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Last Man Painting

Kalman Aron outlived the Nazis who imprisoned him with wit and a flair for portraiture

by Michael Aushenker

April 27, 2000 | 8:00 pm

There was a time when Kalman Aron was not creating art for a living, but for his life.

For the past 45 years, the Pasadena Art Center instructor has been teaching drawing and painting, showing students that "before you paint, you must learn how to draw." But during World War II, Aron could not fathom that he would ever see the light of day, let alone the lights and darks created by a brush or a charcoal pencil. He believes that key to his survival in Latvian labor camps were his drawings of camp guards, which endeared him to Nazi personnel.

"I had to be careful," says Aron, who had to judge whether or not a camp was conducive to this kind of artistic expression. "They didn't want you writing. They were afraid a letter would go out to the Allies or the Red Cross."

From the labor camps, Aron was transferred to Buchenwald, where even drawing was too life-jeopardizing a prospect. He was moved around often and finally taken to Theresienstadt, where he remained until the camp was liberated by the Russians in 1945.

Now 75 years of age, Aron lives a much more peaceful life on a beautiful, manicured block just north of Beverlywood. Before you get to the end of the long walkway leading up to his home, you can see the quaint sign for the Kalman Aron Studio hanging outside his apartment door.

When he comes to the door, Kalman Aron cuts a striking figure -- tall, lanky, bald, with the look of a '50s beatnik. Once inside the living room-cum-gallery, which offers an unobstructed view of L.A.'s downtown skyline, you become instantly surrounded by portraits of artists and models, chess players and jazz players, children and senior citizens.

A Swedish art critic once coined a term for his style: "psychological realism." As far as Aron knows, "I'm the only psychological realist out there," he says with a laugh. With his art, Aron always intends to "capture their character other than what they're doing."

Commercially, Aron has developed quite a reputation for his portraiture. He has captured the images of many wealthy children on canvas; Andre Previn, Henry Miller, former Beverly Hills Mayor Max Slater, and a pre-White House Ronald Reagan stand out as some of his star subjects.

"He was very friendly, joking around with one-liners. Shook my hand like he knew me for years," says Aron of Reagan, whom he painted in the Valley studio where the future president hosted a political commentary program. "He wouldn't come to my studio. I took all of my paints, and they set up my own studio for me."

Born in Riga, Latvia, Aron started drawing at age 2. By 13, his skills were so developed that he was hired to paint the portrait of the prime minister of Latvia.

Following the Holocaust, while at a displaced person camp in Salzburg, Aron made friends with the camp's director, whose boyfriend was a Jewish officer in the American army stationed there. She convinced him to create two drawings of that man, who, without telling Aron, submitted them to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. On the basis of two simple pencil sketches, Aron was accepted into the very art school that, ironically, spurned budding artist Adolf Hitler -- a well-documented incident that fanned his hatred for the Viennese Jewish intelligentsia.

While in Vienna, Aron met his first wife, a child psychologist, with whom he moved to West Hollywood in 1949. Their marriage lasted seven years, but Aron remained in L.A. and embarked on his career of teaching and painting portraits, starting out at the now-defunct Hollywood Art Center in 1956 and beginning his long association with the Pasadena Art Center in 1964. The artist married two more times, and had a son, David, 30, with his third wife.

Aron says he "never wanted to be a full-time teacher" so that he could pursue his personal work and exhibit in shows in places such as London and Sweden.

While Aron lives near Pico-Robertson, the artist is not connected with the area's Jewish community. He says that he's always been too much of an individualist for any organized religion. An incident he witnessed -- Nazis torching a packed synagogue -- still burns in his mind.

"Where was God when the synagogue was burning, while people still inside all burned alive?" he asks rhetorically.

Aron has so many art world anecdotes that he hopes to interest a publisher in printing an illustrated memoir. In the meantime, he keeps on going, content with doing what he does best: expressing his independent spirit in charcoal and acrylic.

He has emerged from hell to find life in hope, surviving with his wit -- along with pencil and paper. And long after everyone else is gone, Kalman Aron will still be standing at his easel, feverishly plugging away --the last man painting.

For more information on Kalman Aron's portrait services, contact the Kalman Aron Studio at (310) 553-6923.

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