An embroidery exhibit celebrates the life of artist Israel Ataras

Israel Ataras became an artist after he retired and died four years ago.

 YONA ALTARAS’ ‘Memories of Him.’  (photo credit: DAVID ZISSER)
YONA ALTARAS’ ‘Memories of Him.’
(photo credit: DAVID ZISSER)

Late artist Israel Ataras lives on through his widow’s embroidery work.

Some people do their 9-to-5 for 40-odd years, retire and then struggle to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Others find a new lease of life, new pursuits, new friends and a fresh outlook on the world around them, enhanced by a lifetime of experience and accrued wisdom.

Israel Ataras didn’t just turn over a new leaf when he stopped working for a living, he well-nigh rewrote the whole book. After spending decades in the financial sector, keeping the wolves at bay, he made his long-harbored dream come true, big time. He clearly felt he didn’t have a moment to lose.

That unrestrained enthusiasm eventually filtered down to others, including Ataras’s widow, Yona. Some of the results of that personal initiative and determination to make good on his potential are currently on display at the Tach Ve’od Tach – Rikma Gedola (A Stitch and Another Stitch – Large Embroidery) exhibition of embroidery works at the Al-Hatsuk Gallery in Netanya.

“My dad worked as an economist for the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council and other public bodies, and one day not long before he stopped working, he told me was going to become a painter,” recalls his son Rafi. “I told him, Dad, you can’t be serious. You don’t know how to paint. You never drew or painted with me when I was a kid.”

Israel, who died four years ago, was true to his word. “The morning after he retired, a truck turned up at my parents’ home with equipment for an art studio,” says Rafi. “The next day the bulldozers arrived and workers prepared the foundations for a studio in the yard.”

Israel got right down to it and began feverishly producing work after work. He was a self-taught artist and it seemed that nothing could stop him. That was until fate delivered a cruel blow and he suffered a stroke two years after he embarked on his artistic rebirth.

It looked like the pensioner’s creative adventure might be well and truly over. That was until Adi Yekutieli stepped smartly into the breach and offered Ataras another means of putting his ideas and inspiration into visual form.

“Israel was the father of a very close friend of mine,” says Yekutieli whose manifold professional pursuits include lecturing at the Shenkar College of Engineering Design and Art, and he is a mover and shaker in social and community-oriented artistic projects and programs. That appropriately includes working with senior citizens and helping to empower them through the arts, much as Ataras Sr. did on his own.

After the latter retired and launched his painting endeavor, Yekutieli would periodically drop by at the studio to see how he was getting on and possibly offer a professional helping hand. He was impressed with the newcomer’s burgeoning oeuvre. “There was something so fresh and refreshing in Israel’s work, in contrast with some of the art that comes out of an academic backdrop.”

The aforementioned health crisis played out, but thankfully, only for a while. “Israel couldn’t paint for about a year and a half after the stroke,” Yekutieli recalls. “Then I suggested to his son that they get an iPad and get him to use a painting app.”

THE REJUVENATION die was cast. Ataras returned to his painting exploits, using a digital format. That spawned a remarkable upturn in his physical condition. “Israel would send me his paintings via the Internet and I would respond. After he’d done around 500 works, his brain was suddenly rehabilitated. He began walking again.”

That, it seems, was partly down to the feedback Ataras received from Yekutieli. “I’d respond in short simple sentences. I never criticized his work. I just told him what his paintings evoked in me.”

That did the trick. Ataras moved up a couple of gears and created a whopping close to 11,000 digital paintings before he died.

Israel and Yona Ataras first met up when they were around 14 years old, and Israel’s death left Yona, a Holocaust survivor, emotionally decimated. Once more, Yekutieli came to the rescue and suggested she begin creating embroidery works based on her late husband’s paintings. Some of Yona’s painstakingly made works found their way into a 26-parter called Memories of Him that references half a dozen of Israel’s pictures. It is the centerpiece of the Tach Ve’od Tach exhibition.

“I had never done embroidery before,” says 87-year-old Yona. “I had done weaving and other crafts, but not embroidery. It went slowly to begin with, but it flows better now.”

Yekutieli frequently visits Yona to see how she is getting on, much as he’d done with Israel. He also produces outline drawings of the paintings, which helps Yona to do her part. “I feel as if Israel is still alive, is still with me while I embroider his paintings,” she says. “I enjoy it. I embroider every day.”

The feel-good factor was palpable, as I heard her smile on the phone. “It is something between a smile and a laugh,” Rafi chuckles. “But it is a way of coping with her grief and mourning.”

Embroidery is more than a therapeutic means for Yona, it is a way of connecting with her late husband almost corporeally. “She used to go to the grave quite often and she’d take the works she’d made with her,” Rafi explains. “Now she takes some of the embroidery she makes during the year when we go to the cemetery on the anniversary of his passing.”

I asked Yona whether she feels she gets a celestial nod of approval. “I think he sees the things I make and is happy about that,” she says.

Yekutieli was keen to get the works out of Yona’s drawer and into the public domain. “I started thinking about having an exhibition of large embroidery creations a year ago,” he notes. “But, I didn’t know who would bother exhibiting something by an 87-year-old woman with no history of exhibitions.” He tried his luck with the Al-Hatsuk Gallery and fortunately, got a green light.

In addition to Yona’s monumental offering, Tach Ve’od Tach features the work of 17 artists, the majority of whom are women. It is an emotive thematic display. “I told all the artists Yona’s story,” Yekutieli explains, adding that the project has had a highly beneficial knock-on effect for everyone concerned. “Each of the artists experienced a turning point in their approach to their art and their embroidery. None of them had done a large embroidery work before.”

It was also a common emotional and healing process for others, too. “There are six or seven works that are a gesture for people close to the artists who have passed away,” Yekutieli continues. “These are all beautiful pieces of art, but you can see a lot of vulnerability in them.”

Yona Ataras is vulnerable, but she has found solace and comfort in her new avenue of expression. “Yona smiles when I bring her embroidery work in a frame,” Yekutieli says. “The creative process is meditative. Her grief is there, in works that are very optimistic.”

Tach Ve’od Tach – Rikma Gedola closes on March 20. For more information, contact: 09-830-8845.