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July 25, 2008

Flying towards beauty

Mandara Lebovitz's show is infused with magic.

Mandara Lebovitz bears the Sanskrit name of a mythological tree. According to one of the greatest Indian poets, Kalidasa, the Mandara tree delights everyone with its heavy bunches of bright, red flowers. Modern gardeners often associate the Mandara tree with the Indian coral tree, an ornamental tree producing blazing clusters of scarlet and crimson blossoms. Whichever the source, most agree on the beauty and spiritual aspirations sparked by the sun-loving flowers of Mandara.

The same feelings of beauty and spiritual aspirations arise when one is exposed to Lebovitz's paintings, the flowers of the artist's imagination. Her new show, called Flying, opened at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on June 17.

Young and graceful, Lebovitz greeted her guests with a ready smile and eyes sparkling with optimism. One could never imagine how much pain she has gone through in her short life. When she was a young girl, she injured her back, and the pain has accompanied her on and off ever since. "I'm getting over pain through nature and art," she said. "I'm a nature girl."

Lebovitz grew up in a family of artists, immersed in art since childhood. She studied fine arts at Concordia University, under the mentorship of famous Canadian artist Leopold Plotek. Despite participating in several shows in Quebec and teaching at a private elementary school in Montreal, she didn't consider herself a professional artist until she moved to Port Moody a couple of years ago. The majestic nature of the province, its mountains, streams and lakes finally inspired her to take her artwork seriously: "I got my own studio here," she said with a smile. "I must be an artist."

A romantic at heart, Lebovitz pours her vision of British Columbia's marvelous landscapes into her paintings, fusing together nature and emotions. The paintings are not photographic. Rather, they are conceptual abstracts. Through the prism of her gift, they reflect her dreams and reality, her love and suffering.

The central piece of the exhibit, "Where Are You Flying To?" is a diptych in ochre and brown, depicting a mythical, symbolic bird that doesn't belong to any species. In the course of painting, it metamorphosed so many times that even the artist herself can't name it. The bird regards the landscape in front of it, the forest and the road, with a curious eye, as if asking the title question. "You don't have to fly to be on a journey," Lebovitz said about the work.

Many of the paintings in the show have been born out of the artist's own journeys around the province. "Flying," a triptych landscape, quiet and retrospective, is infused with blue, green and pearly gray. The sea, mountains and sky are all interconnected on three canvases, resonating with each other, filling the air with peaceful fluorescence and launching one adventurous duck into a glorious flight.

One of the strongest pieces, "Deconstruction," is an installation of paintings, mirrors, rusted chains and bricks. Everyone entering the gallery is inescapably drawn to its dynamics of pain and rest, acceptance and struggle. It is the map of the artist's personal journey from anguish through hope to tranquillity and light.

Many of Lebovitz's pieces are filled with hope and light. For example, "Reaching" has an almost Dali-esque feeling, showing a cliff, a spirit of luminous light striving towards the sky and a hand reaching out. The hand, like Michelangelo's hands, is large and heavy, burdened down by life but reaching nonetheless, straining towards the light like the artist herself. It will never quit. "Lightness of being," commented Lebovitz.

While most of her paintings use subdued, chromatic schemes, one stands out as an explosion of color, a festival of turquoise. "Migration" is Lebovitz's turning point, an avatar of a new direction in her creative development. Although it is an abstract composition, one can see a flock of birds flying to the warmer regions, dolphins rushing through a strait, forest and mountains saturated with joyful turquoise. The painting radiates joy.

It also contains a story: Lebovitz painted it upside down. "I sensed that something was off, but I didn't know what," she confessed. She turned it on one side, and then on another, added some brush strokes, and finally turned it upside down. And suddenly everything fell into place – the birds, the dolphins and the landscape.

Lebovitz's personal artistic journey is still in progress. She is currently taking sculpture courses at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Her wire cubes and curved metal bars, combined with mirrors, prove that, in the right hands, directed by talent, even mundane aluminum wire can be a philosophical representation of magic.

Flying runs until Aug. 10.

Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer.