Creating art in the name of a legend
Thousands of South African Jews attribute their safe journey into this world to the late obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr Jules Leeb. When he passed away in 2019 at the age of 87, the loss was devastating, especially for his daughter, Roslyne (Ros) Leeb Smith.
Looking for a way to honour his legacy, she turned to art – a constant source of creativity in her life. But this time, Judaism came into the picture, and she began to make paintings that brought the beauty of Judaism to the world, all in the name of her father.
“Soon after I emigrated to the United States in August 2001, I broke both my arms rollerblading,” she recalls. “A few weeks later, 9/11 happened. Then the Chicago winter arrived. I was a mother of young children, missing home terribly, and art became my therapy,” she says. Since then, she has settled in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois, but she still maintains strong ties to her Jewish and South African heritage.
“When my dad passed away, my rabbi told me to do charity work and Jewish learning to elevate his soul. He had delivered thousands of babies and each one was a mitzvah, so I had big shoes to fill! But he said to me, “use your art”. Then COVID-19 arrived. I started painting a different lady each week for Shabbat. They were whimsical, fun, and joyous. Friends started looking forward to them.
“The goal is to give back to the Jewish community and spread the light of Shabbat globally. I encourage members of Jewish communities and organisations to celebrate Jewish culture on social media using #theshabbatshalomartproject hashtag and tagging others in the community. In the spirit of Shabbat and my dad, we can help each other by sharing our work, inspiration, and our aspirations.” Anyone can download these graphics for free from her website to share on Instagram as a way to spread the joy of Shabbat.
Smith also donates her paintings to benefit charities, especially in South Africa. “I feel strongly about giving back to the South African Jewish community. This is where my roots are,” she says, speaking from Johannesburg, on a recent visit for a family wedding. “I’m actually a very private person, but this project isn’t about me, so I’ve never felt exposed. Rather it’s about honouring my dad. In fact, his rooms were the first place I ever displayed my work.”
Each of the women in her paintings also has their own Hebrew name. “This was inspired by a trip to Israel, where I travelled with a group of lovely women from Chicago,” she says. “We participated in a naming ceremony in which women from all over the world could choose their own Hebrew name if they didn’t already have one. Whether it was a name that had been passed down from generation to generation or simply a name with a strong spiritual connection, this experience allowed us to feel empowered in our connection to G-d.
“When I came home, I felt inspired to paint women and identify them with their Hebrew names. I was mesmerised by the women I met in Israel with head coverings – they were so elegant, modest, and spiritual. At the same time, I was in my year of mourning after the loss of my father. As a result of both of these life events, studying Judaism and creating Jewish art became my mitzvah. Now, my goal is to spread the light of Shabbat globally and give back to the community.”
Smith says she will usually paint a woman and then give her a Hebrew name that suits her. She has been fascinated to discover the meanings of Hebrew names – for example, both the names “Vered” and “Shoshana” mean “rose”.
She is drawn to bright colours, especially in the long and cold American winters. Though she knows minimalism and dull colours are trendy, she says art can’t be faked, and she’ll always paint what comes naturally to her and brings her the most joy. She’s inspired by the world and loves travelling, but during lockdown, she had to turn to her own “inner landscape” for inspiration. The light of her Judaism reflected back at her.
Orit (a small light); Sigal (violet); Ruth (friend); and Aviva (springtime) are just some of the women you meet in her paintings. Each one is vibrant and unique, epitomising the purity of her Hebrew name.
“I’m proud to be Jewish,” says Smith, pointing out that audiences from all walks of life have responded positively to the paintings. She has experienced a number of meaningful moments because of them. The first was when a Chabad rabbi from St Lucia in the Caribbean contacted her.
“It was special because a lot of my family is in Australia, and he grew up in Melbourne and his parents were also South African. He said that every Friday, he went to the cruise ships that docked at the island and handed out candles and challah for Jewish passengers to welcome Shabbat. He asked if he could put one of my paintings on the box. I said yes, of course, and donated the image. The box included the blessing for the candles, and I asked him to include on the back the words ‘In loving memory of Jules Leeb’.
“He agreed, and I love that my father’s spirit and light is taken all over the world by these travellers. They might not even know they have my dad’s name, but it is still so meaningful.” Ironically, the rabbi’s parents have a printing business in Melbourne, so the boxes were printed there, and Smith’s nieces saw them before she did.
Another very meaningful moment was when Smith was asked to send a paper to a young girl dying of cancer. She chose to donate “Gila”, meaning joy, and the image was shared with thousands of religious Jewish women on social media, praying for the girl’s well-being. While the girl passed away a week later, Smith was grateful to have brought her a little bit of joy in her last week. “I think my dad would have been proud. And I’m proud to be his daughter.”