Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On the Other Side of the Fence

Art on the Fence
Originally uploaded by gr8wendini
I must begin this entry with one step back and acknowledge all the community-wide good will extended to me before leaving the country. Travel prayers and blessings, vicarious following of any social media updates.

It's been 2 weeks since I've returned.
I had to get home, and get back into my humble routine to have the ability to properly digest this experience and reflect upon it. It was challenging to blog while I was abroad because I needed to be in the fast-moving swirl of stimulation rather than the pressure of extracting myself. Even though it was a short visit (2 weeks) there were some profound takeaways.
Three times a charm
So what about Israel? Well the experience exceeded my expectations. Here was an opportunity to be in the spiritual center of Jewish people--and as a result, this time, I do feel more connected with this land. I feel Israel in my DNA as a place to return to and share with people, I want dismantle erroneous assumptions about traveling in the Holy Land and share how Israelis live day to day.

It wasn’t always this way…I had been to Israel twice before, once when I was 19 with my Mother and late Grandmother Mollie, and then again a few years later in the early 90’s--I turned 25 atop a Mt. Sinai sunrise. I felt like I should have knocked back the magical Kool-Aid then but I didn't-- both these trips left me briny like going into the Dead Sea with dry-shaved legs, my experience was well, kinda harsh and salty. I found the language abrasive, the people abrasive. It's a tough country and it was certainly in a different stage of its growth, as was I.
Sabres Sa baba!
Israelis in general are argumentative, they are Sabres (cactus fruit)--tough and prickly on the outside but yes, sweet nectar on the inside. Part of this is they are true survivors who represent the people and generations that fought for the country's right to exist. Once you get past this and the primitive translation of Hebrew to English in conversation -there is something undeniably charming there. I guess you can say I fell in love with the people—everyone we met through the partnership was so engaged in us and our experience and just wanted to share themselves, their art, and their stories. The Western Galilee region of Israel is brimming with art—everywhere! I met the talented gallery owners (Lee & Itzak Rimon) of The Edge Gallery in Nahariya. ( This is where I first learned more about Gilad Shalit –perhaps I had a vague recollection that this young man had been (and still is for 5 years now!) held in captivity. I learned there was a children’s book he wrote years ago when he was 11 called “When the Shark and the Fish First Met”, which of course has under-currents of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how these two species become friends--one of many heart-warming moments. The Edge Gallery owners made it into an ilustrators exhibition,then into a book and translated the story. This story has been translated into numerous languages.
I absolutely adored Sisi—the Curator for the Ethnographic Museum in Akko. She has a bright smile and is a beautiful person inside and out. I will never forget Esti, our Chaperone, Mom, and Information go-to gal whom we coined “Don’t Mess with Esti.” She had the task of herding us cats and ensuring we were ‘on the bus’ as it were. There was Tali our Tour Guide with a great sense of style. Also the passionate and dedicated Noa Friedman-Epstein (Arts and Regional Development Coordinator) who worked her tuchis off during our stay and leading up to it and WG Marketing & Missions Coordinator, Heidi Benish, a Danish convert who shared her story our first day in a Partnership presentation. There was Benny, our charismatic yet cantankerous cab driver (who lived in San Antonio for years) who engaged with us in his political point of view of Israel & Obama during a lengthy drive to Haifa. I pine for all these faces now.
Artists in Residency
My original ‘Point of Encounter’ was my fellow Artists. Lucky for us, we had easy, stress-free group chemistry—6 from Indianapolis, a wonderful Persian couple from San Antonio, 1 Toledo, 1 Omaha, 1 NJ. and yours truly from Austin. There was lots of shutter bug bliss capturing the magical moments in a photogenic country rich with history, ancient ruins, impressive windows and doorways and a constant juxtaposition of new with old and changing scenery on the excursions we shared together. We had an opportunity to feature our art at “The Fence Festival” at Kibbutz Gesher Haziv our first weekend. What a great way to see and support each other’s work and celebrate this symbol of our Residency coming to life in Israel!
