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Famous painter brings his art to shul

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From Martin Hirschberg's Celebrations series, on display at Beth Tzedec

Martin Hirschberg has had an illustrious career as an artist, and for the first time, he’s bringing his art to shul.

His family has held membership at Beth Tzedec Congregation for four generations, and he’ll be exhibiting his Celebrations series of paintings in a hallway at the synagogue until the end of April.

Hirschberg, who also has pieces in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection, admits it’s an unconventional gallery, but says the series fits in because the big acrylic canvases all depict families enjoying various simchahs and holidays, such as weddings, Shabbat dinners and Passover seders.

“That’s what this is about,” says Hirschberg. “It’s about family, it’s about getting together, talking about tradition.”

Hirschberg says it’s hard to find Yiddishkeit represented in the art world, a place dominated by Christian iconography. That’s why he began the series.

Celebrations features an array of characters, many of whom originally appeared in his The Family series. Like Celebrations, The Family included colourful, almost cartoon-like portraits of people Hirschberg says weren’t based on real-life subjects. “I painted other things, but these people kept on coming back,” he explains.

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After his grandfather paid for him to take painting lessons, he eventually studied at the Ontario College of Art. Later, he started creating sculptures and high-tech installations. He describes this sculptural work as coming from a rather dark place. “Out of that darkness,” he says, “I had to come back to what was light.”

And his latest series certainly reflects that. “I didn’t want to paint them as realistic,” he says. “I wanted to paint them as a kind of whimsical, light type of painting work where you could maybe feel the celebration in them.”

Despite his long list of individual and group exhibitions, Hirschberg has never considered himself a full-time artist. For 40 years, until about two years ago, he ran the award-winning interior design firm Hirschberg Design Group.

He calls art his passion, and he shares that passion by teaching classes, including at the Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living, and by encouraging his friends to paint, especially when they visit his cottage near Georgian Bay.

He even paints on vacation. While away this past winter in the Caribbean, he created a study (which resembles a mini painting) depicting children celebrating Purim. He’s not yet sure if he’ll expand it into a larger, canvas-size painting for the Celebrations series, which he’s now been working on for about a decade.

He’s happy the series is currently at Beth Tzedec, where visitors can relate to the various paintings and their portrayal of holidays and Jewish life.

“There’s enough sorrow in the world and hard times and not enough good times,” he says.  “And when you have good times, I think you want to celebrate the good time.”