If you ask Igal Fedida what inspires him, he’ll give you a seemingly simple answer: everything.
Fedida has been at the Old City Jewish Art Center all month as its artist-in-residence and will remain through the beginning of August. The gallery’s walls display his abstract works, bursting with color and symbolism tied to the spirit and themes of Genesis and creation.
He got his start creating as early as 3 years old, but it took him a while until he reached internationally acclaimed status.
Growing up in Lod, Israel, he moved to Los Angeles after finishing his duties in the Israel Defense Forces.
He studied photography at UCLA and followed that for many years, and he also started a construction company. Despite its success, however, there was something gnawing at him. He continued creating in the background but knew he was destined for something other than construction.
“I had a calling. I felt that I have to do this,” recalled Fedida, taking a break during a recent afternoon at OCJAC in his studio clothes, a baseball cap and vivid blue glasses with multicolored arms. “I started to ask questions about what’s my purpose? Is it just to make money and to make a living and support a family? I have something much more than that to give.”
So one day he went to his wife and said to choose a place in the world to take a one-year vacation — they chose Israel — and after that, “we’re selling everything and I’m starting from scratch and we’re going to be poor or rich, I don’t know. I want to paint.”
They moved to Miami upon their return with their four kids, now between 13 and 19, and he got to work. He opened a gallery in Miami and later in New York City, commuting between the two cities before it got to be too exhausting. But it was an educational period for him.
“I always say now with my experience, to be an artist is someone that really sacrifices,” he said. “That’s what will be the definition of who is an artist or not. … It’s a calling, it’s an essence. It’s not a fun thing. People are coming to you like, ‘Oh, you live the life, it’s fun, you paint.’ It’s a big sacrifice, it’s a big emotional thing. If you’re a real artist, you really paint your soul, you know?”
It was at his gallery in New York that OCJAC co-director Zalmon Wircberg first encountered Fedida’s works. When a friend RSVP’d “going” to a Facebook event at the gallery, Wircberg decided to attend. Instantly he loved Fedida’s works and wanted to bring him to Philadelphia.
He got his chance in February when he was able to bring Fedida in for a First Friday event while his works were on display.
“His art is very unique, very different,” said Wircberg, standing with Hanna Schapira, who, with her husband, has hosted Fedida in her nearby home during his residency.
“It’s nice to have something refreshing, something out of Philadelphia,” he added. “Nobody’s seen him in Philadelphia, he’s never been here before. So to be able to expose him to the local community here is very exciting.”
Fedida works in the gallery during the day, greets visitors who come in and chats with them, continues to paint until late in the evening (or early morning) before resting at Schapira’s home.
Following his calling and creating art is a way to live out what he feels he was meant to do. It got him through the rough patches and hard times on his way to success.
“I believe that every person — you, the lady that came in, everyone — has a gift to share with this world,” Fedida said. “This world is all about giving. You are not here to take. You’re here to give. That giving is the mission of everyone to find.”
His work for the last 10 years has been inspired by Genesis, specifically the moment before the light and the moment after the light in creation, he explained. Colors and shapes all have meaning. Red, for instance, symbolizes life. Black and white symbolize the light and dark before and after creation.
“I read the Torah, I read [the] Talmud, a lot of kabbalah, esoteric Jewish mysticism, stories and text, a lot of poetry. … And I take that text and I translate it to the piece through color, movement, material, the technique,” he said.
When creating shamayim, or heavens, he said, he follows the theme of mixing fire and water.
“I take water-based materials and I take fire and I put them together. And with that I create. What will be fire for me? I take tar, roofing tar, I take heat, and I move with the heat, the water and I create shamayim.”
The themes of life have bled into his real life as well. His parents moved to Israel from Casablanca, Morocco, and he grew up listening to French music, eating Moroccan food and speaking Arabic at home. He has a brother and a sister. About three months ago, he lost another brother, a tennis player who was killed in Costa Rica.
“Everything is genesis. Everything is motif of life,” he said. “And now because of what happened to me, I see life and death because still a few months ago, the red in my pieces was only life, birth. And here I found myself putting the red piece as a symbol for my brother as his death. But it was not death — it’s a new beginning for him and for me.”
Though Fedida would not outright call himself an “artist” — to him, that’s just a label or a profession — he noted the rewarding part of what he does has been the connections he’s made and seeing how his work translates to others.
He has a cache of stories of how his art has made strangers cry because it reminded them of something in their own life that they found in the piece.
“I’m not an artist. I’m a builder, I build my world through my art. That’s why I use my building materials,” he said. “I’m a creator. I’m a healer. I’m a teacher. I’m a mentor. I’m a student. Not an artist. ‘Artist’ is a profession, and this is not a profession for me.
“Everyone will come with his gift, with what really they are. And this is what I think I’m living a life of that.”