Spy art comes in from the cold - East Valley Tribune: News

Spy art comes in from the cold

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Posted: Monday, August 15, 2005 6:22 am | Updated: 9:17 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

If someone’s following you, don’t lose them right away — make sure you’re being followed and play it cool. When you work undercover, don’t give out too much information too quickly; it’s a dead giveaway.

And when you talk to someone on the telephone, assume a third party is listening.

Scottsdale resident Victor Ostrovsky said he learned these and many other lessons as an agent for the Mossad, Israel’s elite and highly secretive intelligence agency.

Now, after writing two exposés about the agency, Ostrovsky is reliving his experiences as a Mossad agent through his art.

The 55-year-old Scottsdale artist and gallery owner is working on a series of paintings known as "Metaphors of Espionage," depicting spies playing the game of deception.

"They say, ‘Write what you know,’ " he said. "I figured I should paint what I know."

The Mossad recruited the Canadian-born Ostrovsky 21 years ago, he said. Then 34, Ostrovsky said he had lived in Israel since he was 5, was a lieutenant commander in the Israeli Defense Force and headed the Israeli Navy’s weapons testing program.

Mossad recruiters originally wanted Ostrovsky to be an assassin, he said, but he declined the offer because of the long hours away from home, and later became a katsa, a case worker.

Ostrovsky said he gathered intelligence for the Mossad for five years, often through civilians who had been unwittingly recruited for their vital knowledge of Israel’s enemies.

There were three ways Ostrovsky lured people into disclosing secret information: Seduction, greed and vengeance. Those just happen to be the three major themes in his paintings.

On a recent day at Ostrovsky Fine Art on Main Street in downtown Scottsdale, Ostrovsky sat in a plush chair, gripping a grande coffee from Starbucks and discussing how his paintings are, essentially, stories from the world of espionage.

"I’m taking elements from that strange world and making them art," he said.

How Ostrovsky depicts seduction, greed and vengeance varies, but the most eye-catching images in his paintings are of the women: Undercover agents with long, blond hair clad in lowcut evening gowns, stiletto heels, and wide-brimmed hats that cover their eyes. The handsome male spies always sport expensive suits and hats pulled low over their eyes.

"I’ve taken the image people have of a spy — the hats, the scarves — and placed them as a metaphor," Ostrovsky said. "I made everyone look like that. Now who’s the spy?"

Good question.

Everyone in Ostrovsky’s paintings resembles a spy, at least Hollywood’s version of one. But the reality is, most people would never be able to spot a spy in real life, Ostrovsky said.

A good spy will never be recognizable as such, he said. And Ostrovsky’s appearance itself is anything but remarkable: Dark receding hair, average build, large, tinted glasses, plain button-up shirts, black pants and sneakers.

Ostrovsky, who moved to Scottsdale from Canada two years ago with his wife, Bella, said there’s no place he’d rather be. He said the weather — even when it hits 117 degrees — is beautiful and the people are down to earth.

Ostrovsky has gained the respect of local artists and gallery owners, said John Corderman, director of Sonya Smith Galleries, next door to Ostrovsky’s gallery. "It’s very interesting work," he said. "He’s obviously talented."

Corderman said when he learned his neighbor was a former Mossad agent, he was a bit taken aback. "I don’t think one would naturally associate a Mossad person as also being a good artist," he said. "It’s an interesting juxtaposition of one’s skill set."

Ostrovsky has more than espionage and art skills; he’s also a writer.

He has written a handful of fiction and nonfiction books, including the 1990 "By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer," and 1994's "The Other Side of Deception: A Rogue Agent Exposes the Mossad’s Secret Agenda."

The Mossad attempted to ban the controversial books, a move that only boosted their popularity, according to a 1995 report published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a Washington D.C.-based magazine about issues and U.S. policy in the Middle East. "The truth can sometimes be very problematic, and it can be dangerous," Ostrovsky said.

Although the controversy has subsided since the books were published, Ostrovsky is just as busy as ever — painting, writing two new books and opening nine other galleries in the United States and Canada.

It’s been 15 years since he was an agent, but Ostrovsky said the Mossad is always with him. "The Mossad is not something you can lay aside — it’s a way of life, a way of thinking," he said. "It’s something that never leaves you, and you don’t want it to."

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