Written by Kurt McVey

“I do not deny the act that I do on the street is street art, I just don’t like the label,” says the artist Sara Erenthal from inside her home-studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Erenthal’s apartment is a couple steps down behind the same black door she mentioned in her email, itself a few steps up and behind one of those tall, paint-chipped, way-off-white row house gates that line the streets for a few city blocks.

Her art, or more specifically her familiar characters, (many of them still in development), surround you in quiet observance. It’s both strange and comforting to see so many of them indoors and huddled together, each one entirely unique but with shared DNA, like a vast extended family.

A little over three years ago, Erenthal’s mostly front-facing female figures, heavy on the line, often with halved, shoulder-length, hemispherical bowl cuts and wide, owl-like eyes (“a complete natural expression”), started popping up everywhere. “It’s a subconscious self portrait and it represents me in everyday life experiences,” she says of these hand-drawn characters, an organic trademark perhaps, but never a brand. “That’s why if I don’t finish a piece soon after I start it, I can lose interest.”


Art by Sara Erenthal // Photo by Christina Elia


Erenthal’s figures, whether drawn on discarded trash items like mattresses and TVs, or on green construction walls and rusty storefront gates, seamed to increase in number and grow in poetic complexity just as the Wyckoff stretch between the DeKalb and Jefferson L subway stops started becoming more of a light-polluted, gentrified circus. They seemed to manifest in earnest, right when a garish marquee Artichoke Pizza landed within vomiting distance of House of Yes and ever-more trendy little Bushwick restaurants, yoga studios and even more minimal high-design cafes started pushing rent prices higher, despite the now somewhat averted L-pocalypse. Unlike a lot of the larger, painterly murals in the neighborhood, the ones that draw post-brunch street-art tours and step and repeat weekend selfie-zombies, Erenthal’s elegantly sturdy emo-avatars manage to stand on their own, not just stand out. They seem to be observing but rarely judging.

“It feels limiting,” says Erenthal, still shrugging off the street artist moniker, “because I am an artist beyond that. I did not start my career on the street. I may even argue with myself about that because I’ve always had a love for writing on walls.”


Erenthal’s street art in Bushwick // Photo by Lonnie Richards

“It feels limiting,” says Erenthal, still shrugging off the street artist moniker, “because I am an artist beyond that. I did not start my career on the street. I may even argue with myself about that because I’ve always had a love for writing on walls.”


Erenthal has a new solo show opening at The Storefront Project on Thursday July 25th. She’s calling it Backstory. “There is a story behind each painting,” she says. “Each painting is painted on top of another story.” A framed print of Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881), for instance, rests on the floor. The work has been partially wreathed in white acrylic and overlaid with one of Erenthal’s spontaneous self-portraits. Where Renoir’s dealer defined the artist’s subjects as sisters (they aren’t) right there in the title, for Sara, it’s become a story about a mother and daughter.


Her Mind is Elsewhere, 2019 Acrylic on thrifted print 22 x 27 inches, including frame Art by @saraerenthalart


Backstory, therefore, is a meditation on the extreme present, as Erenthal leans on all of art history, all its movements, genres and schools, and frames them within her contemporary filter. The works are awash in a sort of willful naïveté. Sara knows that most art is contextualized and defined by unreliable narrators, the themes, subjective. She’s pulling in the vague, imaginative history of the original owners of the now upcycled art works, which she rescued from the street or purchased at thrift stores and flea markets.

Even more so than the “street artist” trap, Erenthal wants to be known as something beyond the “ex-Orthodox Jewish artist.” She would frequently attempt, rather understandably, but mostly in vein, to steer the conversation back towards her art objects-her growing mirror brood-that inhabit her space and engulf their creator. But Backstory is undoubtedly a reference to the artist’s incredible life narrative, a sort of pulp Joseph Campbell tale on a global scale and ripe with a myriad of juicy plot points. It would be like Eminem doing an art show called My Name Is.

Backstory, the title, is a lot like Sara herself: sarcastic, too curt, a little ironic, funny, confident, and hiding in plain sight.


Backstory, the title, is a lot like Sara herself: sarcastic, too curt, a little ironic, funny, confident, and hiding in plain sight.


“I enjoy writing on places I’m not supposed to be writing,” she says. “There’s something about the expression when you let something out on a wall that feels like a super-big release. I’ve had that attraction to do that from a very young age.”


