Back in the frame

Meir Solomon, back painting Tel Aviv's streets after 35 years in Holland, describes the advantages of life abroad for artists and explains where Israel has lots to learn.

meir solomon 88 298 (photo credit: Karin Kloosterman)
meir solomon 88 298
(photo credit: Karin Kloosterman)
There are lions. There are bougainvilleas. There are hibiscus flowers and there are broken windows. Painter Meir Solomon is back painting the streets of Tel Aviv, where he once lived, after three-and-a-half decades building a career in Amsterdam. Holland he says, offers much more opportunity for painters, but in Israel, "There is sunshine almost all year through. People are talking and smiling. You are involved." It's a sunny day in March and Solomon, explains his PR agent, is wrapping up the last days at the Shorashim gallery in Tel Aviv. This is his first exhibition since returning to Israel 18 months ago. He is dressed in a black turtleneck and smells spicy - like wine-tipped cigarillos. One can surmise that after 35 years, his quiet earthy nature has been inherited from the Dutch. He hands over a catalogue produced by the gallery that features a prize-winning painting on its cover. Inside, the gallery curator writes that Solomon's work brings together East and West and is influenced by the Dutch De Stijl movement that attempted to synthesize eastern mysticism with the religion of the west. His large canvases with bold primary colors sprawl across the two large rooms. The focal point for most of the work is a large flower or branch: eucalyptus, almond and hibiscus as examples, with vertical strips of shiny fabric popping through the canvas seams. Looking more closely, one sees whispers of Hebrew letters and traces of Jewish imagery: hallah (Shabbat bread), a mezuzah and a Star of David float around, somewhat out of place. One cannot help wondering if this is how artists feel after a protracted stay outside their homeland. On the streets of Tel Aviv, some artists say that Israel is not the place for building a successful career. Aspiring artists tend to believe that going to hul (meaning anywhere outside Israel) is necessary for developing oneself artistically. A variety of reasons are given: "Israel is too small a country for opportunities"; "Israelis don't appreciate or understand my music/art/performance"; "there isn't enough money to survive." A few months ago an Israeli TV show featured successful Israeli expatriate artists now working in New York. One photographer bragged of fame, a painter smiled when she mentioned the amount of money she was making, and a dancer said her career has taken off. Then the cameraman caught the dancer crying. What could she say? She missed Israel. What is it that draws artists to return, after a measure of fame and fortune abroad? "It was a spontaneous decision to move back to Israel," recalls Solomon, who made the return trip with his girlfriend of more than three years, Eti Elimelech. "The place where we lived was small and Eti wanted to have a larger house. I said if we are going to move now we should move to Israel." Elimelech has children from a previous relationship, as does Solomon who left behind a son, 28, and daughter, 26, in Europe. He was previously married to a Dutch Jewish woman. So far the transition hasn't been easy sales-wise, admits Solomon, but he expects and hopes that Beersheba-born Elimelech - also an artist with experience in marketing - will help him. Elimelech, at the time he spoke with Metro, was in Amsterdam working on a project. "Selling is harder here," explains Solomon. "I thought it would be easier living from art, but I have to fight for it. I hope Eti will succeed in marketing me." In Israel, Solomon hopes to sell to private collectors, museums, government offices and hi-tech companies. "Sometimes in Israel, they pay just to hang and then buy later," he says. To help secure dealer representation, he is planning on producing the requisite book describing the body of his work. "In Holland there are subsidies, donations and loans for artists making catalogues and books, but in Israel, dealers request a book before taking on new work and I have to produce it myself." This was a consideration far beyond his scope when Solomon set out to Holland in 1970 at age 23, not long out of the army. "Holland then was a center for art. I left with a suitcase and told my parents that I am going to study." He was fortunate to get a break at a gallery owned by an Israeli. "She took me in like her own son," he recalls. Eventually the months turned to years, and as time passed, his family kept pressing him to return. "My mother always said 'you promised one year.' I felt guilty," he says. Fortunately, Solomon could garner some extra income working in security for El Al, resulting in free or reduced-fare flights. Even so, in the early days it was costly traveling to Israel on an artist's salary, especially after adding two children into the mix. "In the past, when you wanted to leave Israel you had to pay an extra fee of $150," says Solomon, referring to the much-maligned travel tax abolished in 1993. "And then they turned the fee into $300 - it was some kind of punishment for Israelis who wanted to leave," he joked. Those who did, explained Solomon, didn't necessarily integrate well into their local Jewish community. "Dutch Jews are cold," he says, and don't seem to like Israelis. "Sometimes they are against the way of the Israeli government." Even going to the synagogue made him feel uncomfortable. "Israelis opened their own synagogues to feel welcome." But there were definitely many up sides to living in Holland. What Solomon liked most is that, "No-one interferes with your life. It is quiet. You can take your car and drive for days everywhere. There are no borders. And culture there is something important." Over the years, the young art student eventually became a full-fledged painter and built a reputation. He sold paintings, often out of his studio, to customers who knew his work, and exhibited regularly. "The Dutch government has a lot of subsidies for the arts. Every time they build a new community they give a percentage to the arts - it gives more possibilities for artists to live. You don't find that in Israel." Some of Solomon's fondest memories of working in Europe were at the various artist-in-residence programs he participated in. On one stint in 1992, he had an open pass to work in what was once Monet's garden. Then in 1994, he won a residence for three months at a French studio built to honor a dream of Van Gogh. "It was a beautiful time," recalls Solomon. "I started and everything was brown and just recently ploughed. Slowly, everything started to turn green and yellow." But whether it was Van Gogh's dream house, Monet's private garden or a street in Neveh Tzedek, explains Solomon, "I don't need a specific place to say this is [my source of inspiration]. Now I go to Jaffa and Neveh Tzedek and the houses are half-broken and the windows are out of their frames. Yes, I guess," he agrees reluctantly, "Tel Aviv could be considered 'Meir's Garden.'"