Master craftsman

Meet Mohammad Said Kalash, an artist and carpenter from Wadi Ara who has perfected the trade of Arabesque calligraphy.

Entering the home of calligrapher, artist and carpenter Mohammad Said Kalash in the Wadi Ara village of Kfar Kara, one steps into a world of stunning creativity. Hundreds of his colorful and intricately crafted artworks cover the walls and ceiling, or are embedded in the furniture. Kfar Kara-born and raised, Kalash has a pair of golden hands and an eye for detail to match. His works include calligraphic verses from the Koran, quotes from well-known Arab poets and scenes from nature. The mostly Islamic motif designs are carved from wood, as are the enormous panels affixed to the ceiling. Some are created from stained glass. Much of Kalash's Arabesque geometric artwork and calligraphy is akin to that adorning the walls and inner domes of mosques. However, his style exudes not only symbolism of spiritual well-being, precision and aesthetics, but his absolute creativeness without borders. A piece of his art can take months to reach the perfection that he demands, and he understandably has difficulty in parting with his creations once completed. Running out of wall space in his home, he has now opened a small gallery at 3 Rehov Shlomo Hamelech in Tel Aviv. "The Tel Aviv gallery is really just one-and-a-half rooms with no windows, so there was lots of space to hang my work and it's really very homely," he jokes. In his Kfar Kara drawing room, coffee tables are in abundance, each one a work of art with mosaic design surfaces that one hesitates to rest a coffee cup on. Coffee - and the serving thereof - is also an artistic form, and the 55-year-old retired teacher proffers two different Arabic house brews with enticing names. Who can refuse such an offer - a comfortable chair, good cup of coffee, and a charismatic master craftsman totally at home surrounded by his artistic writing on the walls and ceiling? A graduate of the local village high school, Kalash studied carpentry and design at a technical college in Tel Aviv in the early 1970s. His first job was in Nazareth where he was the only Muslim (at that time) on the 30-strong teaching staff at Don Bosco, a Salesian Catholic technical college for boys where he taught carpentry and design for over 10 years. The pupils at Don Bosco were mostly Christian, but there was also a large complement of Muslim students. Asked if he felt unusual being the only Muslim on the teaching staff, Kalash gives a deep chuckle. "Quite the opposite, I felt very special and loved the change in surroundings and culture. In fact, I really like a change of atmosphere and cultures," says the father of five children whose ages range from 13 to 25, including a son studying art and music at the University of Haifa. After a decade of traveling to Nazareth, Kalash began teaching in the Kfar Kara high school and addressing his own artistic needs. In 2003, when the school decided to dispense with the carpentry and design class, the master craftsman took early retirement from teaching and became a full-time artist. The first exhibitions of his art were held in 1990 at the Umm-el-Fahm art gallery and the Peace Gallery of the Givat Haviva art center a short distance from the village. His work was also on show at the Ramat Gan Museum of Art last year, and he has exhibited and participated in art workshops in other countries. Kalash pulls out a plaster cast of two clasping intertwined hands. This object d'art was made in Leeds, England during a peace and art festival where he was invited to teach festival-goers how to write their names in Arabic calligraphy on plaster casts of their hands. "Last year I was invited to St. Petersburg to both participate in an exhibition at the Museum of Ethno-graphics and lecture at the university," he adds with pride. "I wish our students here in Israel would take such an interest in Islamic art as I found they did in Russia," says Kalash, noting that his lecture was given in Arabic, which the St. Petersburg students were studying. "The director of the Middle East department at the university was an Iraqi, and she and I had a great deal to talk about. Both the students and university faculty showed enormous interest in art themes and motifs based on the spirit of Islam. People were standing in line to learn how to write their names in Arabic calligraphy, which was most heartwarming for me." The Kalash studio is also a workshop where visitors can dabble in calligraphy, make their own mosaic designs from pre-prepared small pieces of different shapes and shades of wood, or walk away with an extra hand - this one a plaster cast edition festooned with their names in the attractive calligraphic style taught by the master craftsman himself. Kfar Kara, which means 'pumpkin village' in Arabic, boasts some 12,000 residents and sits on the scenic lower slopes of the Menashe range of hills running parallel to Route 65 in Wadi Ara. Kalash calls his home studio-gallery 'Arabesque,' and his city gallery 'Arabesque in Tel Aviv.' He divides his time between the two, and welcomes visitors not only to view his work but also learn more about the art form known as Arabesque - and partake in a cup of very special coffee. Visits can be coordinated with Mohammad Kalash at 0505-655531