The living Bible

Sculptor Betty Moller draws on Jewish survival and heritage in her bronze sculptures.

Betty Moller and Sculpture (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Betty Moller and Sculpture
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Betty Moller felt something was lacking in her bust of David Ben-Gurion. The young art student stared at her creation unhappily, unable to put her finger on it, until finally reaching her conclusion. “I need to see him,” she recalls thinking to herself. So she made the journey from Tel Aviv to the Knesset, and nervously sat before him in his office.
“When he spoke to me, I couldn’t hear. I heard only one thing,” she says; the song “Ma’al Pisgat Har Hatzofim,” (Above the Peak of Mount Scopus), a song about the Jewish yearning for Jerusalem and rebuilding the city from its ruins. Her sculpture of Israel’s first prime minister, a wrinkled brow over serious, visionary eyes, today sits in the Tel Aviv Museum.
The chic 87-year-old sculptor of bronze human forms, especially biblical figures and scenes, is showing several musically themed works at the “Muse” exhibit at the outdoor Alrov Mamilla Avenue, running until December. Her pieces include a domineering, dark Goliath, a striking portrayal of the patriarch Abraham holding two worlds in his hands, one labeled Ishmael and the other labeled Isaac, and a woman in the form of a cello, whose face reminds her of her mother’s.
Many of Moller’s works focus on the themes of Jewish strength, survival and heritage.
She draws on the Pentateuch for artistic inspiration, she says, not as a religious document, but rather as a historical one.
Perhaps not every word of the holy text is true, she concedes, but these figures existed. She is sure of that.
“He is actually buried not far from Mamilla, and he’s our father and our past,” she says of the first Jew. “I very much love the Tanach, all the stories. I am not religious in action, but I am religious inside, truly.”
Moller, who studied art at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv, sculpture for three years at the Academie de Beaux-Arts in Paris (where she befriended Jewish painter Mane Katz), and the Art Student League in New York, sees a consistent trend in Jewish life from the Bible through the founding of Israel and the present day – a cultural insistence on creation and a determination to thrive.
“Jews don’t waste their energy on how to hate and how to destroy, and how to kill,” she says in an interview at the Amelia café in north Tel Aviv not far from her apartment.
“Our energy is internal, to create, to do, to believe in our area.”
The octogenarian takes the same approach to her craft. Moller says an idea comes to her, and then she takes her time to imagine the final product, dreaming of it, before actually working on it.
“I start to work on the idea,” she says, “I decide that’s what I want to see, that’s what I want to create... if I decide it, so it has to be done.”
She strives to create a bridge of contact between her art and the viewer, and a connection between herself and the piece.
Moller says she is dreaming of sculptures of King David and King Saul, among other ideas swimming around in her head. She says her David may come to fruition, as a present to the capital for Jerusalem Day, in honor of the 45th anniversary of the city’s reunification.
This passion for Jerusalem has carried over into Moller’s personal life as well.
Moller returned to Israel from New York where she was living just to give birth to her son, Gilad, a musician. The Jewish people having dreamt of the Jewish state for 2,000 years, Moller says she felt a need to return for the occasion. “It’s a privilege that he is born here in Israel,” she says.
A native of Persia, Moller says she made aliya at the age of five with her sister and Russian-born mother, leaving behind her father to attend to his fur business (he joined the family 20 years later). She remembers early on in her childhood Jews in Iran publicly pretending they were Muslim, but practicing Judaism at home.
“My mother didn’t want to raise children like this,” she says. Life was hard as new immigrants, money was tight and learning the language wasn’t easy for her mother.
“I imagine how much my mother suffered,” she says, yet adding that she was always proud and exuded dignity. She worked hard to raise her children on her own, sewing their clothing, crafting dolls for her to play with, and never complained; the same no-nonsense attitude Moller brings to sculpture.
Just before the 1948 War of Independence, Moller says her mother was ill, so she sent her and her sister to live with different families. The daughter of the family with whom she was staying was studying art. One day she brought home a lump of clay, and Moller says she started to play with it, until creating a figure.
“I was so scared and thought... I took her material and made a problem here.”But the family noticed her talent and sent her to study art as well.
“It’s me, or it’s them or it’s God’s will,” she says of her entrance into art. “I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’m happy with it.”
While living in New York, Moller met her husband, artist Isadore Grossman. The two began working together on the delicate and tedious job of restoration art for wealthy clients like the Johnsons (of Johnson & Johnson) and galleries, and she still does this work occasionally for clients abroad and leading museums. Projects can range from Egyptian to Mexican sculptures, and through the process, Moller has studied the historical periods from which the pieces originate. “I love puzzles,” she says of the time-consuming, though satisfying work.
But the business of art never interested her (“money is money and art is art”), and today she enjoys focusing on sculpture for its own sake.
“It’s almost godly,” she says, of the energy that comes forth from a creation. “I got this present from God. If I got this present, I have to work. I have to do something.”