“Art should be a medium to bring inspiration, hope, joy and faith to the viewer,” says Yehoshua Wiseman in his studio on Rechov Agrippas behind the bustling Machane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem. For Wiseman, his calculated brush strokes are far more than paint on canvas. Color, shape and texture are the medium he uses to draw viewers closer to Hashem.
Born in Pasadena, a quiet residential suburb of Los Angeles, Wiseman’s Californian childhood was like that of many other liberal, American Jewish families. With his father being an oncologist and his mother a psychotherapist, no one guessed that a budding artist was in the family. Except for Yehoshua’s kindergarten teacher. “My teacher pulled my picture of a toucan out of the trashcan I’d stuffed it into and entered it into an art competition held by the municipality. The toucan ended up on a billboard and I met with the city officials,” says Yehoshua. But after that short exposure to fame, Yehoshua packed away his colors, leaving no paper trail of sketches.
Although Hebrew School didn’t make much of an impression on Yehoshua, he did grow up with a strong Jewish identity. “When I was fifteen, my family came to Israel and I saw that Judaism wasn’t about just bagels. There was a history here and people were living it,” he says. Always a thinker, Wiseman took to vociferous reading to learn more about being Jewish.
At nineteen, now a student at the University of California in Berkeley, Yehoshua took a year off to volunteer in Israel. By the end of the year, partly thanks to a great learning partner, he decided that he wasn’t going back to university. He was going to become religious and go to yeshiva. “I realized that Judaism gives meaning and direction to life. I was always an idealist and in Judaism I found an authentic way to institutionalize my idealism. Judaism wasn’t about hippies doing good. The entire society was doing good: on a personal, community and national level.”
Yehoshua began studying in Bar Ilan University, only to abandon his studies for a yeshiva in Efrat and the Machal Hesder (mitnadvei chutz laaretz, foreign volunteers) program. “The program allowed me to combine my studies with army service, something which I felt was important,” he says. When the pressure of continued yeshiva studies got too much, he followed the advice of his rabbi and took a break to go cherry picking in the Golan. “It was hard, hot work. One day I stayed in my room and began sketching from an art instruction book that my mother had sent me,” he says. Although that wasn’t the beginning of a career, Yehoshua did start regular, if far-spaced, forays into the world of art.
At age twenty-four, Yehoshua married. He spent the next fourteen years in kollel, building his family and searching for the spiritual mentor who would set him on a meaningful spiritual path. Despite a year-long stay in Tzefat, Israel’s city of artists, Yehoshua didn’t take up his palette. Instead, back in Jerusalem, he found Rav Shalom Arush and connected deeply to his teachings of Breslov chassidus.
Finally Drawn to the Palette
Interestingly, the wellsprings of chassidus opened up the wellsprings of Yehoshua’s artistic talent too. “One of my rabbis saw some of my sketches. He advised me to start by devoting two hours a day to art and to build up the amount of time. Within a few months, I’d already sold some pictures. This encouraged me to keep going,” says Yehoshua.
As well as painting, Yehoshua began producing Judaica items embossed with his pictures: light switch covers, bookmarks, magnets, shofars, tambourines. Stores in the Old City were only too happy to carry his work. And then, eighteen months ago, together with a partner, Yehoshua opened up a gallery on Rechov Agrippas.
Mostly self-taught, Yehoshua has learned the bulk of his technique from books and from private lessons and interaction with well-known Israeli artists like Yossi Biton, Shai Azulai and Baruch Wolk.
In hindsight, it appears that artistic genes do indeed run in the family: his brother David is a celebrated designer with celebrity clientele and his brother, Ari, former deputy director at the Guggenheim Art Museum, has recently become David’s agent.
Higher Reality of Canvas
“Art allows the eyes, heart and imagination to see something that the written word cannot capture. When viewers see a picture it becomes embedded in their psyche much stronger than when they just think about it. As a student of Torah, I want to use my talent to convey to the world feelings and concepts that are rooted in Torah,” says Yehoshua.
“Art helps people tap into their emotions instead of into their intellect.” Using brush strokes, he visualizes the sublimity of human emotions: joy, serenity, the grandeur and nobility of prayer, the innocence of childhood. The visualization of the common human experience is something that draws viewers from the full gamut of society.
