Batya Gazit: Art for life's sake

“I tell my life story through my work,” she states. And there is a lot to tell.

WORLD OF Silence references Gazit’s inner world and her hearing impairment, with just a touch of humor.  (photo credit: BATYA GAZIT)
WORLD OF Silence references Gazit’s inner world and her hearing impairment, with just a touch of humor.
(photo credit: BATYA GAZIT)
Batya Gazit says she doesn’t know how to paint, and she doesn’t exactly sculpt by the book. If that is the case – and who am I to cross swords with the indomitable 77-year-old? – judging by the works she unfurled in her new “Tziyun Derech” (Milestone) exhibition at the main gallery in Ein Hod last week, she ain’t doing too badly for someone with little in the way of traditional artistic skills.
The old cliché of artists having to suffer for their art may or may not have some collateral in real life, but Gazit has surely been through her fair share of challenges. Then again, one can look at life’s trial and tribulations from all sorts of perspectives. They can, indeed, be wearying, but, to quote from “Willy,” a track on Joni Mitchell’s 1970 Ladies of the Canyon masterpiece of a record, “You’re bound to lose, if you let the blues get you scared to feel.”
Gazit is not a follower of Mitchell’s unparalleled oeuvre, but she does identify with the sentiment, and with an oft-cited line or two crafted by another Canadian songsmith, Leonard Cohen, on his 1992 album The Future – “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything). That’s how the light gets in.”
The feisty septuagenarian Tel Avivite says she sets much store by numbers, two in particular – five and seven. “Last year in January, it was January 25, I sat in front of the computer and I thought, Wow! It’s my 76th birthday! Next year I’ll be 77. That’s twice seven. I am very strongly connected to seven. I thought I have to do something about that.”
It was, it seems, high time to build up a head of steam. “I’d just been through a period of feeling weak, physically weak,” she recalls. “I thought that getting some works ready for an exhibition would shake me up and get me going.”
We meet a few days before the opening in Gazit’s comfortable house on a quiet leafy side street in north Tel Aviv. As we chat over coffee, I can cast my eye over a dozen or so of the creations that are ready and waiting to make the trip northward. My first impression is that she likes to mix things up. There seems to be little in the way of disciplinary rhyme or reason to the way she puts a work together, but isn’t art about instinct, gut feeling? An artist just knows when something feels and looks right.
Back in January 2019, Gazit didn’t feel right and, true to her get-up-and-go spirit, she decided to give herself the best chance possible of producing the goods, in a practical, day-to-day and artistic sense.
“I said I have to get to the exhibition, besides creating the works, in the best shape I can. I have to take care of Batya, not just to work. I have to get back to being Batya.”
There is more to Gazit than meets the eye, a lot more.
“I am a mischievous type, not square. There is also something conservative about me, but not really conservative,” she proffers somewhat enigmatically. “There was a photographer who once tried to get me to pose, but he couldn’t reach me. I felt remote, detached.”
She decided it was time to take her own matters into her own hands.
“I went to someone in Zichron Ya’acov, for personal empowerment sessions.”
It proved to be a good choice.
“I remember driving to her for the fifth session – remember, five is an important number for me – and I was going to tell her I’d had enough. But I didn’t. And then, when I was on my way to the seventh session – the seventh! – I felt so happy and so uplifted. And when I got there, she – the therapist – was also happy, and she said to me: ‘I think we both know this is the last session.’ She was tough with me, and it did me so much good.”
That process, as well as the undulating path her life has taken to date, all comes through in the 19 works on show at Ein Hod.
“I tell my life story through my work,” she states. And there is a lot to tell.
“This one I call Anemones. My husband was a paratrooper. He was killed in the Yom Kippur War. Anemones are strongly identified with the paratroopers, not just because of the red berets [of the IDF paratroopers] but also because of the British paratroopers. That’s my connection with Amikam, my husband. For me, anemones are always something more than just the beauty of the flowers.”
There is another highly evocative iconic work, with anemone-red soldier’s boots, three red anemones, an Israeli flag and a page of handwritten text. “That’s a letter Amikam sent me from the army, in 1968,” she notes.
There is clearly a vein of patriotism, as well as an expression of personal grief and loss, in the works, although Gazit is not one for national slogans, or making too much of her war widow status.
“I don’t like the official term ‘fallen.’ I say ‘killed.’ I don’t like to talk about bereavement. A lot of people exploit that.”
