandfather, Max Sharp.
Sharp was a Holocaust survivor, a builder and the progenitor of Canada’s Sharp family, which includes Four Seasons hotelier Isadore Sharp, who is Shepherd’s uncle.
Shepherd had been painting all her life, but when Max Sharp died in December 2004, shortly before his 103rd birthday, Shepherd felt an uncontrollable urge to memorialize him in her art.
“I had images of him,” she says, gesturing to the paintings of fiddlers on her wall. Sharp wasn’t literally a fiddler, but the image resonated with her.
“They all have movements. They’re all happy. The colours are happy. I see him. They’re alive.”
She struggles to communicate these ideas verbally, but the emotion is clear – both in her voice and art. Her paintings, impressionist and nostalgic, feel almost childlike in their optimism, reflecting the three decades Shepherd spent working with children as a psychometrist.
Axelrad saw the same thing, likening them to the dreamscapes of Marc Chagall.
“When I got over to her house, it was a combination of the inspiration behind the whole collection of works and it was her authenticity around it all,” she says. “As I sat with it for a period of time, I really became enamoured with the whole collection…. It’s easy to be with. It’s such a loving story, where all of this emanated from.”
The pair agreed to stage a show, Life of Chai, which will run for a week in Gallery 133. Some of the show’s proceeds will go toward the Jewish National Fund’s projects in Israel.
For Shepherd, these ideas – charity, life, family, Judaism – are inseparable. They represent her grandfather and all he gave to the world.
“He danced through life,” she says.
“He was my fiddler on the roof.”
Life of Chai will run from May 21-26 at Gallery 133. For details, visit gallery133.com.