When a massive fire swept through the Jerusalem hills in 2016, it destroyed 25 years’ worth of artist Yoram Raanan’s paintings. But, the 65-year-old, American-born painter said it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“I never got upset about it,” said Raanan. “I was saved, and somehow I never had this connection or pain or any hurt or suffering from this whole thing.”
It was November 25, 2016 when the fires that had been occurring throughout the country spread to the wooded hills outside Jerusalem, burning down homes and businesses, including the beloved Rama restaurant in nearby Nataf, as well as Raanan’s studio in Beit Meir.
Raanan and his wife, Meira, have lived in Israel for the last 40 years, 25 of them in Beit Meir, a religious moshav just above Shoresh. The community is outside Jerusalem, surrounded by forests and nature reserves, part of the natural surroundings that first drew them to the area.
It was the middle of that November night when Raanan was woken by his wife, who told him they needed to leave their house quickly, as the fires were spreading.
He grabbed a flash drive containing photographs of his paintings, as well as his prayer shawl and phylacteries. Raanan remembers seeing the orange glow of the fire spreading over his neighbor’s house, as the long, silvery leaves of the eucalyptus tree outside his studio were flickering down, burning at their very tips.
The tree, singed and black, but still alive, stands outside Raanan’s new studio. The space where he once worked, however, a former chicken coop that he painted in for 25 years, along with 2,000 of his oversized, colorful acrylic works, as well as his entire record and book collections, were completely destroyed, leaving only the cement floor behind.
Rather than feel completely bereft, he felt elated, even on the very night that he and his family, including his daughter and her family, were escaping the fire, aware that they might have nothing to return to.
“I said, ‘Gam zu le’tova,’ something really good is going to come out of this,” he recalled.
“My wife couldn’t believe what I was saying. I was just on a high from the very beginning, I never got upset about it, I was completely unattached to it, I still am.”
The family’s houses were saved, but the studio and the landscaped gardens around the studio — an expansive backyard that had been dug, planted and weeded by Raanan over the course of many years — were burned to the ground, decimated as if they’d never been there.
The garden’s destruction was a painful event for Raanan, but he’d never liked his studio, a refurbished chicken coop.
“The whole structure drove me crazy,” he said.
“The ceilings weren’t as high as I wanted. I knew I was lucky to have it, but I just didn’t like it. God listened, and gave me a new studio.”
The Israeli government, which first sent teams to clean up the site, gave Raanan a one-time payment of NIS 1 million (around $274,000) to build a new space — which turned out to be about NIS 125,000 (around $34,000) after local and US taxes. Nothing was paid on the lost canvases, which generally range in price from $3,000 to $50,000.
Raanan used the insurance payments to rebuild the 300-square-meter (3,229 square feet) studio, which now has a higher ceiling and better, more fire-proof materials, including outside aluminum paneling that is similar to materials used for refrigerators, keeping the studio warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
The fire also gave him a new direction in his work, something he hadn’t anticipated at that stage.
“It’s really weird to tell you the truth,” said Raanan. “I should be devastated. But I felt I had a new lease on life, that I could start all over again, no pain, only gain and enthusiasm.”
Raanan’s paintings changed in the last year and a half, moving from his traditional acrylic on canvas abstracts, with splashy bright colors often depicting images that appeared religious and spiritual, to bold, serious strokes of oil paints on wood panels.
“I felt I needed this connection to earth and being organic, and the fire and the trees burning,” he said. “I felt a need to connect to that, painted only in black, brown, earthy colors.”
Within time, he began to add color but stuck with the earthy images, like in “Alter/Altar,” a striking canvas which has a sacrificial look, and could be a painting of Raanan’s studio going up in flames.
“I don’t know if it’s alter or altar,” he said. “It was all done totally subconsciously, totally without thought, I just wanted to move the brush around.”
While this was a time of great change and shifts for Raanan, he also found that he was much more calm and grounded, and wanted to appreciate that moment. Blues and greens weren’t in the picture yet, as they felt too lighthearted and happy for this particular period.
“I had more confidence, a sense that I could do whatever I want,” he said. “I got letters and emails and we sold prints like crazy. I didn’t realize just how much people cared about me and my work.”
For much of his career, many of Raanan’s clients have been modern Orthodox and Orthodox Jews, who find meaning and content in his work.
He is also religiously observant in his own personal life, as well as a contemporary artist. He has always found that his clients relate to the innate spiritual city of his work, to the great strokes of color, and the imagery that appears to be Biblical and religious in nature.
It’s not completely without reason, as one of Raanan’s long-standing projects has been paintings of the weekly Torah portion, both for clients and for the press, now compiled into “Art of Revelation: A Visual Encounter with the Jewish Bible,” a coffee table book showcasing 160 paintings on the 54 Torah portions, with explanations written by his wife, Meira.
Lately, he’s begun expanding to the Christian market, to clients who also respond to the innate emotion and spirituality in this works.
But as he moves beyond the fire and what it meant for him, Raanan has found himself further exploring his artistry, working with even larger canvases, set on the floors of his studio, where he flings paint randomly, figuring out where those gestures take him.
The fire and its trajectory have created new opportunities for Raanan, who will have his works displayed in the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. He’s also working on some private commissions.
“It’s been a productive period since the fire, and I’ve always been prolific, working on several paintings at a time,” he said. “I work on whatever I want to work on.”