Helena Spearman was sipping calmly from a plastic cup of water at the London Jewish Cultural Centre last Thursday night when her work was announced among the “highly commended” entries to the London Jewish Cultural Centre’s Art House contest and exhibition. Floods of tears ensued as the Totteridge resident was embraced by friends. “He told me to enter,” she sobbed, a reference to her late husband Tony, who died two years ago, aged 68.
Tony had encouraged her artistic pursuits: “Whenever I would bring home a painting from my art classes and hang it up in the hall to dry, we would both stand there and discuss it.”
Entrants to the JC-sponsored competition — open to both professional and amateur artists — could submit up to three artworks. Spearman entered two oil canvas pieces of Cornish coastal scenes, another reminder of her husband. “We used to love to be by the sea and the Cornwall coast inspired me so much. But I haven’t been since he died.
“I’m getting upset because he isn’t here to support me. He would have thought this was wonderful and have been proud of me. But he isn’t here.”
Being selected as one of the best of the 340 pieces submitted — from paintings of fruit bowls to creative photography — was a total surprise to the artist. “I’m amazed that they displayed both of the pictures I submitted, let alone receive this [commendation].”
Many of the artists were among a packed crowd at the LJCC’s Golders Green premises, where the 115 works selected as the pick of the crop by the judging panel were displayed in two rooms.
LJCC exhibitions curator and Art House judge Julia Weiner described Spearman as a competition “frontrunner”, congratulating the commended artist, who was straightening paintings which had been knocked sideways in the viewing crush.
Weiner said the judging panel had faced a “daunting” challenge. “It took us around three hours to narrow it down. That works out to around 100 paintings an hour.”
Professional artist Carol Tarn took the £2,000 top prize for her paintings Radio Days and Gary and Viv. The £1,000 second prize went to 19-year-old Gita Kraus for Chilling Out and third-placed Theodore Matoff won £500 for The Sculptor’s Widow, Sfat. As well as being part of the LJCC showcase, which runs until the end of October, their work will also be displayed for a weekend at Hampstead’s Catto Gallery, whose director Iain Barratt was also among the judges, along with Patrick Bade of Christie’s and artist Kimberley Gundle. Tarn said she used “oils to paint in fine layers and this piece took me about six months to finish. I dressed real people up in vintage costume and used both real life and imagination.” She will put the money towards studio rent.
The judges had been unanimous about the winner, which “just stood out as something a bit quirky and different. It’s not your typical painting of still life paintings of flowers or fruit. There’s a lot of nostalgia.” Weiner praised “the spirited handling of paint by the second prize winner and polished look of the third prize winner’s work”.
Kraus, from Golders Green, had entered a piece she had submitted for her A-level art exam at Menorah High School for Girls (she received an A*). “I painted my brother Avi when he was about 11. I wanted to make a fun and quirky picture of a boy after school looking quite laid-back. He went to Pardes school, but I changed the uniform. It took me about 15 hours to make,” added Kraus, who works for Kisharon. She had entered the competition for the first time alongside her mother Shoshi, to whom she credited her artistic side. “I love painting with tones of colour. It was definitely a complete shock to be one of the winners.”
Among those who came to admire the art was Limor Sion, 24, who said the event was “really cool. It has brought the whole community together — religious and not religious.” Cancer specialist Professor Michael Baum was equally impressed by the attendance. “Just look at how many people have turned up. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are so many artists in the community that this was even over-subscribed.”
Prof Baum, 72, who has painted since childhood, submitted three entries but only one was displayed — Bowl of Fruit. He was accompanied by wife Judy on the evening of their 48th wedding anniversary. “I’m inspired by my life as a surgeon. I know a lot about anatomy and like painting nudes, but my wife wouldn’t let me submit any of those! I was only allowed to exhibit a fruit bowl. How pathetic is that.”
Another exhibitor was former government employee Helene Gross, 79, who has donated past paintings to Israeli charities and grateful workmen. “A plumber once chose one of my paintings and took it home,” she recalled smiling.
Chloé Delmonte, 23, a student of fine art at Central Saint Martins, had two pieces displayed on the night. Delmonte, from Manchester, learned about Art House from a friend. She was delighted to see her piece — an altered black-and-white photo of her mum, auntie and grandparents — hung prominently. “My mum and aunt are identical twins and are both artists,” she said. “I tried to reflect that in what I’ve done with the photograph by also using graphics and symbols. It’s a type of mixed media, where you blur the lines between text and photography rather than focus on the aesthetics of art. It’s a great feeling when you try hard on something and get results.”
And the results were financial for Charlotte Posner, 26, who studied at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. The pen, ink and watercolour drawing of her bedroom — full of posters and images ranging from Oscar Wilde to her grandparents — was bought by Genevieve Jacobs, who said: “I just absolutely love it. It made me smile”.
Exhibits by service users of Norwood and Hammerson residents drew acclaim. Visitor Stephanie Brahams observed: “Anything that comes out of Norwood is brilliant. The range is amazing and the charity is wonderful for giving them the confidence to do these pieces.”
A charitable spirit was also displayed by the family of the late Susan Brown, an art lecturer who died in January. The family financially supported Art House in her memory. Brown’s sister Diane Barnett (another contest judge) said that “Susan was very clever about everthing, from politics to literature. She was a brilliant girl whose one real passion was art. She never painted herself but she had over 300 art books and used to give lots of talks on art for fundraising events.”
Emunah honorary officer Helen French recalled that Brown “used to come with her art slides and speak at our art events 20 years ago. They were wonderful slides.”
Close friend Jill Illingworth, who knew her for over 25 years, added that “she would be quite amazed by tonight. I’m going around looking at all these paintings and wondering what she would think of them.
“She educated me about art. She used to have a way of bringing the paintings alive and went through phases from Cubism to Picasso.”