Sketching out their future

A group of artists from the former Soviet Union have mixed a waterfall, a koi pond and other elements to create a vibrant new arts center in Jerusalem.

By DAVID STROMBERG
August 28, 2008 12:00
Sketching out their future

artist 224.88. (photo credit: David Stromberg)

 
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The Art Center at the House of Quality on Derech Hebron, established in 1963, is a studio and showcase center for Jerusalem artisans, a place where they can create and sell their works. Located across from the Mount Zion Hotel, the center is a place where tourists can easily access a variety of mediums - paintings, sculptures, graphic and metal works, ceramics, jewelry - often (though not exclusively) having a Judaic bent. Into this long-established setting, an artist and two curators are working to introduce an active cultural program that will engage both tourists and locals. Called the Skizze Club-Gallery, the space acts the artist's studio of Anatoly Schelest, and features the joint projects of curators Marina Schelest and Marina Genkina. The idea behind the gallery, as well as its eventual founding in Jerusalem, involves several parallel lines of personal and political history, crossing almost the entire geographical reach of the USSR, and making a stop in Europe before arriving here. It encompasses several separate and radically different immigrations, and depends on the coincidental overlap of the goals of the two Marinas. In Moscow, Marina Genkina taught art history at the Pre-Academic Art School, a professional preparatory art academy that taught grades five to 12, and had sister schools in Leningrad and Kiev. In 1990, her daughter was due to give birth in Israel, and Genkina packed a single suitcase and came to spend her two months of summer vacation helping her daughter in Jerusalem. She didn't see Moscow again until 2003, when the Jewish Agency sent her to teach the history of Jewish art in its winter camps. Upon finishing ulpan in May 1990, Genkina started looking for work. Eventually, she came across an advertisement in the Russian papers that invited applications for a free three-month course for Russian-speakers to become guides at the Israel Museum. "If I'm really a curator," Genkina said to herself, "then I should learn about Israeli art and history." There were 200 applications for 25 available spots - and all accepted applicants were warned that a job was not guaranteed upon completion of the course. In May 1991, 15 people were kept on as staff at the museum thanks to a grant from American donors which provided them with two guaranteed years of employment. Aside from leading tours in Russian, Genkina became a staff member of the museum's Library Department. "Obviously, after only a few months in the ulpan, I had little Hebrew," she remembers. "After two years of working there, my boss finally confessed that though she knew I was smart, and had been told by others that I was smart, she still couldn't believe it from the way I spoke." Despite the stereotypes of hostility between Russian olim and sabras, Genkina says she has her colleagues to thank for her eventual integration into Israeli society. "One night there was an evening party, so I came dressed up, but everyone was wearing jeans; so for the next party I came in jeans, and everyone was dressed up." They explained to her how things were and weren't done here, and she heeded their suggestions. Two years later, in May 1993, the employment program ended, and of the original 15 people, six remained in the departments that fought to keep them. Genkina was one of those who stayed, and she worked at the Israel Museum for 15 years, retiring in 2006. "But I asked them to let me stay on only part-time. The job was great, but if I'd wanted to be a librarian, I would have become a librarian. I'm a curator, and I wanted to work in my profession." They all called her crazy - "and they were probably right" - but they allowed her to work two and a half days a week. Genkina then took freelance work at the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University, digitally cataloging the works of immigrant artists. She also started giving lectures in Russian at community centers in and outside of Jerusalem. In 2000, Genkina and a friend, the doctor-turned-editor Anna Isakova, opened a gallery on Rehov Aza called CoArt, funded by Bracha and Yad Hanadiv. Isakova left a few months later to become an adviser to Ehud Barak, and in the middle of 2001 the gallery lost its funding. In its two years of existence, it opened 13 exhibitions, and a group of young artists formed there that Genkina continued to work with independently over the next several years. In 2006, she met Marina Schelest, who had recently arrived in the country. Schelest and her husband, Anatoly, were both born in Ukraine, and met at the Kiev Art Institute, where he was studying studio art and she studio art and art history. By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, they had two baby boys, Joseph and David, and fleeing the ensuing radioactivity, moved to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They decided to stay and continue their studies there. In 1992, they opened the Turtle and Violin, Uzbekistan's first commercial gallery, in a century-old house in the old Armenian Quarter. "Tolya sold a work and we bought the whole house with that money," Schelest remembers. The area had become Tashkent's diplomatic center after the collapse of the USSR, and the gallery the diplomats' hangout. But their opportunities - and especially their children's - for growth were limited. "We knew that we'd have to leave eventually, but it was difficult to do. To a degree, every immigration is a loss of status. And Tolya had a lot of artworks there, which were difficult to transport." The gallery ran for eight years, until German diplomats who understood the precariousness of the situation approached the couple with an offer: They would arrange an exhibition for Anatoly in Germany, thus taking care of the transport issue, and help Marina find a job in her professional field. They did both, and by 2000, the family (now with a third son, Moshe) had moved once again, this time to Koblenz, a small picturesque city in western Germany where the Rhine meets the Moselle. In Tashkent, Anatoly had studied Sufi poetry, which inspired a series of illustrations. Anna Maria Schimmel, a Harvard professor originally from Germany, had come across these works and asked Anatoly, upon his arrival in Germany, whether he'd be interested in doing a second series relating to the Kabbala, and then exhibiting them together. He said he would consider it, but that first he'd have to study the texts. He and Marina started learning Judaism together. First they read the Torah, and then the commentaries. At some point they wanted to try keeping Shabbat. Their older sons, who were studying in other cities, promised to try it with them once, but asked their parents not to be upset if it wasn't for them. But the effect turned out to be more powerful than expected: their eight-year-old, Moshe, asked his parents to have him circumcised, and Joseph and David, who were now 22 and 21, came to Israel, first to study at yeshiva and then to do their army service. In 2006, Marina and Anatoly joined their sons here and began to think of opening the kind of gallery and hangout they remembered from their life in Tashkent. "Skizze means 'sketch' in German," explains Marina, "and in a way, our gallery in Tashkent was a sketch for what we wanted to do in Israel." Schelest then met Genkina, whose experience was crucial to orienting the gallery from the outset, and together they began to plan the gallery's artistic and cultural program. Renting a space in the city center would have been exceedingly difficult for a small independent gallery, so when they came across an open studio at the Jerusalem House of Quality, which included an unkempt backyard, they decided to start there. David and Joseph invested their time, physical strength and the money they received from their army service and helped their father renovate the studio and backyard that would become Skizze Club-Gallery. They even recruited their yeshiva mate Ishayahu Landa, to help in the construction and to develop the gallery's young artists' program. The garden now sports cafe-style tables, a grapevine canopy and a waterfall with a koi pond. A large screen allows the organizers to screen films, or to use it as a backdrop for musical acts, such as the series of jazz concerts now being presented in cooperation with the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Visitors coming to a screening or concert are encouraged to order a coffee or tea from the small bar as they imagine the trek that led to the creation of this small but vibrant corner. For more information or to be added to the e-mail list, write to skizze.gallery@gmail.com.

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