I’m in Control, 2019 Acrylic on thrifted painting 32 x 43 inches, including frame Art by @saraerenthalart


Sara was born in Israel. Her family moved to Borough Park, Brooklyn when she was very young, primarily because her father, a member of Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist religious group of Ultra-Ultra-Orthodox Jews, was considered something of an extremist in Israel. Members of this sect believe, according to the Torah, that Jews should remain in exile until the messiah arrives.

“Everybody has a story and everybody has trauma,” says Erenthal. “I have two parents with two very different situations. But my father is a fanatic. My mother is more open-minded. Big picture: I had a very dysfunctional childhood-abused mentally and physically. A lot of it was connected to religion. A lot of it wasn’t.”


Art by Sara Erenthal // Photo by T.K. Mills


Though Erenthal is aware she grew up in a very insular society, she still feels as though she came from a creative family. “I saw mostly traditional or classical art portraits of rabbis or landscapes,” she says of her youth. “I never stepped into a museum. I didn’t know what contemporary art was. My mother, she paints realistically. I had no interest in that.”

Like a lot of impressionist, cubist, or more broadly, modern and now contemporary artists, Sara struggled with the constrictive mandates of representation, which she casually tackled at a young age in “fake” art class in her “fake” girls’ school.

She stands up and reveals a work in progress. It shows one of her subconscious self-portraits laid over a crude still life of green apples. “I’m a self-taught artist,” she says while scribbling a working title on the back of the piece before placing the framed work back on the floor.By traditional terms I am an outsider artist. I do not keep up with the New York Times or the art world. I’m in my own little art bubble. I’m an outsider in most worlds, even in street art, because my practice is so different.”


Didn’t Want to Draw Apples, 2019 Acrylic on thrifted print 17 ½ x 19 ½ inches, including frame Art by @saraerenthal


One of the larger works in Backstory is a portrait painted over what may or may not be a rabbi. “It’s an oil painting, definitely of an older, wiser, Jewish scholar,” says Erenthal. “I got this painting in Borough Park in a second-hand book shop. I convinced someone there to sell it to me. He has all these treasures he wouldn’t normally sell. I caught him in the right moment.”


Art by Sara Erenthal // Photo by T.K. Mills


Erenthal would classify her mother as an artist, but noted that she wouldn’t-couldn’t make a career out of it. Outside of painting family portraits, her mother did illustrate a children’s book-a Jewish series. “You won’t find it on Google. Trust me,” she says.

Erenthal admits she was always hungry for more information, always curious about the outside world. “There was a public school right across my apartment. I was very jealous of them. When you’re young you might vocalize or discuss that with a peer. We would fantasize, but it’s a childhood fantasy.”

The first legal mural Erenthal painted on the street was a series of three full-figure portraits on a gate on Union Street in Park Slope, which she completed roughly three years ago. She calls it Sara’sThreeSelves. It depicts three different stages in her life: the young, Orthodox Jewish girl in braids; the middle avatar is Sara, free of the dogma, but is still a work in process; the third is Sara, the unbridled artist.


Sara’sThreeSelves… depicts three different stages in her life: the young, Orthodox Jewish girl in braids; the middle avatar is Sara, free of the dogma, but is still a work in process; the third is Sara, the unbridled artist.


“The first panel depicts the Yiddish concept of  ‘Eidel meidel.’ It’s religious,” she explains. “Let’s say, a good modest woman that stays quiet, that isn’t loud and noticeable.”

Sara did a lot of observing, especially on the school bus from Borough Park to South Williamsburg. “I remember seeing graffiti as a kid. The schoolyard in front of our building got tagged. The whole block was talking about this terrible crime that happened. We saw the guys buffing it. I remember seeing it so clearly. But you can’t un-see what you see.”

When she was 17, Erenthal’s parents moved back to Israel. She somehow talked them into letting her stay in Brooklyn with friends until she completed her studies. Two days after graduating, she was on a plane back to Israel. Shortly after that, her parents informed her that they had found her a suitable husband. She was to be engaged immediately. Upon turning 18, she’d be married. “Since I was young,” she begins, “I knew my parents would find a match and I’d get engaged, get married, get pregnant and have a bunch of babies. I didn’t think about it much because I didn’t care, but when I went back to Israel, I was miserable. I felt more trapped than I’d ever felt before.”


