Conversations in Art with Aliza
Gila Balsam was my daughters’ art teacher when they were young. I loved everything “art” but could not entertain the thought of carving out time to paint myself. I didn’t realise that mothers could (and should) make time for themselves. “Self-care” wasn’t really a part of my vocabulary yet. Whenever I would bring my girls to class, Gila would say, “When are you going to do this for yourself?” Thankfully, I eventually did, and Gila worked with me to hone my skills.
While she is a truly excellent teacher, in this article I would like you to join my conversation with Gila as we delve into the beautiful art she herself creates. Gila is certainly not afraid of colour; beautiful reds and other fall colours flow naturally from her brush, and the oils permeate her canvas with a richness and warmth that draws you in.
How did you get into art?
I was always very creative, but I discovered oil painting around 22 years ago. My son needed an extracurricular activity, so I signed him up for a painting class. The whole process fascinated me and I loved all the colors, so I signed up for a lady’s class. After painting for a few years, a friend asked me to teach a group of children, and one group led to another. I now teach four ladies’ groups and five children’s classes a week.
How have your classes and techniques changed over the years?
I think my style of teaching has changed a lot over the years. I used to run quite a tight ship. The parents were paying me to teach their kids to paint, so I made sure to give them their money’s worth. We started to paint right on time and no schmoozing was allowed!
Over the years, I have realised that there’s a lot more to art than just the skills of painting. The kids come in after a stressful day at school and need to unwind a bit. I ask each one how they are and converse with them a little. I let them schmooze while they are painting (as long as it’s not lashon hara) and we listen to music. I try to encourage the kids to express themselves in their paintings and to boost their confidence. Phrases like “I don’t know” are not allowed; I want to hear their opinions! They learn so much besides art skills. Self-confidence, mistakes are okay and patience are all important parts of art; in fact, they’re more important than talent. Talent is overrated—anyone can learn how to paint!! In fact, I was not born painting. I worked hard and took many classes and I go over my work many times.
My techniques have changed, much in the same way. I used to be a big rule-follower when painting. I would go over things again and again until I got it right and I followed all the rules of measuring, perspective and colour-mixing. Then one day I just broke free, and it felt so good! I’ll never be an abstract painter, but my paintings and style have gotten much looser and freer. My portraits have way more colour in them and are more of an interpretation of the person rather than an exact replica of them.
What is the most indispensable item in your studio?
I love the new chairs I got for the studio. They go up and down, swivel and can roll around the studio. The children just give a push and they roll to get paper towels and other supplies, and I roll from person to person to help them. I nicknamed one of my students “Roly” because she loves to roll around when she needs different supplies.
What are some of your favourite moments as a teacher?
It’s hard to choose one favourite moment, but I would have to say it’s seeing a student break through some kind of barrier and accomplish what they once thought was impossible! For instance, when a student who would go over the same things again and again in an attempt to make it perfect shows me a person’s shirt on their canvass, painted with bold marks and movement. I can just feel their newfound confidence! Honestly, it brings tears to my eyes!
Do you notice differences between boys and girls when teaching?
I haven’t taught boys in a few years, but I find girls to be way more critical of themselves, while boys finish their paintings fast and are generally happier with their work. Of course, these are general statements, but many girls don’t like me taking pictures of them, especially in their teen years. Boys generally don’t join art classes for an extended period of time—it’s more of an activity for them—but I have girls who started classes with me when they were 10 years old and came back after seminary, or even after they were married!
I always tell the parents of boys, “If your son is creative/artistic, it is your responsibility as a parent to find them an outlet. It is part of who they are and they NEED to create!” Our yeshivos don’t offer these kinds of outlets for them, so it is up to the parents to find them a class where they can create. Unfortunately, there’s not too much available in the way of art for a yeshivah boy these days.
When you’re feeling low about yourself what do you do?
I love listening to an uplifting shiur while I paint. It always lifts me up when I’m feeling low. Currently, I listen to Rabbi Yehoshua Nissan on TorahAnytime. He quotes the Nisivos Shalom and keeps reminding me how special Klal Yisrael is. Even in this crazy world, every good deed we do accomplishes so much. Angels can’t do what we can, because we have free will to choose to do good. When Mashiach comes, he will want to shake our hands—we, who managed to continue to do mitzvos in an upside-down world. This is very uplifting for me!
To see more of Gila’s paintings, check her out on Instagram @Gila_artist_painting.