Prayer is a favorite theme in Yehoshua’s paintings. Speaking to Hashem is represented metaphorically by the playing of an instrument or the sounding of a shofar because music is a way to connect to Hashem when words aren’t enough. A Jew’s ability to influence the universe is another theme. Here, Yehoshua ventures into the abstract using mechanical wheels to depict how we can alter spiritual reality.
Yehoshua uses symbolism to convey his themes. For example, doves, noble and gentle creatures, represent the soul’s longing to soar. “Am Yisrael is likened to a dove, for just as a dove is loyal to his mate throughout his lifetime, so too are Jews loyal to Hashem,” he explains. The tallis, which protects us from negative sights and directs our vision towards holiness, is a symbol of the beauty and nobility of a servant of Hashem.
We focus on the painting of Dovid HaMelech to discuss how Yehoshua synthesizes color, shape, texture, theme and symbols to create his paintings. “I start with a concept, but the end painting always comes out slightly different from what I envisioned. Here, the moon represents the idea of kingship and Dovid HaMelech used to rise at midnight to pray,” he says. Even in Yehoshua’s more conventional paintings, like the one of the Kotel, there are symbols that represent more than meets the eye.
“My artwork is a genre that is representative with impressionistic brush strokes and at the same time contains abstract and surrealistic elements,” summarizes Yehoshua. A peek into his gallery shows such plurality of style that many people assume that the works, which include papercuts, realistic portraits, nature, semi-abstract, calligraphic, are the creations of a team of artists. “I always have 20 or 30 times more concepts than I have time to execute them,” says Yehoshua.
Interfacing with Society
Breslov chassidus is well-known for its focus on hisbodedus, solitary contemplation. For Yehoshua this means sometimes going into the forest to paint. “All painting is a form of meditation, the chance to focus on spiritual concepts and connecting to God. I can accomplish much more without bustle around me,” says Yehoshua. “In nature, my heart expands more easily.”
On the other hand, nestled behind the Jerusalem shuk, Yehoshua’s gallery has top exposure to a diverse population of religious and secular Israelis as well as non-Jews. It’s here that he’s able to use his art to inspire others to reach for something higher: to bring Judaism to the broader public in a way that they can understand. “My artwork has a religious theme and this has universal appeal because it’s something that everyone recognizes,” Yehoshua says. This universal appeal is one of the reasons that selected images of Yehoshua’s artwork, available gratis, grace the pages of so many weekly newsletters.
“Although Israeli society is divided, even secular Israelis can appreciate my art. The bold, vivid colors touch viewers and inspire respect without raising their defenses,” he adds. Oftentimes, Wiseman finds himself helping to bridge this divide. In summer 2013, an Israeli TV drama series, “Shtisel,” had viewers glued to their sets. The series followed the lives of a charedi family living in Meah Shearim. “I can’t count how many times people have told me that I remind them of Akiva, a budding artist in the series who is trying to solve the conflict between art and mitzvos,” says Yehoshua. “I explain that there isn’t a conflict. Everyone has his or her own way to contribute to the world. My way is to create paintings that show the emotion of Torah – for example, the exhilaration of prayer and of speaking to God. In no way does this make me an outcast in my community.”
Similarly, Jews who have left the path of Torah see Yehoshua’s art as a bridge that connects them to their roots without any of the pressure that they fled from. “I often engage alienated Jews in a discussion of art. I try to convey the sweetness of Yiddishkeit and fan the embers.” A case in point: When a man covered in tattoos wandered past his gallery, Yehoshua noticed that one of the tattoos was of the Beis HaMikdash. “You must be the only person in the world with such a tattoo,” he said, hoping to draw the man into a discussion. “Will I be rewarded or punished for it?” the man challenged. “That’s something we need to discuss,” replied Yehoshua. He pauses and adds, “The man will be back, I’m sure.”
Is it coincidental that the wellsprings of Breslov chassidus and art opened to Yehoshua simultaneously? Perhaps not. “We learn Torah in order to teach,” says Yehoshua. Visit the gallery on Agrippas 115 to feast your eyes and soul.