A Different View of Israel
By Mary DanielsOctober 12, 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Chicago Tribune
A contemporary Cinderella might well choose artist Lily Poran's shoe made of red peppers over the comparatively boring glass slipper. Who knows if wearing shoes made of tiny chilis might add some hot moves to her dancing 'til midnight. But finding it might well make a cutting-edge collector out of the prince (and tempt him to keep the slipper for his burgeoning collection?).
That's because Poran is one of the 10 artists currently living and working in Israel who are making art history by exhibiting their work for the first time in America at SOFA 2003, The Tenth Annual International Exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art taking place next weekend at Navy Pier.
Among masterworks of art bridging the worlds of decorative and fine art presented by established artists from all over the world, the Israeli exhibit, "Innovation and Influences" is a highlight.
Organized by the Association of Israel's Decorative Arts in cooperation with the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, this participation was serendipitous, initiated by Doug and Dale Anderson of Palm Beach and New York, and Charles and Andrea Bronfman of the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in New York, a family of charitable foundations operating in Israel, the U.S. and Canada, whose mission is to develop, implement and support initiatives that help to strengthen the unity of the Jewish people.
The Bronfmans and Andersons, all studio glass collectors, visited Israel together in December 2001.
The Andersons were first-time visitors to Israel. Every time their guide suggested a biblical site, they asked him what ceramics, glass, fiber or jewelry could be found at that location.
The quality and variety of craftsmanship the Andersons encountered delighted and astonished them.
In their first blaze of enthusiasm, they planned to bring a group of other collectors to Israel to introduce them to this yet uncharted artistic world.
But as the violence of the intifada, or uprising, intensified, that plan was abandoned (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text). Andy Bronfman then sought the advice of Aviva Ben-Sira, who runs one of the best craft shops in Israel, on how to bring this work to the attention of American collectors, galleries and museum curators.
Last fall, Doug Anderson, a former member of the board of the American Craft Museum, met with Mark Lyman, president of SOFA, who agreed to arrange a booth for the Israeli artists at the Chicago show.
"Since its inception, SOFA has been interested in providing wide public exposure for artistic statements from diverse cultures," Lyman says. "We're excited about how strongly the AIDA special exhibit at SOFA Chicago expresses the voice of artists from this very troubled region of the world."
To prepare, Ben-Sira gathered the portfolios of 100 Israeli artists. Of those, she sent 50 to a jury in the U.S.
The power of creativity
From the 50, the final 10 were chosen, among them the remarkable Lily Poran.
Poran, 57, lives in Galilee, a hilly region in the north of Israel. She says, through Ben-Sira's translation, that the sources of her inspiration stem from the region's archaeology, its ancient sites, the Bible and Galilee's landscape.
Her work is proof that the austerity of Israeli artists' lives cannot repress their creativity.
Translating over the phone for his wife, Hadar Poran says Lily will bring about 20 shoes and two hats, plus other objects to SOFA. "All different kinds of shoes," he adds, "covered with natural materials she collects in the field and gardens of Galilee and the Negev Desert region."
"As an artist whose art materials stem from Earth and nature, the involvement with shoes comes naturally to me," Lily Poran said through Ben-Sira. As she walks about, she looks down on the ground, searching and collecting. "I see them, too, the shoes, and almost the limb of a person coming in contact with the earth, leaving its mark upon it," she says.
"Sometimes the shoe takes on the look of a piece of field, with dried fruits clinging to it. I describe a nature of wilting and sadness, rather than happiness and bloom. Fruits that dropped off the tree, came to the end of their life cycle, changed shape and colors through the influence of climate and sun, are given new life as an artistic creation. In my shoes, one can find a mixture of new and old. Their design is a product of a modern world, while they are created from Old World materials. They are humble, connected to the ground and to roots, and encompass a nostalgic connection to a world which no longer exists."
A shoe with its sole lined with thorns seems especially symbolic. One has to ask, as the world watches in horror at the violence in that part of the world, how can anyone create in an environment rife with terrorism? ("It is now three years of this situation, 900 killed and 6,000 wounded, many of them small children and youngsters," says Ben-Sira, quoting the statistics of the day.)
For Poran, "her art is like a life raft for her," her husband translates. "You don't know what to expect will happen," Hadar Poran says. "The stress is economic as well as emotional," says Charles Bronfman. "One of the great stresses is the lack of tourism, of visitors who might buy the artists' work. . . . The locals don't have the money to spend on things like art, so it's a double whammy."
`The only way . . . '
Michal Zehavi, 37, lives in the heart of the storm, in the center of Jerusalem, where she has a house and studio. She is bringing five large stoneware bowls, all perforated forms made of white clay, to SOFA.
"Making art is the only way I can escape from everything, because outside it is really scary if you think about it all the time. It is not only a way of life, it is the only way I can live in this reality," says Zehavi.
Samuel Barkai, 36, a Tel Aviv jeweler, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but has lived in Israel since 1975. He moved there with his grandmother after his parents died.
After a tough struggle to obtain an education, he emerged as a jeweler with a unique artistic vocabulary -- he makes brooches, necklaces, etc., working "with high and low materials. I work with gold and silver combined with plastic pieces I find on beaches and in flea markets, with toy parts, Monopoly board-game pieces, plastic soldiers, Lego pieces, almost any kind of material. I call it wearable art because it is not 100 percent jewelry," he says.
"It is not a question of place or time," he says of how he is able to work in an area so filled with terrorism, "it is some sort of a need."
"It is not easy being an artist at all, especially in this environment," he adds. People have other survival priorities. If they have extra money, they find other ways to enjoy it."
Ben-Sira says Israeli contemporary art "is developing and now with SOFA, making a connection with the world, so we are not so isolated. This is the first time these artists are being exposed to the larger world."
"As artists, they do not have the knowledge of how to get their work out and seen by the rest of the world," says Charles Bronfman. "At the moment, the economic stresses are enormous, which is one of the reasons for AIDA; it's an opportunity to have their work seen and have economic success."
"Part of our desire was to show North Americans the artists of Israel and not the awful things that run on CNN exclusively," says Andrea Bronfman.
Her husband adds, "To put a face on Israel, not someone with a gun, but with a paint brush."
-- Mary Daniels