Sending messages through flowers

You might not know his name, but you have probably seen his handiwork. For 36 years, Amos Stempel has been seeding hollyhocks around the city.

Amos Stempel in the garden at the St. Andrew’s Scottish Guest House. (photo credit: LIA KAMANA)
Amos Stempel in the garden at the St. Andrew’s Scottish Guest House.
(photo credit: LIA KAMANA)
Even a chance glimpse of a flower can have an effect on a young, budding artist.
“One morning around 6 a.m. when I was in my early teens, I left my home in Sde Warburg for Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, and on this journey, I saw hollyhocks,” says Amos Stempel, reminiscing about his first encounter with his favorite flower. “And as a young boy with an artistic soul, I had a deep sense of wonder [about] this flower which I had intimate contact with, and ever since, every hollyhock has been nodding to me.”
Stempel is a multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Jerusalem. He studied art at Mishmar Ha’emek and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and he studied art therapy in England. Throughout the years, he has had his art shown across Israel and Europe, but there is one art project that can be seen only in Jerusalem, and that is his “living art” project “Birth in the Inner City.”
“Birth in the Inner City” has been an ongoing work for 36 years: Every year, during the spring months, he goes out and seeds hollyhocks around the historic city of Jerusalem.
He got the idea when he traveled to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Already a lover of the hollyhock, he carried seeds and spread them around, deciding to continue seeding the plant in Kibbutz Samar, where he was living at the time.
Later, when he moved to Jerusalem to begin his studies at Bezalel, he felt that he wanted to keep on seeding the hollyhocks in the “stony city” as a way of rooting himself.
“I realized that as a young person detached from my village, through the flowers, sensing the seeds and feeling them every year, I gained a sense of rooting, a sense of belonging, a sense of joy, a sense of being involved with the world of beauty and creation around me,” he says.
The project began in the Rehavia neighborhood in 1978 and has since expanded to places such as the garden at St. Andrew’s guest house, the Old City and the American Colony. How the artist goes about choosing where he wants to seed his hollyhocks isn’t always clear-cut, but many of the places have special meaning to him.
The garden at St. Andrew’s Scottish guest house, for instance, is a place he and his wife used to spend a lot of time when they were younger, he explains.
He compares gardening to opening a Wikipedia page: When he decides to begin seeding somewhere, he is taking a step back in time and learning the history of the places.
“Seeding hollyhocks becomes a journey into ancient times,” he states. “I start to step with my imagination into what I have started to call the hollyhock trail, which has led me to the gardens of King Solomon.... With my imagination I can see ancient gardens in the Kidron Valley filled with hollyhocks.”
Hollyhocks are native to Europe and Asia, and while Stempel isn’t sure when the flower first made its appearance in Israel, he feels it’s not strange to think that it could have been here in ancient times.
The flower grows all over England, which is another reason he loves it. He says that hollyhocks have a connection with both England and Jerusalem, two places that already have a history together, and he wants to make sure that it continues.
“Because I married a British lady, I have traveled to England many times,” he says, “and every time, I make sure I take seeds from Jerusalem and seed them in England, and vice versa.”
Due to the British Mandate, the English have left quite an imprint on the city, he notes, from architecture to gardens and city layouts. The artist says that British footprints are everywhere.
However, while he enjoys the intermixing of these two places, his wife feels differently.
“My wife doesn’t like hollyhocks. It’s like she is allergic,” he says with a laugh. “She always said she came to Israel to be part of the Zionist movement and not to make England again.”
While “Birth of the Inner City” started out as a means for Stempel to connect to history, seeding hollyhocks has become a personal message for him. Stempel describes the hollyhock plant as similar to a megaphone and nicknames it the “announcement plant.”
“If nature could speak through the hollyhock, what would it say to us? What would planet earth say to us if it could speak?” he asks, looking as if he expects a reply. “We as human beings, we destroy this sacred blue planet through GMO engineering. The earth shouldn’t be touched by technology and science.”
In that vein, he says, “I am using the megaphone voice of the hollyhocks to share my concern for the environment of Israel and for the rest of the world. I am using it to protect humanity from the contamination of the GMO product.”
He is very much against the idea of humans controlling nature and bending it to fit our needs. One example he gives is the Monsanto Company, which recently received permission to enter Israel. Monsanto is an American multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation and a leading producer of genetically engineered seed.
Besides the fact that the company is genetically modifying what shouldn’t be genetically modified, says Stempel, another issue is that it mass produces.
Everything in a garden, he argues, is exactly the same, but nature isn’t supposed to be this way.
“Gardening is an example of expression where different flowers can represent different things,” he says. “‘Birth of the Inner City’ is a call of one man who has worked for 36 years in order to allow nature to express its beauty and harmony.”
The project is just one of many on which Stempel has worked. While no others can be seen along the streets of Jerusalem, some of his work is on display at the Beit Uri and Rami Nehushtan Museum in Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’acov Meuhad.
The artist has also owned a frame shop called Noy Frames for 36 years. At his workshop, he makes all of his own frames and likes to “bring pictures to life.”
Noy Frames plays a big part in his recently finished (Hebrew) novel, Hieroglyphs of the Coincidence.
From hearing him talk about the book, it seems like it is almost a autobiography intertwined with his vivid imagination. And although the novel is a work of fiction, it portrays many of his views regarding seeding, gardening, arts and crafts, and GMOs.
As Hieroglyphs of the Coincidence waits to be published, one can get a glimpse of what the author labels “Stempel vision” in every hollyhock plant one recognizes while walking around Jerusalem.
“This artwork isn’t just guerrilla gardening or limited to one small group; ‘The Birth of the Inner City’ represents a birth of a new consciousness,” he says, sitting in the garden at St. Andrews. “I am connecting to an inner city of imagination and an inner city of creativity. I am seeding plants that bring beauty and messages to humanity.”