Art by Sara Erenthal // Photo by T.K. Mills


Erenthal interrupts the narrative to pick up a small, framed reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498). “This night before is not just the night before,” she says with a knowing look. “Jesus (standing in for a host of personal patriarchs-rabbis, fathers, husbands) has been erased. I call it, The Night Before I Ran Away.”


The Night Before I Ran Away, 2019 Acrylic on thrifted print 31 x 16 3/4 inches, including frame Art by @saraerenthalart


And run she did. “Up until that moment, I’d had no interaction with the opposite sex,” she explains. “We were completely separated. Getting to that age is kind of scary.” When presented with the concept of marriage, as if she had a say in the matter, she’d deflect or claim she simply wasn’t ready. “There’s a matchmaker involved and this person is trying to convince me, then threatening me. She [the matchmaker] said, ‘How do you think you’re going to meet your husband? If you do not marry this man, you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.’ ”

Sara came up with a plan. “Basically, I told my parents a lie. I have a lot of relatives who lived in Israel who I did not grow up with because they were a lot more modern. I said, ‘Let me spend one weekend with my cousins, alone, then on Sunday I will agree to meet this man.’ Then on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat, I packed one little bag with just enough money to take the bus there and just two pieces of clothing maybe. I spent the weekend at my grandmother’s house. Right as Shabbat finished, while my grandmother was napping, I left.”

Sara met up with her cousin “on the other side” who made her leave a letter for her parents. “It said something like: ‘Mom and Dad, I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I am fine. Bye.’ ”


Art by Sara Erenthal // Photo by T.K. Mills


She fled to a nearby hotel lobby down the block to lay low while her cousin ran back to Sara’s grandmother’s house to “find the letter” and give it to Sara’s parents in an effort to pretend like she had nothing to do with the escape. “So I stay at the hotel,” she says. “[My] parents realize I’m gone. They called the Israeli border patrol to see if I was at the airport headed back to NY. That was the beginning. It’s like an escape from jail and I never want to go back to jail.”

After bouncing around with the help of friends and extended family and working odd administrative jobs within the Orthodox community, Sara planned a more dramatic departure, not only from marriage or religion, or her immediate family, but everything she had known up until that point. Desperate, she did the only thing she felt she could do: She joined the Israeli military.

“I was still not free,” she says. “I went to seek freedom. I walk into the recruitment office. I am a woman visibly looking like an Orthodox person. I don’t speak Hebrew. They bring me to the only guard who speaks English. He asks me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I want to join the military.’ ‘But you’re religious.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. I just look like it.’ ”

The young guard, who remains in touch with Erenthal to this day, invited her to stay at his apartment. His female friend gave Sara some civilian clothes to change into: That pair of overalls won’t soon be forgotten. She looked in the mirror as if for the first time.


I’m Infatuated, 2019 Acrylic on thrifted print 28 x 44 inches, including frame Art by @saraerenthalart


Basic training wasn’t easy. Firing an Uzi, not so much. Conversing fluidly with the men in her Special Defense Forces unit, not exactly a breezy walk in the park.

Erenthal soon moved onto an Israeli kibbutz, a sort of left-leaning commune. When she wasn’t occupied with her military duties, she was studying Hebrew. Once her service was completed, and life on the kibbutz was becoming rather mundane, she decided to move back to New York. “I was almost 21 when I landed,” she says. “I knew that because I couldn’t legally drink. I returned to NY a week after 9/11. I remember the flights were very cheap.”

Erenthal accepted a position as a nanny for a recently divorced, secular-Jewish single mom who worked nights. She was sleeping in the attic of the woman’s home in Bayside, Queens. She found a second job working at 7am-3pm at a jeweler’s office. “It was the least social time of my life,” she remembers. “I couldn’t go out at night. I had maybe one night off a week, but somehow, I started meeting people through work.”

