Can art change the world? Bais Yaakov-bred artist Libby Klein is an unequivocal believer that yes, it can, and yes, it will
When artist Libby Klein put her work on display for the first time at the Brooklyn Market, her childhood friends were confused when they saw her. “Why are you here?” they asked.
“This is my art,” she said, gesturing to the large, bright canvas.
“What do you mean?”
“These are my paintings. I made them.” Most people didn’t believe her. They always knew Libby to be creative — an avid dancer and lover of all things pretty — but she wasn’t an artist. As a child, Libby Klein chatted to her friends with the phone on speaker, her hands busy molding clay miniatures, basketball players, ballerinas, or a likeness of someone she knew. But she was never much of a painter.
Brushstrokes with a Mission
Libby, who was born in Yerushalyim and raised in Monsey, only started painting regularly when she got married and moved to Lakewood.
“I started taking classes with the late Mrs. Shevy Shurkin a”h, an art teacher who lived near me, and I loved it. There were all different types of people at the classes and we would just chill. Shevy always made me feel like a million dollars. She once put a painting of mine in her window because she knew that my husband would walk by and be proud to see it. She made me feel good about myself, as though I was the best artist.”
Unfortunately, when Libby met her, Shevy was nearing the end of a seven-year battle with cancer. Before Chanukah of 2018, Shevy wanted to make a party for the art students, but the women knew she wasn’t up to it; she could barely walk or talk anymore. Libby and her friends put the party together instead. The event went on until three o’clock in the morning, after which Shevy asked Libby, “Can we do this again next Rosh Chodesh?”
Unfortunately, Shevy didn’t make it to the next Rosh Chodesh party, but they’ve been going on ever since. Every month, fifty women gather at Libby’s house for an hour of inspiration and empowerment. Ladies would often comment on the paintings adorning her walls — the same paintings she’d made in Shevy’s class, who had first initiated the Rosh Chodesh gatherings.
“Are those for sale?” the guests often asked. And that’s how Libby started selling her art.
“People told me you can’t make money, and logically, it didn’t make sense that I would. So many hours went into each piece.” Painting remained a fun passion on the side while Libby taught. But after ten years in the classroom, she was getting burnt out, and her husband pushed her to find a new job that would give her new energy.
Most options didn’t speak to Libby. She contemplated interior or clothing design, but wondered if either would give her the same meaning she so loved in teaching. Ultimately, her art morphed from a hobby into her profession, and two years into her painting career — with her art displayed in expos around the world and hanging on the wall in dozens of Jewish homes — Libby can say that, yes, she found the meaning she was seeking. Painting is a mission, and she finds spiritual purpose in it that surpasses the sum of just paint on a canvas.
“I realized that this could be a spiritual thing. I love to learn and I love to inspire. I’m also someone who loves beauty and style, so to mix the two parts together feels like completion. Painting takes me to another realm. There’s nothing like it.”
Spreading the Light
“It was hard for me to separate from my pieces when I first started selling them,” says Libby. “Each was a baby of mine. I touch it, I paint on it, I think about it, and I put myself in it. When my shver was very sick, I was in the middle of painting a picture of Kever Rochel. I was thinking about him a lot, and at one point I stopped painting, stared at the picture, and just started crying.”
Libby ran her fingers over the outlines she’d drawn — the domed roof of Rochel Imeinu’s home, the stone structure surrounding her kever. “You’re still with us,” Libby cried. “Please watch over us, take care of us.” When she finished the piece she felt intimately connected to it; how could she think of selling it?
She raised the question with Rav Yaakov Hillel shlita, who gave her another perspective on each piece of artwork. “You’re not giving away a part of yourself,” he said. “You’re extending it.” He led Libby to realize that when giving away a painting, she was sending along the emotions she felt while painting, too. She could change the tone of a home and imbue it with positivity through her work.
“Now when I give people a piece, I feel connected to them,” says Libby. “I’m part of their home and I get to spread my light to the world.” She takes comfort in knowing that her Kever Rochel painting is beautifying another Jewish home. With her new perspective, she barely keeps any pieces. She doesn’t want to relinquish the chance to light up the world.
In the corner of every picture — whether painted on wood, canvas, glass, or mirror — is a small bronze bee. It’s Libby’s logo, aptly named “Li-Bee.”
“The bee represents honey, life, energy, and sweetness. Every time I give a painting to a client, I give them a whole brachah and my clients usually get emotional hearing it. I tell them that the painting should give their house an energy, making it bright and beautiful.” Libby dreams that every painting will bear witness to good news in the home — and that the painting be a part of the simchahs too. “I really believe in the brachah,” she says.
A Bright, Beautiful Life
“I often get texts from people asking me to tell them ‘my story,’ ” Libby explains. “They’re waiting for a tortured-artist kind of story, but that’s really not what’s going on here. I didn’t have a tough, crazy life — at all.
