Published On: Tue, Mar 9th, 2021

Boca artist Yaacov Heller still creating masterworks at age 80

By: Dale King

Yaacov Heller is an artist, sculptor and jewelry maker with skills to create intricate designs and finely detailed work. He has been commissioned to craft historically significant works for presidents, kings, heads of state and other dignitaries. His art also adorns presidential libraries and museums around the world. 

At the same time, he has dotted Boca Raton with bronze statues of the community’s leading philanthropists as well as Judaica and tributes to major events in Jewish and secular history. 

His latest, and one of his most celebrated pieces, is a bust of Benjamin Ferencz, the 101-year-old jurist and last surviving prosecutor from Einsatzgruppen Trial, one of the 12 military trials held by U.S. authorities at Nuremberg, Germany, following World War II.

This week, friends, family and the community honor Yaacov Heller on his 80th birthday.

A tall, distinguished man with a distinctive gray beard, Yaacov closely resembles Tevye, the lead character in the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”  That’s something of a coincidence since he sculpted a 12-foot bronze statue of the show’s Fiddler for a park in Miami and another for the sculpture garden outside his Gallery 22 in Boca’s Royal Palm Place.

Yaacov and his wife, Sue, smiled when recalling how the Fiddler statue in Miami endured destructive Hurricane Andrew. “After the storm, we saw that hundreds of trees had been knocked down, but nothing happened to the Fiddler statue. He was like Nero fiddling while Rome burned.”

Sue Heller, a retired art teacher who has worked with her husband at the gallery for several years, and Yaacov remain active in the community. They take part in many civic groups and are known for inviting guests to gatherings in the gallery. Ferencz himself has dropped by, as have singers Vanessa Simpson, Connie Francis, Kendra Erika, Carol Connor and the Rhythm Chicks.

Born in Cleveland in 1941, Yaacov worked as a hair stylist for Miss Universe early in his career.

After establishing a residence in Jerusalem in 1972, the budding artist set up a studio, workshop and foundry to produce distinctive sculpture and jewelry. A most important accomplishment for Heller while in Israel was the development of a specific process of electroforming silver sculpture and jewelry designs, which was the start of a major industry still used by many foundries in Israel today.

Though he now lives in Boca Raton, Yaacov still uses that foundry to create some of the jewelry he sells at his combination gallery and boutique – items crafted in pewter, silver, bronze and gold. The exhibition location was recently renovated to display his works in a more proper environment.

Guests at his gallery that resembles a portrait and jewelry museum can view Heller’s artwork face-to-face. Paintings of such celebrities as Lady Gaga, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Sylvester Stallone, Angelina Jolie, Elvis Presley and John Lennon mingle with portraits of local notables such as health advocate Oleda Baker, singer Kendra Erika and philanthropist Marta Batmasian.

The sculpture garden adjacent to the gallery displays some of Heller’s famed bronzes, including “The Temptation,” with a fig leaf-adorned Eve offering similarly dressed Adam the forbidden apple, bronze dancers and the ubiquitous Fiddler.

Three of his most famous bronzes are in nearby Mizner Park. Looking stately next to the amphitheater are statues of Count Adolph and Countess Henrietta de Hoernle, perhaps Boca’s most generous philanthropists who endowed a multitude of causes with millions of dollars. The count passed away in 1996, his wife in the early 2000s at age 104.

Heller also crafted a seven-foot-tall combination statue and fountain of Florence “Flossy” Keesely at the north end of Mizner Park, in front of the amphitheater grounds. A generous supporter of the arts and music, Flossy was co-host of the first TV talk show broadcast in 1948.

“She asked me to show her some of the works I had done,” said Yaacov. He drove her to various sites, but the Fiddler apparently caught her eye. She asked the artist to craft a statue of her reaching up to a star.  The bronze work atop “Flossy’s Fountain” bears the youthful face of the renowned donor and supporter of the arts who passed away several years ago at age 101.

The city of Boca Raton plans to polish and refurbish all three statues this year. Flossy’s Fountain, considered by officials to be too worn to repair, will be replaced with a pedestal so the artwork – located at the entry to the Mizner Park Amphitheater which bears Count de Hoernle’s name – will continue to welcome visitors to the cultural heart of the city.

The Flossy statue inspired Yaacov to create a smaller copy as a lifetime achievement award for honorees at the Palm Beach International Film Festival Connie Francis – a friend and frequent guest at Heller’s gallery – was the honored recipient in 2017.

Much of the artisan’s inspiration comes from the Bible and Judaica, but he also draws upon arts in general and many forms of day-to-day living.

He recently sculpted a 14-foot-tall Holocaust memorial in bronze for a memorial garden at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore. Atop it are hands holding a flame. Written on the side is the word, “Remember,” in Hebrew.

A similar piece stands in the Garden of Humanity in Boca’s Royal Palm Place, one that recalls all genocides of the 20th century. It was erected April 25, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and was commissioned by Marta and Jim Batmasian of Investments Ltd., owners of the plaza. 

A work commissioned by the late Paul and Eleanor Weiner stands in front of Congregation B’nai Torah in South Boca – an eight-foot bronze menorah that welcomes worshipers. “Paul came to me and said, ‘I want you to do the menorah.’” The work boasts two Guardian Lions of Judah atop a granite pedestal with a colorful mosaic fresco depicting the 12 tribes of Israel, with their names written in English and Hebrew.

Yaacov also works in Lucite and paint, and sculps in contemporary form.

The noteworthy creation of the Ben Ferencz bust is a story unto itself, one celebrated in the documentary, “Two Heads are Better Than One: The Making of the Ben Ferencz Bust,” directed by Eric Kline and released in 2020.  The chief lawyer at Nuremberg was also the subject of the 2018 film, “Prosecuting Evil.”

“I had known of Ben Ferencz from my visits to Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,” the artist said. “He was not just a prosecutor, but he was the one who actually went out and visited the [Nazi concentration] camps.”

“When he came to my gallery, and to the Garden of Humanity, I told him I wanted to do a bust of him.  He said ‘Go for it. No one has done a bust of me before.’”

“That was all I needed; it was his personal OK to do it,” said Yaacov, putting his prolific career into perspective as he looks to the celebration of a milestone birthday, and continued innovation in his ongoing career.

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