Artists, as the hackneyed saying goes, are obliged to suffer for their creative output. Yoram Raanan certainly took a knock around six months ago, when an enormous fire ravaged parts of Moshav Beit Meir, in the Jerusalem corridor, where he has been living for the past 23 years.
Thankfully, the Raanan home was spared and no one was hurt, but the artist’s studio, with hundreds of paintings, was completely destroyed, along with his computer database and his beloved LP collection.
The studio was located in the garden and the Raanan abode was perilously close to the path devoured by the flames.
I visited Raanan shortly after the fire. The signs of devastation were astonishing. What had once been a 300-sq.m. haven of the artist’s creative process had been reduced to a mangled mess of warped metal covered in ash.
The US-born sexagenarian seemed remarkably calm. He appeared quietly determined to resume his work with ever greater vim, and to rebuild his work space.
Indeed, the latter is rapidly taking shape and, judging by the paintings and other works scattered around, he is back up to speed and then some.
Raanan’s work, which has been popular across the globe for the last three or four decades, has now been given an official stamp of approval. This week, he stepped up to the stage at the Knesset to receive the Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize for Culture, Art & Sports. The award, says the Nefesh B’Nefesh website, “recognizes outstanding Anglo olim – veteran and recent – who embody the spirit of modern-day Zionism by contributing in a significant way to the State of Israel.”
“It is very strange,” Raanan remarks when we meet a couple of days before the Knesset event. “I never think of myself in that way [as a prizewinner].”
But surely it must be nice to get a pat on the back. “It’s very nice. It’s totally humbling and amazing and shocking and exciting. I can’t quite wrap myself around it. It’s very shocking, really, to get a phone call like that,” he says.
Raanan appears to be modest in the extreme. Didn’t he find it gratifying to receive such recognition, especially after everything he’s been through? “Sometimes I think it may be the prize for getting destroyed,” he notes, somewhat tongue in cheek.
Still, artistic acclaim is nothing new for Raanan. He has works on show at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in Jerusalem, and in museums and galleries, as well as private collections, all over the world. His paintings are said to be an expression of Jewish collective consciousness, and display a robust feeling for light, depth, color and spirituality. The Bible, the Land of Israel and Mother Nature are frequent subjects. For three years, until the fire, he did a painting for the weekly Torah portion in The Jerusalem Post Magazine.
So, other than wiping out his studio with an estimated $2 million-plus worth of works, how has last winter’s natural disaster affected Raanan? True to his ever-sunny outlook on life, and his creative bent, for him his recent lamentable experience has become grist for his artistic mill. “If you look at the paintings I’ve done in the past few months, you can see they are extremely affected by the fire,” he notes.
Raanan says the destruction shook him up in more ways than one. “I used to paint with pretty colors, so to speak, and I used acrylic on canvas. Now I use oil paint on wood board. I think that relates very much to the fire; I want to be very organic, and wood is very much the fuel that helped to destroy my studio.”
Perhaps years down the line, art critics taking a look at Raanan’s oeuvre will point to “pre-fire” and “post-fire” works. The difference is stark. Gone – at least for now – are the numerous rich hues of his Jewish- and nature-oriented paintings.
What I saw in his current work space were many shades of brown, yellow, white and black – reminiscent of flames. And there is a more raw energy to Raanan’s brushwork.
“All the colors I’m using are earth tones and golds – there’s a sort of golden light coming out. That has a lot to do with the fire,” he explains. “None of this is conscious. I’m really just playing around with the paint, and stepping and taking a look, and thinking, ‘this looks interesting.’ I have burning trees there, and phoenixes seem to be coming out.”
Raanan really does seem to be rising from the ashes. Despite his devastating loss, and his ongoing battle with the authorities over the matter of compensation, he comes across as almost serene.
The positive vibes were also evident when we first met in December. Raanan even managed to see the upside of a destructive insect, which had eaten away at one of his trees.
“There was a beetle eating the old palm trees, so we had to pull out the tree,” he told me as we walked from his house to the charred remains of his studio. “Had we not taken the tree out – the branches were leaning right over onto the house, and that the fire would have burned down the house.”
The beetle-ravaged palm was just one of hundreds of trees Raanan planted when he and his family moved to the moshav 23 years ago.
Formerly known by his American name, Eliot Scott, Raanan hails from Bloomfield, New Jersey, from what he calls “a real middle, middle-class” background.
When I ask him when art started for him, he fires back: “Art started for me the same time it started for you, and everyone else. Everybody starts painting when they are two or three years old, and most people give up. I didn’t give up, I just kept doing it.”
By the same token, everyone can sing but not everyone grows up to be an opera singer, or the frontman of a rock band or a jazz group. There must have been some innate gifts in the mix, too.
“When I was seven or eight, I started getting a little bit more serious about art, and I had a cool teacher,” he recalls. “He was a hip dude and he encouraged me to explore my thrill of creation.”
Raanan also had an inspirational mentor in high school. “She also encouraged me, and taught me about art history. I started understanding the depth of art in general.”
Raanan says he became serious about art when he was 16, and that compensated for his lack of interest in the rest of his schooling. “I am a very right-brain person,” he states. “I realized I was not going to go far with my academic skills so I put everything into art.”
That strategy proved successful when he was accepted to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
After duly completing his bachelor’s degree, he decided to strike out into the real world.
“I wanted to see the world,” he recalls. “I spent a year-and-a-half backpacking. I spent three months going across Canada. Then I flew to Ireland, which was the closest, most westerly point [of Europe].”
The youngster’s next port of call was Scotland, all the while taking in the light and natural colors of each region he visited, as well as popping into local galleries and museums.
“The nature I saw was a real education. I moved out of town to live in nature,” he says, referring to the family’s relocation from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof to Beit Meir. “I need quiet, I need privacy, I need nature.”
Raanan got his first taste of the Middle East when he visited Egypt. “That was something else,” he says. He then popped over to Greece and eventually made his way to Israel.
“I thought I was coming to spend three months on a kibbutz, and then keep going east to India.”
That never happened. “I just fell in love with Israel. I never left.”
Fast forward 40 years and Raanan’s studio is engulfed in flames. “That is really strange, that it was almost 40 years to the day after I arrived in Israel,” he observes. “And I started here during the week of Hayei Sara [the weekly Torah portion in the Book of Genesis], and the fire happened in the week of Hayei Sara. It’s a perfect circle again. That’s a sign to me. God runs the world.”
Raanan says he received another divine lesson when he finally threw himself back into his work after the fire. “I thought I’d get right back to it, but then it started raining and we discovered there were leaks, and everything was flooded here. We fixed it, and then it leaked again. I think God was telling me to slow down.”
The fire-inspired works are, indeed, very different from his earlier works, but Raanan does not expect that to last forever. “I think it’s just a stage, maybe a way of processing what I’ve been through. Anyway, I’ve got a commission for six paintings that will be like my earlier work.”
Ever inquisitive, and keenly aware of the aesthetics around him, Raanan has even begun incorporating some of the warped remains of the fire into his creative output.
A scarred piece of a doghouse placed on a black background becomes the basis for an attractive piece of work, as does a mass of melted acrylic paint on canvas peeled off the charred floor, augmented by gold paint.
“I call this series Creative Collateral,” he says with a chuckle.
“And I find this piece, which is a statement somehow, and it’s just a piece of a plastic chair. And I got really lucky with this,” he says, holding a delightfully curvy piece of a branch. “It looks like a dancer.”
It sounds strange to hear someone who lost so much of his life’s work in one fell swoop describe himself as “lucky,” but Raanan really does seem to be truly blessed.