This went on for several uninspired years. At 25, Sara was now living in Forrest Hills, Queens. She was starting to see a young man. “This was about 13 years ago,” she says. “I was in love, overwhelmed with emotions. In that stage in my life I was making art, not as a regular thing, but as a tool I would use privately when I had very intense emotions. I had this charcoal stick and I wrote on my wall: ‘I’m a lover, not an artist.’ ”


“I was in love, overwhelmed with emotions. In that stage in my life I was making art, not as a regular thing, but as a tool I would use privately when I had very intense emotions. I had this charcoal stick and I wrote on my wall: ‘I’m a lover, not an artist.’ ”


Sara also drew a giant portrait of a woman on her door. It looked like a crude fashion contour drawing of a Venus-Met Gala Kim Kardashian archetype-the non-existent waist, huge hips and prominent lips-dark hair. Ironically, when her lover came over and saw these works, his first words were: “I didn’t know I was dating an artist.”

At this stage Erenthal was beginning to interrogate her secular persona. She was unhappy in relationships, feeling as though she was still performing gender, happiness and honest human sexuality, as opposed to truly experiencing these things. After attending a Rainbow Gathering (a now massive hippy festival in the woods) with some other ex-Orthodox friends she met through the non-profit organization Footsteps, she decided to make another return trip to Israel to reassess her existence, but not before cutting her hair, and dropping the “normal” American girl illusion, whatever that is. Back in Israel almost ten years later, she reconnected with the guard from the Israeli recruitment office. The first words out of his mouth: “Wait, I didn’t know you were cool. Since when did you become cool?”


Art by @saraerenthalart // Photo by @t.k.m85


“I told him everything,” Erenthal says. “That I was unhappy, that something was missing from my life. I feel like I need to do something creative. I was 29. He asked, ‘Why don’t you go to India?’ It’s a very Israeli thing to say. There’s a huge backpacker culture in Israeli society, especially post military.”

Erenthal cancelled her return flight to NY. Her plan was to stay in India for a month and a half. She went to the most touristy beach city in the south, Goa. “I was trying to find a safe place as a woman traveling alone. I quickly realized that I [needed] a hobby. I avoided cities. In the villages, you can order food and wait for it for an hour.” She started to draw-patterns and little doodles. “I was smoking a lot of weed,” she says with a chuckle, “really enjoying the whole backpacker vibe. I made the decision that I [was] not going back to Israel. After a few months, I had to leave India, so I went to Thailand and stayed for three months.”

After applying for a new visa with her American passport, she returned to India for six and a half months. “I was finding myself spending hours and hours at a café in the morning. I was drawing so much because it was a safe space for me. It was a very comforting feeling, being alone with myself.”


Sara Erenthal


In certain villages in the North, the occasional Indian woman would remind Sara of the women from the Orthodox-Jewish community. “Something happened where everything blended together,” she says. “I remember these little Indian girls in braids. The ceremonial stuff on the street reminded me of stuff I saw on the street. I saw myself in this little Indian girl. I suddenly started feeling better about my past, because I’m realizing, I’m not the only one coming from an extreme space.”

Sara started drawing portraits. She even drew a portrait of her dad. “I was letting go. I was accepting my story for the first time and for real. This is where I come from.”


“I was letting go. I was accepting my story for the first time and for real. This is where I come from.”


On the day of her 30th birthday, Sara wanted to be alone. “I went through the woods and to this raging river below a cliff and it’s powerful, gushing, and if you fall in, you’re dead. I started thinking, ‘What is life about? Why am I alive?’ Yeah, I found art, but what can I do with it?” The cinematic nature of this moment wasn’t lost on Erenthal. It was as though her entire life had led her to this solitary place, this moment of truth. It was time to make a choice. “I was ready to die,” she recalls. “I could make things easy by ending my life, or, the only other option for me in terms of staying alive is to become an artist, but a successful artist that can make a living and nothing else. I thought about the happiness I found making art.”

If you can secure a quiet moment with Ms. Erenthal at her opening, ask her about her first ever solo show in Israel, where she displayed over 200 of her own photographs in a bar, which may or may not have been called, Sara Used to Be Religious. Ask her about her 2014 solo show and mixed media installation experience at SoapBox Gallery, BE!, which was curated by Marine Cornuet. Ask her about her 2017 solo exhibition at Five Myles, Moving On, which chronicled seven of the most crucial moments of her fantastic journey. Ask her about the little Orthodox boy who pulled one of her upcycled works out of an industrial dumpster in a game of Passover cat and mouse. Ask her where she used to think babies came from. Just don’t ask her where she’ll be in five years.

“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in five years,” the artist Sara Erenthal offers, “Anything can happen. But there’s one thing I know for sure; I’ll be making art and I will have evolved.”