I primarily worked with Digital Artist/Photographer, Colleague and Residency roommate Dena Elisabeth Eber ( to create appropriate workshops based on our varied audiences. We conducted 3 different workshops. The first was in an Arab village called Sheikh Danun. The computer room in the community center there is funded by the Jewish National Agency. The second was a 2-day workshop in the Ethnographic Museum in Akko with adult photography enthusiasts, and the third was a night class of students at Wizo Design College in Haifa where I screened an oldie but a goodie, “Praise HA!”
For me, the experience was empowering--I never formally taught photography and wouldn't say by any stretch say that I'm an expert-- but I did get that I have knowledge to pass along and can make a difference. The feedback was amazing. My biggest takeaway perhaps, is that I feel like an Artist and a Teacher now. The last thing Dena said when we were parting ways was “Don’t forget, you ARE a teacher.” Thanks Dena.
Food, Glorious Good, go ahead, have some more
I love the typical Israeli breakfast—flavorful crunchy cucumbers with little ridges (I’ll never eat those big waxy,dull-tasting American ones again), plain yogurt with zahtar (mixed herbs) sprinkled on top, white soft goat cheese, tomatoes red and rich, tasty avocados, puff pastries made with cheese and potato, coarse egg salad with green onions. They have got this one down and I’m adopting this at home.
Up or down? That was my (ahem) pointed question—do the fingers on the hands go up or down? I had come to Israel with a project idea of documenting Hamsas, a ubiquitous middle-eastern symbol. Aside from the usual interpretation of protection, evil eye & abundance, I also got hand of G-d and references to Passover. Each person had a different take. My conclusion, no one really knows. It was amusing—everyone has them, on their key rings, outside their doorways, hanging from the rear view mirror. It was a fun to shoot short videos and interview people; it gave me an excuse to interact with them.
“As (Not) Seen on TV”
Don’t believe what you see on the nightly news. That is not indicative of what the country is really like. I never felt unsafe or even threatened –sure, there may be some cat-caller types on the street, but my safety was never in question, even late night in Jerusalem in the Muslim quarter. In the big picture, Israel gets a lot of prime time attention for being a sliver of land slightly smaller than New Jersey.
Mostly that attention focuses on the political unrest and the ‘crisis’ in the Middle East. Let me share that day to day living with Jews—secular and religious, Arab Israelis and Palestinians at least in my experience in the Western Galilee, Tel Aviv & Jerusalem was dare I say, non-violent, passive and diplomatic. People are living their lives. All the road signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. At the Dead Sea I sat floating with an Israeli couple and next to us (granted not engaging in conversation) were two Arabic women fully clothed honoring Hijab code of modesty. I stayed in the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem (across from the famous American Colony Hotel) for a couple nights because as my traveling companion, Krista, found the hotel deal on the internet. Initially, I thought ‘No, I can’t stay in the Muslim Quarter, I feel like an imposter’, but I got over that and embraced the occasion. The people congregated for the continental breakfast revealed the clientele were mostly Asian and European tourists that found the same internet deal. But relating with the hotel personnel was absolutely fine. I have mixed emotions and so do Israelis in terms of peace and what they are willing to do for it. Mostly, both sides speak out of both sides of their mouth which is why the politics of the Middle East takes years to understand and is especially complex.
The Land
I was encouraged by what I saw in terms of state infrastructure, building and re-building since settling in Israel developed relatively quickly. People just claimed land and built hurriedly which is why the buildings are white and beige. Tel Aviv is a beautiful Westernized City with some attractive of Bauhaus Architecture. I wish I spent more time there.
There is more stirring in my mind—but I feel the need to get something posted already!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Promised Land Posting

The days are blending to together and there’s so much jam packed in during sunlight hours, there’s barely time to digest before we’re off and running. It’s an exciting swirl. I'm still not able to upload images...

Yesterday was an especially touching and inspirational day. We visited Kibbutz Gaaton, which world-renowned now deceased Shmuel Katz (1926-2010) and his wife Naomi helped to found. I’ve seen Katz’s work—political satire, children’s books, landscapes. Shemul Katz is perhaps one of the most famous artists to come out of Israel. Exodus the book and 1960 epic war film with Paul Newman is based on the events that happened on the ship Exodus in 1947 and dealing with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. This is his story. A Holocaust survivor, pioneer, fine artist, leader & fighter, we had the unique opportunity to meet his wife, Naomi who hosted us in his studio, untouched from his passing just a year ago. His palettes, hats, art, files, assemblage of things locked in time—like a mini museum. I think other groups and visitors have come to visit her since Katz’s death, but she was especially moved by our crowd-- the questions asked, the interest in his well documented life as an artist—she shared books upon books of his original art, cartoons, illustrations & photographs—every drawing from the voyage to the detention camp of Cypress and finally Israel. It was an intimate experience and the first time I was moved to tears since I’ve been in Israel—sort of unexpected, but even with a language barrier the emotions of love & gratitude glistened though.

Part of Kibbutz Gaaton has been transformed into dance studio and performance space which Naomi Katz found after she made a promise to herself if she were to survive the Holocaust--she would support the future of dance. We saw a practice with the KCDC2 dance ensemble. The members are 18-26 and incredibly talented--I was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of the troupe. Their performance was a high energy expression of our fast-moving, multi-tasking, mobile phone, high-tech world with a send up of some commercials from my Gen X childhood: Slinky, Alka Selzer (plop plop fizz fizz), Dr. Pepper (Be a Pepper).

This week I had an opportunity to work for 2 mornings in an Arab school called Sheikh Danun where the computer lab there at the community center is made possible by an endowment from the Jewish Agency. Here is an example of peaceful Arab/Israeli relations. I worked with fellow Photographer Dena Eber teaching some fundamentals of photography –framing, angle, composition and Photoshop with a dozen 16-year old Arab girls. They are teenagers—giggling, wearing skinny jeans, hip hop music taste, signing on Facebook when no one’s looking…The ‘camera’ they used was their cell phone cameras. We were able to doqwnload their images, cop and manipulate their images. The theme of our workshop was identity—show us ‘you’ without you being in the picture. I really enjoyed my time with them.

5.28.11 Spotty Internet makes for sluggish communication, catching a bug in a foreign country makes me lethargic. Combine those two with a Saturday in Israel, and you arrive at ‘STOP’. This Shabbat I am quiet, perhaps even by default, but here I am writing a post (finally) from Nahariya in Hotel Frank --going ‘live’ with this is another story, but at least I have electricity.

I don’t mean to insinuate that Israel isn’t a Westernized country—it is, however, there is still an under-current reminder that I’m in the Middle East. Sure, we have WiFi if you call one bar ‘access’. Granted we are in a Northern beach town, a couple hours from the more metropolitan Tel Aviv.

OK I admit it, this VIP treatment is working for me and in fact, it will be hard to be just another American tourist the last few days of my stay—but that’s next week. For now, I am with a group of interesting artists of varied backgrounds from the Southern consortium partnership. There are a couple other photographers, glass artists, art therapists, painters, a vocalist and art activist (Artist for Israel).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Point of Encounter

I have been invited to be in an "Artist in Residency" program in Austin's Partnership with Israel Western Galilee region and participate in an Arts Festival called "Arts on the Fence." Photography, paintings, and mixed-media work will be assembled on a fence as one aspect of the visit.

This Residency program holds the potential to be a unique and powerful experience. Its focus is about connecting me to people in the Western Galilee through my creativity. I’ll be able to experience the region with all its artistic treasures while building relationships with Austin’s partnership region.

I haven’t been to Israel since 1992—and a lot has changed in those 19 years. The theme for the arts festival is “Point of Encounter." There’s something about that
phrase-- to meet unexpectedly, with perhaps a bit of serendipity. My work now is to
identify what that means to me, and how to portray this through my mind’s eye. In any
case, for the first time I’ll be content with the status of "being on the fence."

I hope you’ll follow my journey via Facebook Twitter (@shalomaustin @gr8wendini) and this blog.