Brazilian-born athlete brings take on Golda Meir, life to Beersheba

Rodrigo Artilheiro says he has been keen to sculpt the late prime minister, and bring her over here, for quite some time.

 RODRIGO ARTILHEIRO gets close to Golda Meir. (photo credit: Rodrigo Artilheiro)
RODRIGO ARTILHEIRO gets close to Golda Meir.
(photo credit: Rodrigo Artilheiro)

Art hath healing powers. Rodrigo Artilheiro is living, breathing, smiling and creative proof of that. And the tangible evidence of his road to emotional well-being, nay happiness, is now on display for all to see. All you have to do is pop down to the Technological College in Beersheba and take a look at the freshly installed bronze bust of Golda Meir.

The statuette was unveiled down south last week in the presence of college CEO Yakov Dor, with Artilheiro making the trip over from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, for the occasion. Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich thanked the sculptor for “wanting to contribute your work and to share it with the city of Beersheba.”

Ukraine-born, Milwaukee, Wisconsin-raised Meir is, of course, best known for her term as prime minister, from 1969-74. However, her first cabinet position was in 1949-56, as labor minister, and it was in this capacity that she officially opened the Technological College, on December 31, 1954. All of which makes last week’s ceremony thematically, geographically and very personally bang on the money.

Artilheiro says he has been keen to sculpt the late prime minister, and bring her over here, for quite some time.

“I was really drawn to her personality. She was so strong,” he says.

 FORMER JUJITSU Olympian Artilheiro channels his energies and physicality into his sculpting work. (credit: Rodrigo Artilheiro) FORMER JUJITSU Olympian Artilheiro channels his energies and physicality into his sculpting work. (credit: Rodrigo Artilheiro)

That’s something, coming from the 43-year-old muscle-bound artist, who was born in Brazil and made his country’s Olympic team in the jujitsu field.

“Look at her nose and her facial expression,” he exclaims. “She looks like you really shouldn’t mess with her,” he adds with a laugh.

“She looks like you really shouldn’t mess with her.”

Rodrigo Artilheiro

ARTILHEIRO COMES across as someone who walks the sunny side of the street. He smiles a lot and exudes positivity and optimism. But it wasn’t always like that. His father’s death, 13 years ago, of heart disease, knocked him for six, and he says he experienced typical PTSD symptoms

“That really hit me hard. The Brazilian hospital system is pretty terrible, and I had to take care of my father. It was pretty bad in the hospital. It was very traumatic for me.”

His mother had already died, of cancer, when he was only 12, so Artilheiro and his two siblings were left orphaned. He could have sunk into deep depression and found himself on a slippery slope to apathy and, possibly, substance abuse.

Thankfully, he had some acquired knowledge and genetic support, which came to his rescue in his hour of need.

“I always knew the positive effects of sculpting,” he declares, “and the chemical reaction in the brain, you have, when you sculpt.”

Really? How so?

“I had a degree in sports science, and I started reading up a lot about things like art therapy. I had an artistic side in my family. My mom used to write poetry. My father used to work for the second biggest television company in the world, TV Globo. He did creative stuff. He was the one who was responsible for bringing color TV to Brazil.”

Both avenues of parental artistry, he says, filtered through to him. “Poetry is like sculpting with words,” he smiles.

Artilheiro’s line of artistic work, he feels, is a natural addendum.

“When you sculpt, you use your hand, which is an extension of your brain. You see all those tool marks here [on the Meir bust]? Those are my feelings. When you sculpt, this is dopamine,” he says, getting into, for me, alien chemical territory.

A quick Google search reveals: “The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behavior. The anticipation of most types of rewards increases the level of dopamine in the brain.” That sounds just the ticket for anyone in danger of going over the emotional edge.

When we met in downtown Tel Aviv, a couple of days before the unveiling, Artilheiro was wearing a black T-shirt with “Clay for Brain” on the front.

That was intriguing enough, but it was the back that got me smiling. The delightfully simple and uncluttered reference to the perils of virtual existence and the benefits of actual hands-on tactile activity was wholesome and scrumptious food for thought. It read: “If we were born just to press buttons, we’d be born with only one finger. Let’s sculpt.” Straight and to the healthy point.

“That makes sense, doesn’t it?” he laughs.

Another shirt he commissioned, which he uses in his sculpting workshop, really spells out the beneficial payoff to be had from shaping clay into defined forms. “Sculpting is a great way to relieve stress, anxiety and depression. It’s a sort of meditation, increasing your focus, enhance oxytocin (empathy), serotonin (mood), dopamine (reward system),” he has spread over the gray cotton material stretched across his broad back. The grammar may leave just a mite to be desired, but the eye-opening message comes across loud and clear.

Surely there are other creative avenues that could have helped him get his spirits back up. For example, what about painting?

Perhaps Artilheiro’s athletic backdrop came into play here. He wanted something he could, literally, get his hands stuck into.

