The sukkah in the backyard of Leat Silvera’s home in the Beverlywood neighborhood of Los Angeles is up a little early this year. It’s not because she’s trying to get a jump on the holidays; it’s because she needs a place to look at her work — three large sukkah wall hangings that she designed herself. She’s just gotten the samples of her mass-produced versions on waterproof canvas back from China, and something about the color in one of them isn’t right. While it would likely be overlooked by anyone but Silvera, she’s not going to let it slide, so there’s more tweaking to do.
Silvera traces her aesthetic sense to growing up with her family in Los Angeles, particularly her father. For them, Sukkot was a special holiday, a time of joy and celebration, and it was in their tradition that Silvera got her start. She grew up in a traditional home, but when she was 12, her brother was tragically killed by a drunk driver, and her parents started going to Chabad. It was through Chabad that Silvera and her family drew closer to Judaism. “My father, who’s a contractor, liked to build these beautiful, elaborate wooden sukkahs in his backyard. And he would take the time to pleat these beautiful white sheets all the way around; it would take him days and days. One year, he ran out of the amount of sheets, and he just made a few walls flat, and I looked at them and I said, ‘Can I draw a picture on them?’ ”
Silvera’s father gave her permission to experiment. “A few sharpies later, I had a couple of designs on there, and they loved it,” said Silvera. Her family and their friends liked the designs so much that, according to Silvera, “the next year all the sukkah walls became flat, and I had to paint all the walls in the Sukkah.”
When Silvera went off to college at UCLA to study fine art, she left her sukkah-decorating days behind for a while. Her work at school — oil paintings focusing on realism — was completely different from the work she produces now. “These are whimsical,” she says, showing off the three sukkah wall hangings she’s made, “they’re much more bright and colorful.”
Silvera’s wall hangings are indeed colorful, and quite large, measuring 8 feet by 5 feet, and they are meant to transport the viewer to a peaceful, joyous place. One depicts a scene of rabbis dancing in the street with Torahs, another, a scenic view from a window ringed by pomegranates, and the third, a playful Jerusalem landscape.
“I had a lot of requests for doing the ushpizin,” said Silvera of the traditional welcoming of the seven exalted guests to the Sukkah, “and I did a lot of sketch work for it, and I worked it through and everything, but what ended up happening is that you didn’t capture a moment, you captured a lot of different moments, and to me that’s very distracting and almost disturbing as an artist, so I dropped it.”
“What I like to do in general with art is just capture a moment in time, a moment of emotion that can pull you in,” said Silvera. To do this, she goes through numerous sketches before settling on moments that speak to her.
The process is a welcome one for Silvera, now in her 30s and the mother of four boys whom she home-schools. Silvera used to hide most of her paintings once they were completed, but now she sells them, and having them hanging in sukkahs around Los Angeles is a huge step for her. “Whatever anyone gets from that, even just a little bit of happiness, a little bit of joy, a little bit of that transportive feeling, that’s an incredible amount of fulfillment for me as an artist.”
Silvera started making her wall hangings for a wider audience last year. She’d painted the one of the rabbis dancing with the Torahs, and “decided I’d make about 50 copies and see what happens. The problem was, they came the morning before Sukkot.”
Undeterred by the late hour, Silvera pushed ahead with her plans to sell her pieces. “The morning of Sukkot I went to some close neighbor friends and said ‘I have them, what do you think?’ Not only did they buy them, but they called their mother-in-law, their best friend, and long story short, I sold maybe, that morning, 25 pieces.” Silvera was extremely pleased with the results. “I thought, OK, this is nice, this is something people want to have in their sukkahs. So I’ve created two more for this year; we’re selling all three of them this year, and hopefully people will enjoy them.” In addition to the dancing rabbis, there are lyrical images of Jerusalem, painted in soft washes of color.
Silvera currently sells her pieces at her Web site, leatsilvera.com, each priced $225, and she has also been trying other ways to get them noticed. “I’m trying to distribute them through shuls, through schools, Facebook, Pinterest, using whatever mediums I can through the Internet, but mostly I think it’s going to be word-of-mouth, because you can’t really tell what these look like until you see them in person.”
More than anything, Silvera feels lucky to be able to use her artistic talent to brighten one of her favorite holidays for others. “To me, it [Sukkot] is the apex of it all [the Holy Days season] and brings everybody together in such a wonderful way,” Silvera said. She sees how many of her friends want to make their sukkahs beautiful, but maybe don’t have the time or skill to pull it off.
“Maybe I can help. It’s almost like me coming into their sukkahs and helping paint a little mural to make it feel more beautiful for them.”
And since all three of her murals strongly evoke Israel, where she’s visited many times and to which she feels a strong connection, she feels like she’s bringing people closer to the Holy Land as well. “Sukkot is my favorite time in Israel. ... I love seeing the apartment buildings where every balcony has a sukkah, and every staircase has a sukkah, and they’re just everywhere, and when you walk down the streets, you hear singing from outside, everyone has kind of removed themselves from that incubation or that secluded area of inside, and now everybody’s open and out and together.”