Decoding the luster of life

Jerusalemite Mindy Weisel crosses over from the world of painting to glassworks, with an exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum.

Pieces from the Parallel Tracks series. (photo credit: JOHN WOO)
Pieces from the Parallel Tracks series.
(photo credit: JOHN WOO)
About 50 years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, another revolution in the Middle East dramatically changed the lives of most everyone on earth: Craftsmen (possibly Jewish) discovered the expansionist quality of glass.
This technological breakthrough enabled artisans to blow glass, thus democratizing its use throughout the world.
For the previous 15 centuries, the elite classes had jealously guarded the secret of how to combine sodium, silica and lime into the pre-blown, expensive material used in the jewelry and perfume bottles of the rich.
Blown glass facilitated the production of everyday vessels, replacing the ceramic bowls, cups and vases of earlier epochs, becoming a staple of every household.
Today, glimmering artifacts from the Late Bronze Age right up until 2014 can be viewed in the stately glass pavilion of Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum. The pavilion, built in 1959 to house the private collection of Walter Moses, boasts rare and wonderful pieces that shine a light on the culture and traditions of yester-ages.
A rhyton (ceremonial drinking horn) from the first century BCE stands alongside a 2,000-year-old blue jug signed by the legendary master craftsman Ennion from Sidon. A colorful glass tile, similar to those that decorated Roman Emperor Lucius Verus’s villa in the second century CE, shimmers next to an enameled, painted mosque lamp from the Mameluke period.
The art and energy of the Middle East, alongside the chaos and warfare of the region, is captured in the delicate showcased items. In 1400, for example, invading Mongolians destroyed everything in their path; glassblowers were among the refugees who moved to the West, carrying their know-how with them.
And now, in the 21st century, that know-how is safely back home. The Middle East is once again alive with scintillating glass artworks, and Henrietta Eliezer Brunner, the dynamic curator of the glass pavilion, is thrilled to exhibit them.
Currently on show is an installation by Mindy Weisel, whom Brunner describes as “an outstanding painter who has crossed over into the world of glass, a transparent medium that ideally suits her process of transferring emotions from dark to light.”
Titled “Crossover,” the beautifully hung exhibition decodes Weisel’s work. According to Brunner, this involves passing through many levels; there is much pain in those panes of glass.
Weisel’s wealth of emotions informs her art; her swirling colors and luminous designs do not spring from a life of unmitigated sunshine. Born in Bergen- Belsen in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, she is achingly aware of human suffering and pain.
“My parents, who were cousins, both survived Auschwitz,” she explains. “They reunited straight after the Holocaust in Bergen-Belsen, when it was turned into a displaced persons’ center, and they married in 1946. I was one of the first babies born in Bergen- Belsen.” Weisel and her parents (who are related to Elie Wiesel), relocated to the US when she was four, but the witnessing of grief and the events of her earliest years constantly impact on both her life and her art.
The Holocaust brutally decimated her family: On her father’s side, nine of 11 siblings survived; seven of her mother’s 11 siblings were murdered.
According to Weisel, such sadness raises the bar for living. “A child of Holocaust survivors has to walk in a constant state of gratitude for just being alive. You can never complain of hunger, or fatigue, or sadness… What is the discomfort of an American kid compared to what her parents endured? With food in the fridge, and a clean, comfortable bed – what could possibly be wrong?” This endless need to compensate for parents’ traumatic past puts enormous strain on a child.
So when the teenage Weisel’s art teacher told her to “paint what you know,” the pain came spilling out. In an age before Holocaust museums in the States, and pre-Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Weisel did a groundbreaking series of paintings featuring her father’s concentration camp number: A3146. Often, a thin line of red infuses her art – a reference to the rare blood type that saved her mother’s life.
“My mother had no number on her arm because she was not chosen to live,” Weisel recalls. “But [Auschwitz physician Josef] Mengele was interested in testing her blood each week. Every Monday they came to take a vial, and gave her a tiny bit of soup to keep her alive until the following blood test. For a year she thought that every day was her last.”
The cobalt blue that shimmers recurrently throughout Weisel’s work references the first dress her mom received from her surviving aunts when she reached America; from that day, she only wore blue.
These themes, long recognizable in her paintings, spill over into the glass. The current show presents a series of 18 pieces of 18 square inches – in Hebrew the equivalent of “double hai” (life), explains Weisel, who dubs her debut in Israel “an installation of gratitude.”
She feels like “a vessel: the gift passes through me onto the glass, which is mysterious, bright and alive. I just go at it.”
“Going at it” involves layering a choice of over 100 colors onto sheets of clear glass, adding a pinch of glass powders and stirring in some stringers as well as a dollop of liquid glass, and baking each layer in a kiln. Sometimes Weisel smashes one layer with a hammer, then reuses it in a different configuration – and the multilayered finished product glows with a life of its own.
Her first debt of thanks is to Dafna Kaffeman, head of the glass department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. “Kindness is the hardest thing to give away,” claims Weisel, “it keeps coming back to you.”
In this way, a few years after Weisel guest-curated Kaffeman’s exhibition in Washington, Kaffeman returned the favor and introduced her to the Eretz Israel Museum. And so a new show was born.
Weisel, who married at 18 and is the mother of three daughters, has had a glittering career. Assistant professor of fine arts at Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington and a visiting artist at the University of Haifa in the ’80s, her artwork graces the cover of two of Primo Levi’s books and hangs throughout the world, including in Yad Vashem. And, despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, her creations are testimony to the survival of beauty – a mantra she learned from her dad.
“My father says that if you live a life, things happen,” says Weisel. “It’s what we do with our lives that counts.”
In this spirit, she has channeled her art into collaborating with IsraAid all over the globe, wherever people need support. In Japan, she met survivors of the tsunami and helped them cope with trauma through art, simultaneously absorbing some of Japanese style and culture herself. This culminated in a series of etchings of cherry blossoms and collages, which echo in the glass on display.
In a life lived filling others’ lives with beauty, Weisel (who is very beautiful herself) has experienced many, many “things that happen.” Take the strange interlude in Washington, when a journalist suddenly admitted mid-interview that her own father had been a Nazi during World War II. Or the time when the artist was invited to Berlin for a show and taken to Bergen-Belsen, where she viewed her mother’s original identification papers and her own birth certificate, written in her mother’s distinctive handwriting.
The US State Department had sponsored Weisel’s trip to Germany and appointed her a cultural ambassador, giving rise to one of the most surreal conversations of her life. “Someone from the US Embassy reviewed my itinerary and asked if I’d like to visit Dachau,” she recalls.
“She said, ‘Dachau is closed on Mondays, but the mayor would like to open it for you.’ I thought that was the most ironic, strange sentence I could ever imagine.”
Dachau is closed on Mondays, but the mayor would like to open it for you. It’s a book waiting to be written.
And now, after over 60 years in the States, Mindy and Sheldon, her lawyer husband of almost 50 years, have “come home” to Israel, where she continues to create her magic in a high-ceilinged studio in a century-old house, flooded with Jerusalem light. One daughter already lives here, with her Israeli husband and two children.
“It’s an ancient dream come true,” proclaims Weisel.
The lustrous installation is on show until December 31 at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv.