Grateful Traveler: Color My World

Sylvia Shap self-portraitWhen Audrey and Billy Wilder, Henry Mancini, Anna and Rupert Murdoch, and Eileen and Peter Norton wanted an artist to paint their portraits, all of them commissioned Sylvia Shap.

Known for her hyper-realistic paintings, Sylvia has a gift for finding the essence of a person and bringing it to life on the canvas.

But when you enter her house, it’s not the rich and famous who are on display. Her walls are covered with people she’s met on her travels. And here’s the reason why…

“There’s something about each of them, a feeling, a gift, that I’m hoping to bring into my home,” says Sylvia.

Take Woman in a Chartreuse Sari (at right). Woman in Chartreuse Sari
Sylvia was on a trip to India with her lifelong partner, Larry. And she was not happy. “No part of me had wanted to go. I’ve struggled so much in my life, I only wanted to go to nice places.”

That’s understandable given Sylvia’s childhood. Her parents were German Jews and witnesses to the horrors of Kristallnacht and the regular beatings and assaults of their Jewish neighbors and friends. Her parents left Germany in 1939, but they were damaged for life. “Their sense of fear was palpable,” recalls Sylvia. “I wasn’t allowed to go out with friends or to have anyone come to my house.”

Sequestered in her home, Sylvia’s outlet was painting, with her gifted older brother Ron serving as her first teacher and mentor.

Oddly enough, her distorted childhood view led her to her lifelong work. Cut off from most people and having to constantly “read” the moods of her parents, Sylvia developed hypersensitivity for understanding people at their core. Marrying her gifts as a painter to her almost psychic connection with people, Sylvia’s unique portraiture style made her a darling of the art world.

But when traveling, that hypersensitivity proved as much a curse as a blessing. In India, feeling overwhelmed by the poverty, the constant cacophony of noise and the stench of open sewage and animals, all Sylvia wanted to do was go home.

Then one day she noticed a woman leaning against a purple wall, wearing a red and chartreuse sari. “She radiated such calmness and sureness I had to paint her,” recalls Sylvia. “I wanted to bring that sense of calm into my life and my surroundings.”

And as Sylvia got to know the local people, her views of India began to change. “In spite of their hardships, they were open, warm and positive,” says Sylvia. “Their sense of hospitality was staggering. I found my heart gripped by their kindness.”

Sylvia Shap Mr. SinghAnd so the woman in the chartreuse sari sits front and center in Sylvia’s home. As does her portrait of Mr. Singh (at left), a driver she and Larry met during their stay in the country.

It is these people and their sense of strength in spite of overwhelming odds that Sylvia chooses to honor, taking them as a source of inspiration and comfort.

But at heart, isn’t that part of the joy of travel?

To see ourselves—our triumphs and our tribulations—mirrored in others, and to take away from the experience a sense of connection that transcends all, no matter how different our worlds.

See more of Sylvia’s work at

By Jamie Simons for Art by Sylvia Shap.
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