Meet the Artist: Helene Liala Brenenson

Photo: Courtesy of Helene Liala Brenenson

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

My name is Helene Liala Brenenson and I was born in New Jersey in 1997 and have lived here all my life.  I am the oldest of four siblings who I love and constantly remind me to clean up my art supplies that are all over my house. I went to Yeshiva Day School’s until college where I received my BFA with a concentration in painting from Mason Gross School of Art and Design at Rutgers University in May of 2019.  I am currently pursuing an MFA degree at William Paterson University and am a Student Fellow at the Jewish Art Salon.

What inspired you to become an artist?

I was never really good at school, the only thing that would get me through the week when I started high school was knowing there would be art club one night a week.  I would spend all of my free time in the Frisch art room.  It helped that all around my house are works of art that my aunt made.  If it was not for watching her make art and having her paintings on my walls I do not know if I would have initially been drawn to art. 

What is your specialty?

While I love to practice all forms of art, by trade I am a painter.  A painter of hands to be specific.  Artists always say when drawing the figure that the hands are the hardest part to complete, for me, I took that as a challenge. I mastered the hand and made it the primary focus of my work. 

How and where do you work?

Currently, due to the pandemic, I set up a makeshift studio in the front entryway of my home.  My MFA program dedicates a studio space for each student to work on the art.  While this space is still available to me, I simply rather spend the time at home in order to minimize my exposure to others.  However, this limits the size of painting I am able to complete, if I want to paint on a larger scale I must go into the studio.  If I am in need of an etching press, I will also go into the printmaking studio to do work.  As safe as I want to be, when I want to make art, nothing is going to stop me.  

What is the most indispensable item in your studio space?

My small palette knives.  I love to mix paint with my small palette knife, I have over a dozen different sizes, but I always use the small ones to mix paint.  Not sure why I do it, but once I broke it and tired using a different one, I just felt weird and had to just wait for the new one to come! The same could be said of small paint brushes, I usually paint on canvases no smaller then 18” x 24”, yet the brushes I use are 1/4th of in inch wide! Some say I am torturing myself, but I just love getting all up into the painting with my small brushes!

Where do you take your inspiration? Are you pursuing any themes?

My life as an observant Jew has taught me a lot about tradition and the effect the written word has on an individual by the means of prayer. From the teachings instilled in me, I learned that our bodies are sacred and on loan to us from Gd. As a painter, my hands play an integral part in my life.  Just as people take their everyday bodily functions for granted, they often displace the preeminent component of hands.  I strive in my work to show the different ways hands can be utilized, contorted, and displayed. 

My art focuses on the mystique of the human hand as well as the plethora of narratives that can be derived from them.  Sometimes it can be revealed through the spelling of words and other times by the positions of the hands.  I obtain great satisfaction when I am able to combine my fascination of the human hand with the written word into one cohesive and successful artwork.  

Do you do bespoke work?

I take commissions, in the past people have approached me to create specific pieces of art for their homes.  My favorite piece I was commissioned to do was over the summer.  A couple, whom I have been friends with since high school, was preparing to get married.  The bride’s grandfather had recently passed away and left several unfinished Ketubah borders.  They approached me to create a personalized monogram for their wedding benchers and then paint this monogram into the open area of the unfinished border.  I was honored to be able to complete such a personal piece for the couple.  The bride was touched to have her grandfather’s work completed and turned into something so special.

What projects are you currently working on?

Currently, I am working on three separate bodies of work. The first, a series of linocut prints, revolving around the Hebrew alphabet. When completed, there will be twenty-two individual editions of prints, each featuring a Hebrew letter and the image of an object that corresponds with that letter.  For example, for the letter aleph, I did an aryeh, which in English means lion.

I am always working on different oil paintings.  This body of work consists of words made out of hands; each letter is formed out of the human hand.  Currently it is an oil paint diptych, two paintings that will be featured side by side when finished. One titled FOR SALE and the other SOLD. 

The third body of work came into existence November 2019.  I was introduced to artist Michel Schwartz whose work I quickly fell in love with.  The ideas he embraced immediately drew me in.  I then adapted his style of text and placed it into chamsas.  Having the words vibrate throughout the whole chamsa. Many of these paintings include the words of Shema, my favorite part of davening.  As it was the first piece of davening my parents taught me from the moment I was born.  Each night they would say Shema with me and to this day, I never miss a day of saying shema before bedtime. 

(5”x7”- linocut) א–אריה

Photo: Courtesy of Helene Liala Brenenson

Shema Yisroel, 22”x30”, Watercolor and Gouache on Arches Watercolor Paper, 2019

Photo: Courtesy of Helene Liala Brenenson

What are your favorite item/s in your current collection?

My favorite paintings right now in my house are titled Shema During the Pandemic and Aish, both pieces where painted this past spring while sequestered to my house.  The way the colors in both of these paintings play off one and another blow my mind.  I look back at both of these paintings and think to myself, ‘wow, did I really paint these?’

Aish, 40”x30”, Oil on Canvas, 2020

Photo: Courtesy of Helene Liala Brenenson

Shema During the Pandemic, 18”x24”, Oil on Canvas, 2020

Photo: Courtesy of Helene Liala Brenenson

How do you know when a piece is finished?

I know a piece is finished after I stare at it for hours on end and realize if I touch it again, I will mess it up. 

What was the first artwork you ever sold?

While I cannot remember which painting sold first it was defiantly one of two.  It was either a long Havdalah candle painting, with the words ‘Borei Meorie HaAish’ illuminating the candle or a square painting of a pomegranate.  I had painted both during my sophomore year of college and by the following year both were sold!  

Which project have you enjoyed working on the most so far?

Each piece I am working on is most enjoyable to work on until the next one comes along and replaces it.  I always strive to outdo myself with each painting.  So, it only makes sense that the following one is always the most enjoyable. 

What do you want to achieve with your work and what are your wishes for the future?

I want to instill color in my viewers lives.  I want the colors to warm their hearts and shock their eyes.  I also want to achieve a sense of importance in regard to the hand.  I want people to look at the paintings, see the hands and realize just how much they can do.  In the future I hope to continue to clarify the way words play a part in my paintings, at the moment, some people have a hard time seeing them, I would like everyone to eventually be able to realize the painting is literally saying something. Gd willing, the pandemic will subside soon and when it does, I wish to be able to travel and continue to learn from other artists around the world. 

Where can we find your work?

You can find my artwork on my website, you can commission a work there or private message me on Instagram @fineartbyhelene.  

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