Then again, Gazit did lose her husband in a war. I suggest that, in her case, bereavement is part of her makeup and, hence, must come through in her art.
She goes along with that, particularly in the wake of the aforementioned therapeutic process.
“When I got to this stage, of turning 77, of the exhibition and my [new] way of thinking, now is the time to show who I am.”
Gazit says that one work, in particular, demanded plenty of emotional resilience.
 “I needed a lot of courage to exhibit this picture. That’s Amikam and I under the huppah.”
GAZIT WORKS in various disciplines, including painting, sculpture – with paper and other materials – and ceramics. She casts her experienced eye over her motley creations and hits on intriguing cross-disciplinary juxtapositions, photographs them and tweaks them on Photoshop. The reworked result is then printed on canvas, and goes through yet another stage, with Gazit applying paint or other substances, such as epoxy, adding textures and depth.
Although she is primarily a self-taught artist, she says she has been supported throughout by Lika Ramati, whom she describes as a sort of mentor, and whose guiding hand runs through all the exhibits at Ein Hod, and plenty more. It was Ramati who introduced Gazit to Leonard Cohen’s positive take on broken vessels and the emotionally shattered.
In fact, Gazit knew what Cohen was talking about long before he wrote the line, or she even knew of his existence. The tale of how she learned of Amikam’s death beggars belief. For some reason it took the army five whole days to notify Gazit of the tragedy.
“During the Six Day War we were in daily contact. With the Yom Kippur War, his ‘Shalom’ to me as he left the house was the last word he said to me.”
Amikam was stationed up north, and the only means of communication was via the residents of a kibbutz where the soldiers were allowed to shower. They’d pass on their home numbers to whoever had access to a phone on the kibbutz, to convey their regards.
But, even without tangible channels of communication and formal notification, Gazit says she knew her husband was no longer alive.
“I am very intuitive. On the day Amikam was killed, I took an aunt to Tel Aviv to change some clothes she’d bought. On the way, I hit a post. It wasn’t a serious accident, but I just said: Shit! Amikam has been killed. My aunt said I was talking rubbish, but I knew.”
It was a Friday morning, and in the evening, Gazit says, she somehow couldn’t light the Shabbat candles.
“The wicks simply didn’t take the flame from the match,” she recalls. “I got a new box of matches. I changed the candles. Nothing worked. Years later a religious friend, the son of the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, told me that when the Shabbat candles don’t ignite, it means there has been a death in the family and the family doesn’t yet know.”
There are so many unfortunate twists and turns in the sad tale. Apparently, some of Gazit’s friends knew what had happened, but were prevented from informing Gazit because it was the Defense Ministry’s job to do that.
“On the Monday I received a postcard from Amikam,” Gazit continues. “I was so happy! But then I felt the postcard and I said ‘There’s no life here.’ I don’t know how I knew. I can’t explain it.”
When the official word finally came, with the arrival of the appropriate IDF personnel, Gazit’s world came crashing down around her. But she couldn’t give in to her grief. She had two young children to care for.
“After they told me, I immediately thought, Geva’s in school, Tzur’s at kindergarten. I need to pick them up, I have to find money for food. Life has to go on. What happened happened. Now I need to go with the light. I didn’t know about the Leonard Cohen song, but that thought, then, eventually led me to those lines in the song.”
Life went on, with all its challenges. The latter were further exacerbated a few years later when a childhood hearing problem deteriorated, and Gazit became almost completely deaf. Today, she uses a powerful hearing aid and a special phone, but she manages to communicate with the world around her, and not just through her art.
Gazit appears to have come through all her battles thus far, not unscathed but emboldened. She was duly fired up ahead of the exhibition, and embroiled in yet another struggle. After years of heavy smoking, she was recently hospitalized in a very poor condition. She says still craves cigarettes every day, particularly in the morning, but the memory of the concern on her son’s and daughter-in-law’s faces when they listened to the doctor’s prognosis helps keep the craving at bay.
It is all the grist to her creative and personal mill.
“What I have been through in life gives me mental and emotional strength,” she says. “If anyone tells me I am strong, I find it hard to believe them. Sometimes I feel they are talking about someone else. But this is my life. This is what I have done.”
Gazit says she is not looking for a pat on the back. “I can’t say I’m not apprehensive about the exhibition, about how people might react to my works. If someone likes my work so much they want to buy something, that’s the icing on the cake. But I create because I have to, because it does me good.”
“Tziyun Derech” closes on March 25. For more information: (04) 984-2548.