Juxtaposed Journey: Life takes artist from Holocaust ‘Into the light’

Kalman Aron calls on an old friend to help him tell his story in remarkable new book.

By Linda Hutchison

More than 60 years ago, artist Kalman Aron painted a portrait of 6-year-old Susan Beilby Magee. In it, he captured her large, luminous hazel eyes, full of curiosity and compassion. In the years that followed, their paths would cross many times, but it wasn’t until five decades later that he would turn to that inner light he saw in Magee and ask her to help him tell his story.

Kalman Aron in his studio with his "Portrait of Henry Miller." Photo © Elisabeth Caren

She agreed and the resulting book – “Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron” – was published last year. It is the story of Aron’s personal journey from darkness to light as shown in his paintings. A Holocaust survivor, he did not want to talk about his experiences in concentration camps, preferring to keep his story quietly inside.

“Its most important message is one of transformation and healing,” said Magee, who lives in La Jolla Shores and Washington, D.C. To convey this message, she has masterfully woven her own and Aron’s words around his lifetime of paintings. “His paintings are a visual example of his transformation,” she said. Most of all, the book is about choices, according to Magee. How does one respond to the extremes of human brutality? Does one choose to remember, forgive and heal?

Aron’s story begins in Riga, Latvia, where he was born in 1924. He began drawing as a child, sketching his parents’ friends, encouraged by his shoemaker father. When he was 13, he was chosen to paint the Latvian president.

At age 17, in 1941, he was studying art at a local school when the Germans invaded. His father, and later his mother, were both taken away and never seen again. He and his brother were confined to the Riga ghetto and forced into slave labor. Aron’s four-year nightmare included seven camps in all, including Buchenwald in Germany. He survived by being carefully observant and invisible, and by drawing for the guards, who would bring him photographs of their children to paint.

Kalman Aron painted this portrait of Susan Magee when she was 6.

After the war, local officials helped Aron win a scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. In 1949, he emigrated to the United States, landing in Los Angeles with his wife Trudy. At first, he made his living by painting ceramic dishes in a factory and drawing maps. In the evenings, he worked on his own art, focusing on three main subjects: children and his new neighbors, the buildings and landscapes around him, and memories of the Holocaust. His talent and his ability to focus and observe allowed him to become a well-known portrait artist, painting many celebrities, including Ronald Reagan and Henry Miller.

In 1951, Magee’s mother walked into a frame store in Los Angeles and was mesmerized by a portrait hanging inside of a boy with huge brown eyes. The painting reminded her of her own daughter, who had died 10 years earlier as a baby. She asked for the name of the artist and was told he was a recent émigré from Europe (Aron). So she hired him to paint portraits of her daughters – Elena, 8 and Susan, 6.

Magee and her mother kept in touch with Aron, collecting his art. He attended Magee’s wedding and painted her wedding portrait as a gift. A graduate of Glendale High School and Pomona College, with an MBA from Wharton School, Magee moved into a fast-moving, high-powered career, including working as a White House Fellow and in the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Department.

In 1987, suffering burnout, she began practicing meditation and became a hypnotherapist. Today she teaches meditation, leads prayer and guided visualization groups. During one meditation, she says the image of a book she was supposed to write came to her. When she reflected on what it was supposed to be about, the words “good and evil” came to her.

Susan Magee,

A few years later, Magee contacted Aron and asked him to bring some of his latest work to her mother’s home in Palm Springs. He had just seen the movie, “The Pianist,” about another Holocaust survivor. After years of not wanting to talk about his own experiences, Aron turned to Magee and asked if she would write his story. She said yes, knowing this was the book she was meant to write.

“I immediately interviewed him for hours,” she said. Then, for the next several years, Magee retraced Aron’s steps from Riga through the camps in Latvia, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia to the art academy in Vienna.

And using those eyes full of curiosity, she looked carefully at Aron’s work. “I had to look for his story on canvas,” she said. “It was a challenge.”

It was even more difficult for Magee because she had avoided reading about the Holocaust, finding the subject too upsetting.

“I could never have written the book if I had not healed myself,” she said. “I could not have tuned into his paintings.” What she saw was how he had recaptured and reclaimed his life through painting. His paintings progressed from dark and hollow images to those full of vibrant color.

When the book was launched and Aron stepped onto a stage that included two former California governors, it was the first time he could be visible, Magee explained. “He waited until he was 78 years old to tell his story, until he felt safe enough to be seen.”

Aron's early paintings in Los Angeles were often black and grey illustrations of old buildings such as this house in Bunker Hill that held haunting echoes of his childhood in Latvia.

Today at 89, Aron has found profound peace, said Magee. He still paints in his Los Angeles home of 30 years.

Related posts:

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  3. Local painters have fun with steamy show at La Jolla Art Association
  4. Drawn to art: Museums court next generation of patrons
  5. Artful Beginnings

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Posted by Staff on Dec 4, 2013. Filed under A & E, Art. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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