Mordechai Edel at work in the studio. (photo from the artist)
Mordechai Edel is not a stranger to grief and pain. His parents escaped Austria in 1939. His uncle spent years in the Nazi concentration camps. His father died when he was 16 years old. Edel has been aware of the darkness in the world since he was a child, but he has never succumbed to it. The art he creates is light fantastic, bursting with colors, suffused with gladness. “Bringing joy to the world,” is his artistic motto.
Edel’s solo art show at the Unitarian Church on West 49th Avenue opened on Aug. 1. The artist talked to the Independent about his life and his paintings. His involvement with the arts started in his early childhood.
“My mom baked cakes for a coffee shop in Birmingham. It was also a gallery, and the owner,
Andre Drucker, was my first art teacher. When I was about 8, I won a BBC art competition with my self-portrait. It must’ve been my bright red hair,” he joked.
Even more than painting, he said, he wanted to sing, but for a child of a working immigrant family in post-war Birmingham, it wasn’t an easy or even a realistic dream, especially after his father fell sick and young Edel had to leave school at 14 to help his mother.
“I listened to the radio when they played classical music and opera,” he said. “We also had a very good cantor in our synagogue, and I wanted to sound like him. I sang in the choir.”
He frequently bought classical opera records at the local flea market but couldn’t listen to them at home – the family didn’t own a record player. When someone at the flea market suggested playing them on his player, the music was a revelation to the boy. “I wanted to sing like Caruso,” he remembered. “I wanted to study classical music and opera.”
Instead, he followed a much more practical route and apprenticed to a hairdresser. “My uncle was an opera singer before the war. It saved his life in the Nazi camp – he sang there. After the war, he immigrated to Canada and became a hairdresser. Nobody needed an opera singer.”
Edel followed in his uncle’s footsteps. He moved to Canada in 1969, when he was 20, and worked as a hairdresser, while spending all his money on music and singing lessons. He sang in concerts. At some points in his life, he was a cantor in Victoria and a soloist for the Tel Aviv opera.
But visual art was always an intrinsic part of his life, always casting light onto the shadows. When he opened his own hairdressing salon, he played classical music there and decorated the room with his paintings. His patrons loved the ambience, and the word of mouth spread about the hairdresser artist and his paintings.
It is no wonder that one of the recurring themes in Edel’s paintings is music. The picture “Spinner of Light” looks like a tapestry of colors and notes, where fantastic creatures sway to the unearthly melodies in an imaginary landscape. Flowers dance in several of his paintings, and Chassidic bands indulge in merry klezmer tunes. “O Sole Leone” is more grounded but just as whimsical, a song of Vancouver at night, while “Transparent Emet” reminds the viewer of the spiritual theatre of life. The musicians play in the pit, but the conductor exalts above, a part of a mystical pomegranate.
Symbolism plays a huge part in Edel’s artistic vision. Combined with his colorful esthetics, it leads him the way of impressionists, where emotions get embedded in pictures, entangled with floral and abstract motifs.
“I listen to classical records when I paint. Sometimes I listen to my wife Annie playing her violin. She is my muse. She inspires me.” Married for four decades, he is as much in love with his wife now as ever, he said, and their mutual devotion helped them five years ago, when darkness struck the family.
Someone they had trusted conned them out of their life savings. After working hard for more than 40 years, the family lost everything, about half a million dollars.
“People don’t like to hear others crying,” Edel said, “but frankly, it’s played havoc with our lives. We had intended to make aliyah to Israel for the ‘last and best’ retirement years – even though artists never retire – but we had to recoil into a one-bedroom rented apartment these past few years. And yet, in order to combat our tragedy and adversity, I came up with my ‘artidote.’… So many people need to be uplifted with light and laughter.”
“I don’t dwell on darkness. I try to stay positive, although it’s a challenge to be happy in the face of darkness,”
Currently, the couple lives on a small government pension, and he paints in the living room – his studio. Like in all other areas of their life, however, his wife is his source of happiness and stability. “My wife says we go forward. And we do. I don’t dwell on darkness. I try to stay positive, although it’s a challenge to be happy in the face of darkness,” he admitted.
The current show emphasizes Edel’s drive towards the light. His paintings vibrate with joyful energy. “I wanted to reach out with my art, to show my paintings to Jews and non-Jews alike,” he said, explaining the placing of his deeply Jewish art in a Christian church.
The show runs until Aug. 31 and viewing is by appointment. On Aug. 27, at 7 p.m., there will be a guided tour by the artist and a complimentary concert. To register, call the Unitarian Church, 604-261-7204, or contact the artist, 604-875-9949.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].