For Los Angeles artist Shelley Adler, the epiphany came after her second diagnosis of breast cancer and near-death from diverticulitis in 2001. Following her lumpectomy and two weeks in the hospital, she returned home and glimpsed cartons of family photographs she had collected since her parents and other relatives had died.
"The black-and-white snapshots revealed little worlds and scenes I wanted to bring alive in color," said Adler, whose "Shades of Time: The Extended Family of Shelley Adler" runs through July 1 at the Workmen's Circle. "I wanted to paint them the way the 16th-century Dutch genre painters had done -- small portraits of ordinary people in their homes, offering glimpses into their lives." Yet, she had put off the project until that day in 2001: "I suddenly recognized I might die, and if I was to do the series, it had to be now," the artist said.
Adler, 69, had not painted in oils for decades; she had grown up Jewish in what she describes as a repressive small town, Minot, N.D., which she escaped to attend art school. But by 1960 she had married, had children and become a librarian in an effort to "conform, to be 'normal.'" Fifteen years later she was so miserable that she divorced, returned to art school and became a professional illustrator.
After her 2001 epiphany, she left her job as The Jewish Journal's art director and, between radiation and chemotherapy treatments, spent hours intensely staring at the snapshots.
"Eventually, the body language of the individuals told me things I wanted to communicate," said Adler, who left The Journal in 2002.
Her realistic paintings include a 1944 winter portrait of her stoic, taciturn uncle Ben, who stands very still in front of his Minot jewelry store, his eyes veiled behind shadowed spectacles. In a painting of Adler's domineering father and grandmother, his hand clutches her shoulder as if he is controlling her every move. A summer 1930s portrait of Adler's scowling mother and aunt reveals "two women who are in conflict, yet they're in a family," she said.
Sherry Frumkin of the Santa Monica Art Studios, which previously displayed some of the paintings, described them as "intimate little gems, which make you feel transported to another era."
If the portraits aren't always positive, Adler said, "I'm a truth teller. I don't color things with niceties.... [Rather], I hope viewers will feel they're looking through a window, as if these people will step right out of the frame."
For information, call (310) 552-2007.