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Couple Has a Knack for the Art of Collaboration


They're two artists living and working under one roof, sharing so much intimacy--personally and professionally--that they'd surely burn out on togetherness if they weren't so in tune with each other.

Adi Yekutieli and Esther Zahn, who have been married for seven years and collaborate on the upbringing of two children as well as the creation of mixed-media paintings, are, indeed, remarkably compatible. But not because they're so much alike.

Although both are Jewish, they come from widely diverse cultural backgrounds. Yekutieli was born and raised in Israel and has traced his family's early roots to Russia, Iraq and Austria. (His mother, who fled from Austria to Israel as a teen-ager, lost most of her family in the Holocaust.)

Zahn was raised by American parents in Japan, where she attended German schools, had Japanese servants and observed Jewish holidays. Her Brooklyn-bred Jewish father served in the military during the Korean War, then settled in Japan and made a living as a veterinarian. His wife, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, converted to Judaism before they married.

Zahn, who loved Japanese culture and absorbed it at a visceral level, found her world shattered at age 14, when her parents divorced. She moved with her mother to Hawaii and later relocated to Southern California.

Today, the colorful paintings Zahn and Yekutieli create reflect both Far East and Middle East influences, with a unique mix of Japanese and Jewish figures and spiritual symbols that often raise questions about the relevance of religious orthodoxy in contemporary life.

As their work illustrates, the artists still feel strong emotional ties to the cultures in which they were raised. But the differences between their upbringings have never been a source of conflict for the Fountain Valley couple.

They knew from the time they fell in love when they were fine arts students at Claremont Graduate School that a union of two independent, opinionated artists with such varied backgrounds would be a constant challenge. And that's just what they wanted.

Each was looking for a partner who would keep them off guard, make them think, push them to ask the kinds of questions that inspire provocative works of art, like the three paintings they'll have on display through March 19 as part of an exhibit called "Collaborations" at the Art Store Gallery in Newport Beach.

"There's very little we can assume about each other. I don't think I'll ever figure Esther out," says 33-year-old Yekutieli, exchanging a warm smile with his wife during a recent interview at their home.

Adds Zahn, who is 36: "I don't take anything for granted with Adi. It's fun to be surprised."

The differences in their styles of communicating have added to the challenge of living and working together, they say. Yekutieli was raised in an atmosphere in which opinions were voiced freely and firmly, while Zahn learned the importance of nonverbal cues in Japanese culture.

"I have a need for silence, and Adi needs to talk, talk, talk," Zahn says.

However, she adds, she has become more verbal since she's been with Yekutieli, while he has developed an appreciation for the power of silence.

The differences in their personalities are also evident in their body language: Zahn--who has long, auburn hair, dark eyes and an air of serenity--hardly shifts her position as she sits in an easy chair in her living room during a three-hour interview. Meanwhile, Yekutieli--bearded and barefoot--keeps moving back and forth from the couch to the floor, hardly able to contain his energy.

The couple admit they seldom have quiet time to reflect on their lifestyle as they do on this recent morning while their children--Addam, 5, and, Noa, 2--are being watched by a neighbor.

On most days, Yekutieli and Zahn are constantly moving in separate directions, meeting only briefly when one comes home to be with the children while the other goes to work.

Both teach classes at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Los Alamitos. Yekutieli is also a Hebrew instructor, and Zahn works part time as a hairdresser.

"We're always coming and going. It's like the changing of the guard," says Zahn, noting that they arrange their schedules so that Addam and Noa seldom have to be left with a baby-sitter.

But at 9 p.m., after the children have been tucked in, Yekutieli and Zahn get together and begin the work that makes them both feel rejuvenated, no matter how tired they are at the end of their busy days.

Nearly every night, they spend four intense hours working in an upstairs studio cluttered with a wide assortment of materials, including water colors, acrylics, pencils, pens, fabrics and photographs.

They discuss the status of each painting in advance so they can work mostly in silence, but they also allow plenty of room for spontaneity. For example, they note, they impulsively decided that a female Japanese figure Zahn suggested they use in one piece to depict God should be painted by Yekutieli, just to keep things interesting.

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