“Perhaps what makes me ‘a classic artist’ is that I think I’m eccentric. I feel more energies than most people do, and I can connect to people in a deep way, but I’ve had a very happy, great life.” If there’s darkness, Libby chooses to navigate away from it, and she believes that vibrancy shows in her pieces. She has a few dark pieces, but even in those, an overarching brightness and energy takes center stage.
“People think that art means an alleyway in Tzfas where a man with long hair and sandals is painting on an easel,” Libby’s husband adds. “To get a regular Bais Yaakov girl who grew up in Monsey and now lives in Lakewood, down the street from her clients — it’s not something clients are used to. But once people came around to it, they realize she can understand them in a way that someone in Tzfas never will.”
Stories upon Stories
“I was speaking to Yaakov Schwekey recently and he was fascinated at how art and music are similar,” Libby says. “You want to give someone a feeling, but you don’t want to complete the feeling.
“You can either walk in and say, ‘Hi! This is the message you need to take!’ or you can let the person come in and figure out the message on their own.”
Libby leaves each piece abstract so the client can translate the energy on their own. What some see as texture, others see as tears. What some see as splatters, others see as rays of G-dliness. To Libby, the mark of a job well done is when a client can finish the story by adding their personal view.
When she goes to a client’s house to work on a commission, before creating their personal palette and crafting her technique for the piece, she simply listens for the first half hour, tuning into each person present. She needs to really feel them before she creates the piece.
As her husband explains, “The difference between a great artist and an okay artist is that a great artist can get into the other person’s psyche and extract what they’re feeling.” That’s what makes art challenging. It’s not always simple to tap into someone else’s story.
When a client requested an image of him at Uman, a place where Libby had never been, Libby began a dialogue with him. Why this image? What’s the point you want to show? What do you want to feel when you look at it? Then she researched Uman and the minhagim surrounding it.
Only once she found the heart of the story — how the man went to Uman and became a different person while he was there — did Libby begin painting. After all that research, she produced a magnificent piece that captured who the client was and the story he wanted to tell.
Because she invests so much into each piece, Libby will turn down projects if she doesn’t feel she can connect to them. “When people call me up and ask me to draw their mother, their father, or maybe a child that passed away, I say no. It’s so personal to them that I’ll never be able to capture the person to the fullest. I can make a drawing that looks like the person, but I know that I’ll never be able to capture the emotion the client is trying to bring back.”
Libby usually works on several pieces at a time, often jumping from one to the other. Sometimes she starts and finishes a painting in a single session and is happy with the final piece. And sometimes it’s just not working.
“I get frustrated, so I put it away for a week and come back when it’s had time to live in my head. I can never tell a client how long it will take because it depends on how well the energy flows.”
Libby’s studio floor is covered with canvases; passing through the room requires delicate choreography moves between the artwork. People often ask why she doesn’t paint on an easel, but her art has no rules. If inspiration strikes at midnight, she’s going to get out of bed and head to a canvas. The skill of artwork is technical, but the soul isn’t tangible.
“There are rules about colors and composition,” Libby says, “but most of it is a feeling.”
With four little children, Libby balances the ever-present struggle between motherhood and her work. “I still have that inner debate — that maybe I should be there for my kids more. I can’t tell you how much paint I’ve ruined,” she says, pointing to a number of open — and now dried-out — canisters dotting the floor of her studio.
“At 3:45 I drop everything and run because I have four kids who need their mother and want love. I still constantly wonder if I should be working at all, but then again, never in my life have I been this happy or this satisfied.”
Libby was describing the struggle to a friend one day, when the friend gestured to the canvases lining the walls and floors of Libby’s studio. “Can you imagine if all of this hadn’t emerged?” Libby couldn’t. Now that she unleashed what lay dormant inside her, she couldn’t envision a world in which she isn’t an artist.
“There are so many Jewish women who have creativity,” Libby points out. “It’s possible to let it emerge in a tzniyus way. I don’t post myself on social media. If I go to a show, my husband comes with me. All I’m doing is taking what’s inside me and spreading it.
“A year and a half ago, you didn’t see that part of me. People live for decades without expressing what’s inside. How sad is that? If you have an artistic talent and instead sit at a computer crunching numbers, you’re destroying yourself.”
She quotes the Chovos Halevavos, who says that a person should pursue whatever they enjoy and their parnassah will follow. “If you have a real passion and can tap into it — if you follow your path and take the journey you feel is right for you — everything else will fall into place.
“And even if it’s not about the money at all, find a way to do even a little of what you love. It will make you a happier person.” You may grow in an existing industry or create a new one, but whatever the details, she says, keeping it locked inside simply shouldn’t be an option.
“I have dreams,” Libby says. “I plan on having my artwork hanging on the walls of the Beis Hamikdash one day. I really want to change the world with my art.” And from the expanses of paint covering the canvases in her studio, each telling countless stories, it seems like Libby Klein already is.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 739)
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