Druze artist’s splash of color reaches from northern Israel to Hostage Square

‘I was stuck in my own world and couldn’t stop painting,’ Druze artist Sam Halaby says of the nine years he spent decorating his childhood home and opening it to the public

DALIYAT HACARMEL, Israel – Most parents would be furious if their child suddenly started painting on the walls, but luckily for Sam Halaby, his mother recognized her son’s artistic talents early and not only nurtured his skills but also fought back against the accepted norms of their traditional Druze society.

The youngest of 10 children and the only boy, Halaby, 34, is now a full-fledged artist. His colorful and unique artwork is proudly displayed in the Israeli president’s official residence and has been purchased by a growing list of bold-faced names in Israel.

Last year, the talented Druze artist opened the House of Colors, a 3D site-specific exhibition of his work featuring vibrant slashes of paint — reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip technique — on every inch of wall space and every piece of furniture adorning his family’s former home in the Druze village of Daliyat HaCarmel.

At the House of Colors, which is nestled on a hilltop in the picturesque and iconic Druze village in northern Israel, Halaby makes rare appearances, greeting visitors with his unique personal story and even decorating their clothing with his signature paint-splashing technique.

“We were very poor, we really had no money,” Halaby begins with a monologue as he stands in what was once the family’s kitchen but is now frozen in time with paint as a surreal canvas for his artwork.

As Halaby tells it, from a young age he had to work to support his family. Yet, unlike the other boys in this conservative Druze village, who are groomed for careers in Israel’s security establishment or in the world of construction – Halaby’s own father built houses – the only work he was ever interested in was drawing.

While neighbors and family members frowned upon his talents, saying art was not a suitable profession for a Druze boy, Halaby’s mother encouraged her son, allowing him to practice, first by drawing his sisters and then by designing adornments for the traditional Druze veils that she sewed and sold for a living.

“She said, ‘Let’s make money from your special talent,’” Halaby, now a father of two daughters, recalled. “She worried about my future, she was my power and my backbone.”

Halaby’s mother, who died from cancer suddenly when Halaby was 23, believed so strongly in her son’s talent that she decided to sell his artwork, anonymously at first and then later opening a small store in the center of Daliyat HaCarmel, the largest Druze town in Israel and a popular weekend jaunt for secular Jewish Israelis looking to sample some of the community’s famed hummus and hospitality.

“I felt my mother all around me,” said Halaby, who spent months buying back all the veils his mother had ever sewed. “I took all of her things, her bowls and pans and clothes, and just started painting them. I used every color I could because I just wanted to cover everything in color.”

“It all developed very slowly,” said Halaby, recalling that only after his mother’s funeral, when friends and neighbors stopped by to share their condolences, did others in the village begin to realize his talents.

Still, Halaby’s biggest undertaking, the House of Colors, was yet to come. It started with a few drops of paint on the wall and on the floor when he was in the depth of mourning for his mother, he described.

“I felt my mother all around me,” said Halaby, who spent months buying back all the veils his mother had ever sewed. “I took all of her things, her bowls and pans and clothes, and just started painting them. I used every color I could because I just wanted to cover everything in color.”

“I know some people thought I would sell the house, but I just wanted to paint it,” he continued. “At first I was scared, I was giving up on my inheritance for my art, but I was stuck in my own world and couldn’t stop painting.”

As Halaby continued to cover the house in colorful flicks of paint, his father, who remarried, moved down to the building’s lower level, giving Halaby free rein to use his childhood home as a canvas, preserving his mother’s memory in colors – every room is a different color scheme – including the place where his mother once sat and worked with her hand-sewn veils.

“It took me nine years and I have not missed a single corner,” recounted Halaby, who received donations of paint from the Israeli paint company, Nirlat, which is located on Kibbutz Nir Oz and was badly damaged during Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks.

As visitors flock to see bright splatters of the House of Colors, Halaby told JI that the neighbors are slowly getting used to the new attraction on their street. In order to keep them happy, he said he’s hired people to direct the traffic and manage the parking. In addition, some of his sisters help out by managing the day-to-day operations in the house, which also welcomes groups from abroad and sells some of Halaby’s colorful artwork.

“People have asked me to come and paint their homes or asked if I would paint a house in Tel Aviv, but I painted this house because of my connection to it,” the artist told JI. “It is purely driven by my feelings.”

Walking through the House of Colors, which is also brightly painted on the outside, is an experience for the senses. Every imaginable household item is splattered with paint – kitchen utensils, a grand piano, a bed, a pair of shoes, vases, even the washing machine and the toilet. Some rooms, where Halaby had happier memories, are really warm and bright; others, like where his mother sat and worked, are a sadder mix of whites and grays.

On the roof, which offers spectacular views as far as the Haifa coast, Halaby has designed an area where visitors can also sit and paint. It is here that, from time to time, he will entertain those who visit by painting the very clothes they are wearing.

“I heard about Sam from the [Israeli] media,” Michal Zaira, visited the House of Colors with her husband, told JI.

Zaira was fortunate enough to be wearing a plain black T-shirt, which Halaby noticed and asked to bring to life with a splattering of color. As she stood in the center of the rooftop, other visitors took photos as Halaby splashed fine lines of paint on her shirt.

“I see the world in an array of colors,” explained Halaby, as he splashed paint on Zaira’s shirt. “My life is color, this is what I do.”

JI visited Halaby’s colorful home prior to Oct. 7, but spoke to him this week to hear about how he has used his talents to brighten up the mood in Israel since. On Dec. 14, Halaby paid a special visit to Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. There he invited relatives of those being held hostage in Gaza to join him in splashing paint from Nirlat onto a huge canvas and ultimately spelling out the Hebrew word “achshav,” meaning now.

In addition, Halaby has also created two new installations at the House of Colors aimed at recognizing the national war. The first, titled “A new bloom,” features paint and polymer sculptures of flowers meant to express his hopes of a better life after the war; the image was projected recently on the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv. The second installation uses Lego, fiberglass and oil paints depicting adults and children. 

This, he said, is meant to represent a “positive and colorful future” for everyone in the State of Israel. 

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