Behind the Canvas with
Ophrah Shemesh

The American - Israeli artist on how she discovered her skills, the process, and passion that comes along with it

In our latest Beyond The Kaftan series, I wanted to focus on female creators like artists, architects, designers - anyone who has dedicated their life to the idea of creating. So I’m thrilled to kick it off with Ophrah Shemesh, a true “artist’s artist” who’s best known for her intense, existentially themed oil and tempera paintings of women and men. I’ve followed Ophrah’s work for a long time so I couldn’t wait to dig into everything from her journey into art to how she’s finally found her voice within it.  

Ophrah Shemesh wearing black andw hite printed silk kaftan by Ala von Auersperg in newport Rhode Island
Ophrah Shemesh painting

Ala: When did you know you were an artist? I feel like it happens to so many people in so many ways. Sometimes it goes undiscovered for a long time.

Ophrah: I knew from early on, at around six years old. I was very creative. I took ballet, played music - all of it. But at age 16, I realized I wanted to paint and that was it.

Ala: How did you decide on that medium?

Ophrah: I knew I wanted to do something creative. My friend brought me to a sculpture class, one of the best classes in Haifa. After one class, the teacher told me to try painting. My father bought me all the supplies, and I applied to a private class. I was nervous. It was a still life class. I spent two, three hours painting. I waited for an answer from the instructor. He looked at my painting and said, “You were born a painter.” He was my mentor during my military service. I was determined to keep going with him. So, I managed a position in Haifa. During that time, I applied to the Academy and slowly discovered myself. I wanted to paint from that time on.

Painting by Ophrah Shemesh

Ala: I’ve been lucky over the years to have been at two of your shows. I’ve also met artists at your shows who all said you’re an artist’s artist and I can see that in your work. How do you see yourself unfolding now? We’ve had Covid-19, you’ve moved to Europe from the United States. How do you see yourself changing in your work?

Ophrah: Covid was actually fortunate for me. In New York you can’t separate working in the studio from the art world all around you. For the 40 years I painted in New York - as painter myself and as a teacher, I never felt I was really able to find my own voice. When Covid arrived, I was on my way to Sicily. I had to spend one year out of the studio. But that pause gave me the ability to go inside without feeling an emptiness that I had felt so much before. It made me recognize who I am, and that the choices I make are truly mine. I never thought I would be entirely an artist in life, and that “painter” would just be my role in the world. But all those doubts and noises disappeared. And in that quiet, it became just me, myself and my painting. That was a gift.

Ala: That’s amazing. Anyone who knows you knows you’ve been 100% an artist forever, but that it took this period for you to come to grips with yourself is amazing.

Ophrah: When it comes to painting, self recognition comes differently. For men it comes earlier then for women; I myself wasn’t sure. We (women) are trained to want it all - family, children, to be an artist. To accept that you’re fully an artist was hard for me as a woman. I also had a hard time accepting a powerful role. I was so demanding of myself. For a long time, I never felt I was accomplishing anything in particular. Rather, I was always thrilled by the process and the experience.

Ala: I can’t wait to see your work during this period. What do you suggest to your students? What’s the best piece of advice you give to students?

Ophrah: In New York, I’ve had many students. My advice is: this is the time you can really concentrate on yourself and on your inner life - right now - and on painting. Most of them had to hearIt’s a simple thing, but for a lot of people, it’s liberating.

Ala: It’s liberating to go inside and do what you need to do.

Ophrah: Today we don’t have the authority that most artists had in the past. Artists used to have religion, or mentors. Now there’s pluralism. There’s no center. It’s much harder, but it’s good to remind students that the most important thing is their inner life, to nurture the spirit within, and that will reflect on the history of art. Art derives from life, and creation is the only thing you can control.

A painting done by Ophrah Shemesh
Painting painted by Ophrah Shemesh

Ala: It’ll be interesting to see what comes out from artists and emerging artists.

Ophrah: It will be affected. I just read this morning that the three major galleries merged. They decided not to have regular shows but to show artists online, which means all the activity between dealers and artists will disappear. That is what will allow true artists to come forward without the engagement of the dealer. Dealers won’t dictate to the artist their opinions, which is work will be better and truer. Historically, the dealer wants fast work to sell, and the artist, at his mercy, loses his or her core.

Ala: It’s always been like that but in different ways and forms. Even Michelangelo had a deadline.

Ophrah: Yes he did, and blew most of them away. As did Leonardo!

Ala: Information so accessible and the media is so pervasive. How do you think you would’ve painted in the 15th century? Your medium lends itself to that time.

Ophrah: It’s less the medium and rather the process and engagement. I’m very much coming from classical art and nothing of the past has really changed in my work or behavior as a painter. I still work with models. I still take my inspiration from the humanistic part of life and not the stylistic part of Art.

Ala: What would Rembrandt have done today with social media?

Ophrah: I think he would still be working intimately from life, and would never abandon it. Even for me, I started to take all images from films as second nature. I came to the conclusion that I’m the creator, and it doesn’t matter what the source is. That’s what Walter Benjamin said about the age of reproduction. There are more images to work with. My role is to put my own voice into them. I don’t find it confusing, but enriching. It was hard for Rembrandt and it’s hard for me today. The DNA of the painter has not changed. His struggle and my struggle are the same, and that’s what counts.

Ala: What’s the struggle?

Ophrah: To find your own voice and be loyal to the history of mankind. Language has a barrier you must accept. Submission is to the integrity of the long history of language; you have to submit to the two dimensions painting require. It’s a struggle. Especially with more information available today, every generation brings their own idea of their role to art. The role of the painter never changes, but it’s hard to keep faithful to it. It’s hard to keep within those barriers. You have to protect the language and find your own voice and not spread yourself thin. That discipline is something we as artists must work to keep.

Ophrah Shemesh wearing black and white coral printed silk kaftan by Ala von Auersperg
Painting of people's faces by Ophrah Shemesh