Oranit Solomonov flipped through her sketchbook, pausing to smooth out a page with a colorful airplane before moving on to a jaguar, a figure labeled "Hercules" and another unlabeled portrait.
The 44-year-old giggled to herself -- it was a drawing of Michael, she explained, another client at Oasis, a nonprofit that offers art- and life-skills programs for people with mental disabilities.
Different versions of this jaguar print have appeared in professional galleries in Center City and New York.
He's just a friend, Solomonov insisted, ignoring the raised eyebrows from art teachers working with other students in the bright, Center City studio. Solomonov grinned down at the table as she turned back to her colored pencils.
Despite all the giggles, art is a serious pastime for Solomonov, an Israeli who moved to Northeast Philadelphia more than 20 years ago.
In only two years of working with Oasis, Solomonov has built up a colorful collection of prints, paintings and drawings. Juries have selected her pieces for shows in Center City and New York galleries. Most recently, she put 12 pieces on display at her synagogue, Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown.
More impressive, according to her family and teachers, is how much the activity has lifted her spirits.
That's a big deal considering that she often acted like a stubborn, rebellious teen -- even in her early 40s, said her mother, Lidia Solomonov. She recalled how her daughter used to get agitated and bitter, saying, " 'What do I have in life? Nothing, nothing.' "
"It's like an explosion happened and everything came out," Lidia Solomonov said. "It's as if someone took her arm and turned her around 360 degrees."
Oranit Solomonov poses after a show at her temple with a piece inspired by a Native American scene.
Not only has her mood improved, her mother continued, she has made dramatic progress in verbal communication. Ten years ago, she could barely converse in English, her second language.
Because of her severe mental disability, she still has trouble putting sentences together, but teachers at Oasis helped her come up with descriptions of her work and an artist's statement.
"They teach me here very nice," Solomonov said. "I feel better. Happy."
Sometimes, Lidia Solomonov said, she feels guilty for not encouraging her daughter's creative side earlier. She said she never cared much for abstract art, so when her daughter came to her as a child with disproportional animals, she would say, 'Let me show you how it should be.' " Eventually, she said, Oranit would get frustrated and crumple up her papers. Soon, she stopped drawing altogether.
"Now that I realize it is a talent, I shut my mouth," Lidia Solomonov said. "It's beautiful because I learned along with her to appreciate what she does."
Lidia Solomonov looks on while her daughter signs a notecard she designed during classes at the Oasis art studio in Center City.
Lidia Solomonov moved to Philadelphia with Oranit and a son to look after her parents, who had immigrated to the Northeast and opened a body shop. By that time, she said, Oranit was already close to aging out of public school programs for the disabled, so she found part-time work setting up tables at a restaurant chain. She did that for eight years, her mom said, then participated in various day programs for adults with disabilities until a friend told them about Oasis.
There, she "just sort of stumbled on making art," said Maggie Mills, one of her teachers. "It's brought her a lot of happiness and calmness to have a place and a way to express herself."
She comes to the studio twice a week, where she learns both art and social skills from Mills and other teachers. Two of the staff members also come to her home twice a week to work on English literacy and guide her through other day-to-day responsibilities.
As a single mom, Solomonov said, she's always tried to do everything she could to help her daughter become independent -- and so far, she's made the most progress with Oasis. Who knows, she wondered, perhaps art could end up becoming a source of income for her daughter.
She's already sold three prints and one original, ranging in price from $65 to $350 -- one at the Pterodactyl gallery in Philadelphia, another at Tompkins Square Library on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and two at the recent show at Shir Ami. She'll have her work up for sale again at the synagogue's Chanukah gift bazaar on Dec. 4.
The show was amazing, the artist said. "People come in and then, 'I love it, this, I love it,' " she said, recounting their reactions to her art.
Shir Ami Rabbi Elliot Strom, who proposed the show, said he was glad to give Solomonov some public attention and appreciation.
"When I realized she had this talent, I had a feeling this was something people here didn't know about," said Strom. "Oranit is one of those great and precious souls that just radiates sweetness and goodness."
She's donating part of the proceeds from the synagogue sales back to the congregation. The rest, her mom said, will be saved toward a future vacation to Israel.
Turning to the stack of finished work on the studio table at Oasis, Oranit Solomonov picked up a print she made that was inspired by her last visit to Israel in 2001.
"This is a dolphin jumping in the water in Eilat," she said, pointing at an expanse of blue ocean beneath a tree of life.
She's got so much more to pull from herself, her mom said. "Hopefully, she'll become successful."