Max-imum HIAS

Posted by Pam Zimmerman on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Peter Max and HIAS go way back, he tells me. “I’ve known HIAS ever since I was a child,” he explains. We’re at the HIAS Emma Lazarus Society Reception in his Upper West Side studio. There’s a jazz-fusion-funk soundtrack punctuating the evening. Guests are laughing, trays of bruchetta are wandering, and the art on the walls is vibrating.

In an Upper West Side loft, more than a hundred HIAS fans and supporters are celebrating the 130-year history of an organization that helps rebuild lives, and visual artist Peter Max has graciously offered to host the event. He feels that it’s simply a matter of reciprocity; after all, HIAS was there for him at a crucial point in time. “We were refugees,” he explains. In 1938, he was just a year old when the family fled Berlin for Shanghai. “HIAS was a name that meant promise. They helped us when we were in China and they helped us make our way to the States. HIAS has become synonymous with hope.” He turns to greet his many enthusiasts.

This is a night of “Art and “Americana,” and Peter Max has generously agreed to donate to HIAS a portion of the proceeds of any sale that evening. Three couples sign up immediately; many others schedule appointments to come back.

Everywhere you look, there are canvases and concert posters, presidential portraits and magazine covers. Journalist Masha Leon of The Forward is on the couch, speaking quietly to HIAS supporters. Igor Oberman – liaison to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz – has dropped by to deliver a proclamation, declaring October 24, 2011 “Peter Max Gallery Tour Celebration Day” in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Max lived in Brooklyn for a while after he arrived in the U.S. in 1949.

Against a backdrop of silent video monitors broadcasting the Larry King interview with Peter Max, HIAS Chairman of the Board Marc Silberberg reminds the crowd that after 130 years, HIAS’s mission of helping migrants is unwavering. “From refugee camps in Chad sheltering survivors of the genocide in Darfur to the streets of Tel Aviv – where HIAS is assisting Israel in responding to thousands of Africans who have sought asylum in the Jewish State – HIAS is putting its expertise and experience to work on behalf of the world’s neediest people,” he says.

Thanking members of the Emma Lazarus Society, HIAS’ major donor group, CEO and President Gideon Aronoff addresses the host directly. “Peter, my thanks to you again for bringing us together tonight to celebrate the richness of HIAS’ values, history and family through your unique artistic lens. Your work, especially the Liberty image, captures the essence of the immigrant dream: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in this great country of ours.”

Amid the swirling hearts, flowers, and psychedelic Albert Einstein portraits, there are plenty of bold-face names who have made a splash in the realms of art, science, law and finance: Susie and Jeffrey Stern, W. Stewart and Sandra Cahn, Steven Melnik, Dr. Zhanna and Dr. Daniel Branovan, Alex and Regina Gordin, Esther Kartiganer, Barbara Salmanson, Steven Savitsky, Dianne Lob, Benita Fair Langsdorf, Neil and Karen Moss, Sanford and Clare Kahn Mozes, Norman Resnicow, Barbara S. Rosenthal, Sandra Spinner, Robert Whitehill. They mingle with Alistair Boulton, Senior Policy Advisor to the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, and Vivian Bernstein, Co-Chief of Group Programmes and Public Inquiries at the United Nations.

Nearby, the Statue of Liberty hangs in bold, electric colors. It’s one in a long series of Lady Liberty pictures, but this particular canvas has a story. Peter has painted many a sitting US president in his day, Ronald Reagan among them. One day, Reagan asked permission to add a brushstroke to one of Peter’s signature Statue of Liberty portraits. “I can’t believe I’m doing this to a Peter Max painting,” said Reagan, as he drew a blue line down the canvas. “I can’t believe the President of the United States is putting a brushstroke on my painting,” Peter replied.

He goes down the list of celebrities who have graced the studio over the past 30 years. There’s President and Hillary Clinton. Elton John. The Beatles. This leads Peter to a Fab Four story. “The Beatles commissioned me to create the art for the Yellow Submarine, and so I began to design it. But then they wanted me to join them in Europe for several months, and I couldn’t just up and go – I had already made commitments elsewhere. So I packed up my work and sent it to a German artist named Heinz Edelmann. He introduced himself to me as ‘The German Peter Max.’ And sure enough, he handed me his business card, which read ‘Heinz Edelmann – The German Peter Max.’”

Meanwhile, the American Peter Max has his hands full tonight. He’s making sure the lighting is optimal for the photographer. He’s shaking hands and answering questions. And just when he thinks no one is looking, the artist known as America’s Painter Laureate treats himself to a brownie. It’s been a full evening, and he deserves it: He has opened his studio and his heart to HIAS.

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