Earth whisperer

Meet Uri Eliaz, an artist who communicates in the language of nature.

earthwhis 88 298 (photo credit: )
earthwhis 88 298
(photo credit: )
If the sea could speak, what would it say? Would it recount legends of mermaids climbing onto rocky shoals or tell us about stormy nights and the likes of Jonah and his whale? Would the driftwood, now part of the sea, tell tall tales like salty sailors of how it used to be a front wheel that rolled along the Silk Road carrying kings and queens in its carriage? If the earth could speak, what would it say? Would it describe how its delicate hues romance lovers holding hands under its trees, or translate birdsong to serenades encouraging the tendrils of grapevines to unfurl under the sun? It may be the language of his genes, a miracle or just the language of the earth, says Uri Eliaz of his mammoth collection of paintings and sculptures taking refuge in his south Tel Aviv studio. Eliaz is working on a difficult lifelong project. He started as a boy to read and decode the language of the earth like a book. His compass is a paintbrush, paints and found objects his tools for communicating the message. Eliaz has always been fascinated by nature. "To work in art is to be a messenger of the earth," he says from the top floor of his Jaffa studio, surrounded by brushes and oil paints waiting to be squeezed onto white canvas. "Inspiration comes from everything. I love to look at the earth and observe what happens on its surface." Carpets cover the doorways, to hold in the heat in the winter and air-conditioned cool air in the summer. Hundreds of paintings are stacked through each opening. Some are reminiscent of Picasso and Chagall - there are soft landscapes with rows of animals on a desert backdrop, furious fuchsia on muted earth tones, a jester and a bride and groom standing stoically with breasts and genitals exposed. Inside one of several alcoves is a collection of paintings on circular discs - recycled protector caps from old electrical poles. Eliaz likes how the texture of the fiberglass discs works with the paint, he says, giving himself no credit for being ecologically aware. "The environment is too dirty for one man to clean. I don't see it like that," he says. Not only the discs are recycled (passers-by can see one resembling a parked flying saucer on the veranda outside). Much of his canvas and the materials that go into his sculpting are reclaimed. Some of the canvas is recycled postal bags from Germany. Sea-beaten wood and old machine parts went into the 200-strong army of sculptures downstairs reminiscent of idols from ancient cultures that Eliaz calls "Scarecrows and Gods." The life-sized sculptures are intricate and humorous. They excite the soul yet frustrate the eye - each one as though it were transmitting a message from the sea or a faraway land, begging to be taken outside from the basement. A silver spray-painted dove - a dried-up find from the Jaffa shore - is an unusual element in one sculpture. Although his work goes from the sublime to the supremely bizarre, Eliaz - outwardly at least - is not an eccentric person. He can be found trekking up Derech Yaffo during the week to work in his studio, where his name is painted on the blue metal door in Hebrew, Arabic and English. He is a family man who works out at a gym. He is soft-spoken, polite and eats healthfully. He speaks respectfully to his wife when she calls, and talks fondly of his children. Pictures of his brother, a soldier who fell in Lebanon, are taped to the walls. He claims that no idealism drives his world. Why create art when nature is already perfect? "As an artist, what is important is to add something to nature. A good artist is like a pipe. And what passes through? Your experience and your genetics maybe," he suggests. Since he was eight, Eliaz knew that his greatest strength was painting. He grew into a young man in the 1950s, a time when one didn't think as much about self-development as building the country, he explains. As an active youth movement member - except for a short stint at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem before the War of Independence - he had been content pruning trees, building Kibbutz Nahshon (near Latrun) and herding sheep. "Back then, there were only rocks at the kibbutz. The most important thing - to which all education was directed at the time - was building Eretz Yisrael." Thirty-five years ago he moved to Tel Aviv and then Jaffa and started building his art career. Thousands of paintings later, he's still working on it. "I don't love concepts in art or conceptual art. The things that come from me are spontaneous and natural, without much thought. I am like a bird who sings," he adds, reflecting a moment as though he had unduly given himself too much credit. "Of course, there are problems with this approach. If I had a manifesto or plan maybe I would be more focused. I do what comes. At the same moment, I give it all my heart." Of course, the heart isn't enough. Good artists, Eliaz believes, should not only love the color of paint but also be sensitive to all the materials involved in producing an art form. "If I work with clay, I need to love the clay in my hands. If I draw on paper, I have to love the moment that the pencil touches the paper. Is it smooth? Is there texture? To work, you need to feel the material." As a man of material and color, it is somehow fitting that his wife, Tammy, is deaf. "She loved my work too much in the beginning," Eliaz recalls fondly. "Tammy reads lips, reads intuition and also reads people," he says, pointing out that she now paints herself, albeit using a computer. "I have my life and she has my life," he jokes. Together they have two sons and six grandchildren. Over a cup of sweet Turkish coffee, Eliaz acknowledges that he hasn't struck it big in the art world - yet. And there are, of course, some paintings he would never sell. Others range from $800 to $10,000. Judging by the anticipation on the faces of the sculpted army downstairs, if they have their way, there will be a new exhibit some time soon - or at least a mutiny. "Which one do I like best? That's like asking me who do I like better - my mother or my father," he says.