Free-form artist makes Providence home

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One day in 2008, Noah Lubin walked into an art gallery in Jerusalem. He was feeling “brazen.”

He knew the place, at least from the outside. He’d walked past the display window many times.  But on this day, he happened to be carrying a portfolio of his artwork.

He knew he shouldn’t go in. This wasn’t how artists met art dealers.

So maybe it was no surprise that, when he offered to show his work to the owners, they curtly replied, no.

“Well, too bad,” Lubin remembers saying. “Here it is.”

This was out of character for Lubin, who is now 43 and lives on the East Side of Providence with his wife and six children. But even for back then, when he was a single 29-year-old making aliyah, Lubin was in a rare mood.

Sure, he had spent time painting in the streets of Israel, and he’d personally sold some of his work. But this was a big step for him – and, incredibly, it paid off. The gallery owners looked at his paintings. They conferred in a back room. When they came out, they promised to represent him. So began Lubin’s career as a professional artist.

“We created a kind of commercial arrangement,” Lubin recalled in a recent interview. “I worked with them professionally, full time, as a commercial artist, for numerous years.”

Today, Lubin is best known for large canvases caked in color and abstractions. Each painting is a jazzy blend of shapes and figures. These are the works that wowed the gallery owners in Israel and eventually led to showings in New York. They also reflect the free-form nature of Lubin’s life. It is only in recent years that Lubin has diverged from this style, as he digs into his Jewish roots.

“The reason people loved [the abstracts] was the same reason they hated it,” Lubin says. “ ‘I hate it, anybody can paint that, it’s scribble.’ ‘Oh, I love it, it’s so free and vibrant!’ [But] I just went forward and forward.”

Lubin grew up on the North Side of Chicago. West Rogers Park is well known for its large Jewish population, but Lubin notes that it’s also one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city. This was important to his mother, who was a teacher, artist and political advocate.

“My mother was promoting multiculturalism in the ’80s,” Lubin says.

Mostly, she promoted artists of diverse backgrounds, including recent immigrants to the United States. They would hold meetings in the family’s apartment, and Lubin would often join his mother to tour art studios around town. Inspired, Lubin would come home and sketch.

“I tried to mimic the artists that I saw,” he says.

Lubin grew up in a busy household, with seven siblings and many pets. His father was a government employee, but he also performed in reggae bands and was deeply interested in Vedanta, a branch of Hindu mysticism.

Lubin has fond memories of his home, which overlooked a park and was always busy with meditation, music, art-making and visitors. Both his parents were Jewish by birth, and Lubin’s mother felt a kinship with Orthodox Judaism. She would make efforts to kasher the home, although Lubin says that rules were never his family’s strong suit.

“There was no denomination we fully fit into,” he says.

Lubin stands over 6 feet tall. He speaks in rapid-fire bursts, followed by contemplative pauses. His default expression is dire seriousness bordering on physical pain. Yet he shows flashes of humor, followed by a self-effacing laugh.

Recounting his biography, Lubin knowingly jumps around, until it seems like he was pursuing three life-paths at any given moment. One moment, he’s studying improv with Bernard Sahlins, the founder of Second City, the famous improv troupe in Chicago. Then he’s in the studio of legendary artist Ed Paschke. Then he’s getting into music, practicing guitar and cultivating a startlingly bluesy voice. At some point, he earns a master’s degree in education, and then he studies at a seminary in New York City. Everywhere Lubin goes, he’s trying something new.

“Life’s a canvas to me,” he says. “In college, I took as many courses as I could. I wanted to be near the teachers, and I wanted to learn things. And it was hard, because when they showed me rules, I wouldn’t want to follow them. When they didn’t show me rules, I was irritated. I was like, ‘Show me some rules.’ ”

This hunger to learn took Lubin to Israel for more than three years. He became a full-time artist and was increasingly drawn to Orthodox Judaism. The gallery owners he worked with were Hassidic, and he found himself at Orthodox shuls and seders.

One of his sisters had attended an Orthodox high school, and his mother had sent Lubin to an Orthodox summer camp. Slowly, he decided to commit himself to Orthodox Judaism.

“There wasn’t a single linear event,” says Lubin. “[Orthodoxy] felt like home to me, in some ways. I just loved it. There were structures and frameworks to it. Even though it went against my more open upbringing, that had appeal. I only partly joke that Orthodoxy was my rebellion.”

Lubin met his wife, Batsheva, online. Batsheva lived in Boston, so Lubin decided to move back to the U.S., although he still hopes to return to Israel with his family. They lived for a time in Boston, but as housing prices skyrocketed, they sought a more affordable home in Providence. Here, they are happily raising their children.

“We fell in love with Rhode Island,” Lubin says. “It has all the amenities of Chicago. It’s just awesome. It’s beautiful. The community is safe for raising kids. You just travel a little bit, and you can get to the ocean. I find the people to be kind.”

Lubin’s most recent project is, once again, a divergence from everything that came before. Around 2015, after the passing of his father, Lubin started to focus on portraits, specifically of people from the Jewish diaspora. After securing some private funding, he traveled to Europe to photograph passersby, and then used their images as the basis for a new series of paintings. He carved a path through Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Vienna, taking pictures as he went.

“We keep trying to find ourselves in these other faces,” Lubin muses. “I looked for people I wanted to paint. Even though my paintings ended up looking quite different from the photographs, they were faces which inspired me to paint. Sometimes, of course, I would have the privilege of getting their names, and where are they are from, and their stories – and many times I didn’t.”

Most of these portraits stand at about 5 feet tall, which requires a lot of studio space.

When COVID interrupted Lubin’s work, he packed up his studio in Hope Artiste Village, in Pawtucket. Most of his series is now in storage, and he’s looking for a new workspace.

He imagines one day having a gallery show, or even continuing to travel and document the faces of the Jewish diaspora.

Like so much of Lubin’s life, this latest effort is a work in progress.

“I had that question, ‘Where do I go with this?’   ‘When does the project stop?’ ‘What am I going to do with the project?’ ” he says. “That’s been a little painful to me in some ways. It’s hard, because I love the world. I love different artistic expressions. Where to go with them? I don’t know. I just keep painting.”

To see more of Lubin’s work, go to www.noahsamuellubin.com.

ROBERT ISENBERG (risenberg@jewishallianceri.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.