The base material also came into the healthy equation. “When I touched clay, I had an experience I never had before in my life. Clay is magic, man,” he exclaims. He feels there is something primordial in there, something elemental that stretches back to the dawn of time. “We always do something our ancestors used to do. We need to be active. We can’t stay away from that. That’s why I did my shirt,” he chuckles.

I don’t know about not being able to stay away from physical exertion. There are, after all, quite a few couch potatoes among us, and we don’t all have the physique of the Brazilian or his zest for staying in shape. More’s the pity. If we got ourselves away from our screens and cars, and took a constitutional once in a while, never mind actually running or cycling or visiting the local gym, we might get to smile as wide and as frequently as Golda’s sculptor.

ARTILHEIRO PUTS his money where his mouth and clothing slogans are, and spreads the therapeutic word across a wide socioeconomic hinterland. That includes some who need a pat on the back and a psychological helping hand more than most.

He was keen to impart his self-healing epiphanous discovery to others, particularly those most susceptible to problems associated with low self-esteem, resultant dejection and a sense of alienation. It was time to spread the good word. He says he instinctively knew crafting with clay was the way to go. “That’s why today I use my nonprofit, Clay for the Brain, to help kids, with depression. I tell you, this is going be huge.”

Knowing Artilheiro, even for just a short while, one wouldn’t put it past the merry hulk to get the message out right across the globe.

He initially left Brazil for Las Vegas before relocating to Atlanta three years later. It was in Georgia that he put together his workshop program for youth of all stripes, including some with very challenging life circumstances.

“Some of the kids are at-risk youth, on probation from detention centers and that sort of thing,” he explains. “They have been raised, say, by a mom who is addicted to heroin and all those heavy drugs. Heroin is huge in Atlanta.”

That ties in with the T-shirt message. “The kids that use heroin, they get dopamine from that. Then they go on probation and they get a chance to go back into society. They come out of jail and they come to my program.” The kids are referred to the sculpting workshop by the local social services. “I also teach in Clayton County, in Georgia. There are a lot of kids on my program, about a hundred.”

It is, he says, about getting down and dirty, and getting physically in touch with life, on all sorts of levels. “For me realism makes sense. There are all those chemical reactions. When you are attracted to someone, you are attracted to a real face. So when you see her, she sees you, there’s a chemical reaction. The same things happens with sculpting.”

Artilheiro has witnessed the street-level changes in local youth firsthand. “Now they need a substitute for the dopamine they got from the drugs. That’s very difficult. When you start using drugs, it’s like cheating. You get that feeling, that excitement, in an artificial way. It’s easier to get that feeling with drugs, easier than going for a swim in the Mediterranean,” he smiles.

“Sculpting with clay changes the kids’ lives,” he says. “The kids sculpt a nose, and then they look at it. Oh my God! It’s great!” he enthuses. Well, it did OK for him, so why not? “I’m speaking about myself. The first time I sculpted I was amazed. You can make a load of funny heads, which doesn’t make sense. But, for you, you created, you made that. Then you get so happy. You think, Why am I so happy? – and without drugs,” he laughs.

The youngsters also get where their teacher is coming from, and it seems he has no problem gaining their attention or respect, tough background notwithstanding.

“I tell them my story,” says Artilheiro. “They know I understand them. Anyway, at the end of the day, they need love, especially after all the social distancing, Zoom sessions and all that.”

ARTILHEIRO LIKES swimming in our sea, and just being here.

“I love Israel,” he says. “I love the people, the energy, and there’s great food here.”

He has made quite a few trips here over the years, and believes he may have more in common with Israel than first meets the eye.

“I’m not officially Jewish, but my name is Portuguese, and maybe it comes from the Moors,” he says, referencing the Marranos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the Middle Ages. “I’m going to do a [DNA] test, and we’ll see. Maybe I am Jewish. I feel so strongly about this place. Maybe I am!”

He has certainly got the requisite local fizz and pop about him, and even has more than a smattering of the lingo.

“I studied with an Israeli woman called Shulamit in Atlanta,” he says, adding: “Ani medaber ketzat Ivrit.” We stop for falafel and hummus, and he duly orders in Hebrew.

During his time here, Artilheiro also got to meet Shaul Rahabi, Golda Meir’s grandson, who was suitably impressed with the latest aesthetic addition to the Technological College. “Rodrigo did a great job with the bust,” he says. “It really looks like my grandmother.”

Before we part, Artilheiro explains in Hebrew, albeit in a strong Brazilian accent, the transformative process the sculpture went through en route to its fetching and evocative bottom line. “Hapessel nolad mi’hemar, met begevess, venolad me’hadash bebronza.” For the uninitiated, that translates as: “The sculpture was born from clay, died in plaster and was reborn in bronze.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. ■

For more information: www.clayforthebrain.com