Feeling art

The Artists’ House is a natural place for 6th-generation Jerusalemite David Ben-Shaul to show his paintings.

David Ben Shaul Self Portrait 521 (photo credit: Avraham Chai)
David Ben Shaul Self Portrait 521
(photo credit: Avraham Chai)
Painting, like any art form, requires a great degree of technical knowhow, but 79-year-old David (Dedi) Ben-Shaul prefers a more intuitive approach. This is evident from the works in his current “Landscape, Portrait, Still Life: Three Decades” exhibition at the Jerusalem Artists’ House, which were all created in the past 30 years. The exhibition was curated by Ilan Wizgan.
The venue is a perfectly natural place for Ben-Shaul, a sixth-generation Jerusalemite, to show his work. Even though he and his wife Eleanor relocated to Moshav Ilaniya, or Sejera, near Golani Junction in the Lower Galilee six years ago, his heart is very much still in this neck of the woods.
“I miss Jerusalem a lot,” says Ben-Shaul. “It’s not that I want to move back, but I am very bound to the city, its buildings and history. It is a part of me.”
This is not his first sojourn away from the city of his birth and forebears.
“I spent some time in Florence and in Paris but, other than that, until I moved to the Galilee I was in Jerusalem the whole time,” he continues. “The light, and the question marks that Jerusalem arouses, are all an integral part of my work. I was always surrounded by the history of Jerusalem. We lived in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.”
However, the only obvious indication of the painter’s bond with the city is a handful of works that feature Independence Park, and a view of the Old City from afar. Other than that, the pictures could have been created anywhere.
That laissez-faire ethos suits Ben-Shaul. He is very much a free spirit in his approach to art, having taken very little in the way of formal art education before becoming a bona fide artist and, indeed, before he took up a teaching position at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, which he held for 30 years.
Naturally, his approach to his students was somewhat left field.
“You can’t teach my painting,” he says. “You can teach people to love painting. I never really studied painting. I studied drawing, but not painting. I fought in the War of Independence as a teenager, and when I finished my military service I was asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to work in something to do with animals, in biology.”
That led to an interesting job.
“I learned how to do taxidermy. I really liked the work. It is hard work, and you need to be very sensitive and very knowledgeable about animals. I think my experience as a taxidermist naturally carried through to my painting.”
Among other avenues of expression, that was reflected in his choice, for quite some time, of horses as his subjects.
“I painted lots of horses, horses encased in wrapping and all sorts of things,” he recalls. “It started in Paris.”
Ben-Shaul returned to Israel from the French capital in 1963 with enough paintings to mount his own one-man show in the very building where his current exhibition resides until May 12.
However, it took some time before he felt it was safe to become a full-time artist. His long working life to date, stretching back over half a century, features plenty of hard graft, and he has never been afraid to affix his nose to the grindstone.
“Yes, I am a hard worker, that is my nature,” he says.
“I have always preferred physical work.”
That tendency led to an intensive and protracted period of pottery making.
“I didn’t think of myself as a painter, and I enjoyed working on the potter’s wheel and touching the clay. Even though I am getting on a bit now I still work in pottery,” he says, adding that he likes to vary his artistic endeavor. “When I get stuck with a painting, and I don’t know to proceed, I take a break from painting and go to my potter’s wheel. That helps me solve the problem.”
Ben-Shaul’s painting work spreads across several areas. He works in three artistic formats – portraits, landscapes and still-life painting. He also has a highly individual approach to the use of color, as portrayed, for example, in a painting he called simply Portrait, which he made in 1992.
The subject appears to be a woman of around middle age sitting in a chair. What is most intriguing about the work is the short, arch-shaped brush strokes and variations of brown and red shades that comprise the woman’s attire. There is an abstract, or opaque, veneer to the clothing which almost gives the impression that the subject is encased in a capsule-like object.
Ben-Shaul’s treatment of color, and his furtive brushwork, can be partly attributed to the fact that he is severely visually impaired. When he went to Paris over 50 years ago he went to study lithography, rather than painting. That led to a long and fruitful involvement with the artistic discipline, but also left him with a disability.
“I used a lot of chemicals and that affected one eye, about 20 years ago,” explains the painter. “Then it affected my other eye. I can hardly see now, but it’s my own fault. I didn’t wear a mask when I prepared the chemicals.”
If he is at all bitter about losing his vision, he hides it very well.
“I don’t see much at all, but I have discovered a great treasure,” he declares. “My whole approach to painting changed. I was very concerned to begin with, when my vision started going, and I thought I might not be able to paint anymore. But I liked the fact that I began painting without discerning the finer details. I found myself in a better position, as a painter, than I’d ever been in. I let go of the little details and, to my mind, I worked in a better and more appropriate way. I worked more with my emotions than cerebrally. I was forced to use an almost pointillist approach.”
That is evident in quite a few of the exhibits at Jerusalem Artists House.
“It is easier for me to see a point rather than a line,” Ben-Shaul explains. “I feel freer today with my painting than when I could see well. I also listen to recorded readings of books. I enjoy so much more literature now too. I am blessed.”
That sunny philosophy comes through in most of the works in the exhibition too. • Landscape, Portrait, Still Life: Three Decades closes on May 12. For more information: (02) 625-3653 and www.art.org.il