Paint by Soul

Ora Tamir Photo by Courtney Raney

The walls of Ora Tamir’s home are covered with color-soaked landscapes, masked faces and dystopian, dreamlike structures.

Just don’t ask her what any of it means.

“I don’t try to put a message in my paintings. Each piece evolves as I paint it — it just flows,” Tamir said, gazing around her dining room. When pressed to explain the significance of a flower with black petals or a one-eyed face that recurs in her work, she smiles and gives a sheepish shrug. “I have nothing to do with it. I am only a tool,” she said.

The modest Tamir might downplay her conscious role in her art, but she channels a potent subconscious vision that has propelled her name to the forefront of the contemporary surrealist movement. At 67, the painter has built a devoted, high-profile following in both the United States and her native Israel. And in the process, she’s turned her and her husband’s Newbury Park home into a de facto gallery where — to her own amazement — her vivid portraits tell an ongoing story about her roots, growth and inspiration as an artist.

Anyone who has beheld Tamir’s work at one of the galleries or national art shows at which she has exhibited might get a sense of her as a woman bonded to her family, yearning for her homeland and enthralled with the very process of creation.

Take her recent piece, “Imagine,” in which a young girl standing on a painter’s palette reaches out to touch an apple while a mature woman rises from the landscape, gazing across a sky of limitless potential.

“For me, to get into a new painting is like biting into a luscious apple,” said Tamir, a mother of three and grandmother of seven. “I can feel a physical reaction. When you taste something good, you salivate — that’s how I feel when I paint with color. Once I touch the apple, I get transferred, in my soul, to a place of imagination.”

Tamir said she’s constantly “doodling” — although her sketches are far more advanced than the scribbles you might find in the margins of a notebook. If her pen traces a scene she likes, she commits it to canvas, rendering it in rich oil paints. But each piece’s progression is only loosely based on forethought.

“It really takes on a life of its own” during the painting process, she said. “It starts as a vague idea and slowly builds up into a story. It’s a lot like meditation — I listen to an inner voice that tells me what to do. I don’t see or hear anything else; it’s just me and the painting. As I work, I know in my heart if it’s right or wrong.”

Ora’s Art

Ora Tamir’s IMAGINE

A self-described “paint junkie” since the age of 3, Tamir honed her artistic eye at Kibbutz Gvar’am in southern Israel, where she was born. She moved to Tel Aviv with her father while still young, but the stark power of the desert landscape left in her a lasting sense of awe. Throughout grade school, Tamir bristled when art teachers tried to rein in her style. She much preferred taking trips to museums to learn from the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh

After her stint in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Tamir traveled to New York City on vacation, where her life took a turn for the surreal.

On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the artist encountered the work of Salvador Dalí for the first time. Tamir was transfixed. That night, she had a vivid dream and sketched the image when she awoke — a child, tied to a balloon, grasping her parents’ hands. She knew she had crossed over into the world of surrealism for good.

Ora Tamir’s PASSAGE

Not only did Tamir pick up a new artistic focus in New York, but she also acquired a husband. An Israeli native, Eli Tamir, proposed to her in a supermarket just days after they’d met. The couple lived in Israel for nine years and then moved, with their three children, to Southern California. The Tamirs have now called the Conejo Valley home for more than 30 years, sharing their abode with an African Grey parrot that wishes them boker tov in the mornings.

By the time Tamir moved to the United States, she was used to commercial success in Israel. She’d owned a gallery in Rishon LeZion and had scores of loyal clients. But surrealism in the 1980s had only “a very small niche” stateside, she recalled. Most gallery curators thought her style was too eccentric to sell. That, combined with her homesick longing for Israel, put her “in a funk” that kept her from showing her work for 16 years, she said.

Ora Tamir’s IMPACT

Luckily for SoCal art fans, it didn’t last. Tamir went back to painting full time in 1998, and with Eli as her business manager, she took her work to galleries and art shows across the country, building a solid reputation and client base. Since then, she has exhibited at Artexpo New York, Palm Springs Arts Festival and dozens of other locales from Connecticut to Hawaii.

“I get the same reactions wherever I go,” Tamir said. “It’s either, ‘This is weird!’ or they fall in love with it. Some people, my art is just not for them. Others look at a painting and become totally immersed and emotionally involved in it. They say it won’t let go of them — they get mesmerized.”

Tamir’s unique works command $7,000 to $16,000. For the more casual art collector, her limited- edition giclée reproductions — which can be printed on canvas or hand-embellished — run $125 to $2,000.

In the decades since she left Israel, Tamir knows her name has faded from the art scene there. But her love for her homeland hasn’t dimmed, and it often finds expression in her paintings.

Many of Tamir’s poetic narratives play out against a desert backdrop that hearkens back to her years on the kibbutz. Sand dunes, shrub brush and the brilliant blue flash of the Mediterranean meander across her canvases like a continuing story line.

“I’m very proud of our [Israeli] heritage,” she said. “I feel an extremely strong connection to the land and its people and history. These are my people, who I come from — who I am.”

Half a world away, however, she’s still as enamored of painting as she was while young: “I jumped into the water head first, and ever since then it’s been fantastic.”