Heichal Shlomo debuts the art of the paper cut

Ecclesiastes was used as the principal source of inspiration for the Ever Turning Blows the Wind exhibition.

 SIMONE SHLIACHTER’S rotating work references thought-provoking content from the Book of Ecclesiastes. (photo credit: Michal Shliachter)
SIMONE SHLIACHTER’S rotating work references thought-provoking content from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
(photo credit: Michal Shliachter)

If you are looking for pointers for successfully, sagely and happily negotiating life, you could do a lot worse than consult the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. We are told that toward the end of his days, King Solomon, by all accounts a pretty astute character, used the book to chronicle his musings and the accrued wisdom he gleaned from his years on terra firma.

Hence, it seems perfectly logical for Naomi Shapira to employ Ecclesiastes as the principal source of inspiration for the Ever Turning Blows the Wind exhibition, currently up and running at the renovated Hechal Shlomo gallery on King George Street.

The exhibition

The title of the exhibition feeds off a verse in the first chapter of the book which reads: “The wind blows southward, then turns northward; round and round it swirls, ever returning on its course.”

That, naturally, suggests a rotational, cyclic element, which clearly resonates across the display. Quite a few of the works – all told there are close to 100 on display – reference the circulatory, ebb-and-flow essence of life, both in terms of the cut design, the textual anchor and the actual shape.

One does not, presumably, simply pick on a biblical source and run with it: Such a thematic choice infers some deeper meaning and spiritual intent. “I am a believer and, somehow, I was led to that,” says Shapira, who curated the exhibition. 

 ODELYA YEGUDAYEV takes a look at the downside of life.  (credit: Odelya Yegudayev) ODELYA YEGUDAYEV takes a look at the downside of life. (credit: Odelya Yegudayev)

“About four years ago, I had a very large solo exhibition in Ramat Efal (near Ramat Gan),” she recalls. “A woman from Bar-Ilan University came to see the works. She was enthused with the exhibition, and told me she was doing a PhD on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and wanted to bring out a book on the topic. She said she was looking to include pictures, to make the book more accessible and inviting to the general public, and suggested she use some of my works.”

THE SEED for the current show was well and truly sown then and there, although it took a while to come to full compelling and fascinating viewing fruition. Of course, part of the time lapse is attributable to the lockdown, social distancing business of the past couple of years, but also because Shapira was thinking big. “I wanted to assemble a large group of artists and establish a major project,” she explains.

Fortunately, she is well-connected within the Israeli paper cut artist sector, and was able to turn to many of her colleagues and ask them to come on board the Kohelet exhibition train. “Once the idea was born I ran with it. Kohelet is full of wisdom. It is a complete world and there is so much to work off.”

That much is evident from the spread on the third floor over on King George Street. And it is astounding to witness just how much can be eked out of plain old sheets of paper. After considering half a dozen or so incredibly intricate works, I quickly came to the conclusion that it takes a special kind of person to produce such filigree delicate, yet imposing and powerful, creations.

I joked with Shapira that it probably also required a measure or two of obsessiveness if not downright emotional imbalance – meant in the best sense of the epithet. Who in their right mind would invest so much effort to forge items of such delicacy and fragility? With paper cuts – as opposed to, say, oil paintings – you have to go with the flow. The slightest error of judgment can put paid to days and nights of painstaking labor. There is no magic fix.

THE CYCLIC nature of the spirit behind the exhibits manifests itself repeatedly. There are round works, others that rotate under their own power, and some that we, the viewing public, are invited to spin ourselves. One such is an eye-catching polychromic rotund affair by Simone Schliachter. At first glance, it seems like you are looking at a deftly crafted manifold creation, with a delicate lattice pattern. Then you start to discern recognizable shapes and suddenly realize you can read letters, that comprise words, that comprise verses taken from the thematic Scriptures. 

As an aperitif, you may want to consider the meaning, if not the spirit, of one of the verses Schliachter incorporated from Ecclesiastes Chapter 12: “Remember then your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you shall say: ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” All told, Schliachter managed to interweave a full eight verses into her work, ending with: “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; all is vanity.”

The nihilistic denouement of the selected passage is a recurring motif in the exhibition and, if nothing else, gets one pondering the importance and value of various areas of our lives. If, indeed, “all is vanity,” what are we worried about? Why do we get so het up about all manner of ostensible life-and-death issues, sticking to our principles and, worse still, hoarding all kinds of material junk we believe provide us with social status, and self-worth?

TOUCHINGLY, the book that goes with the exhibition – and a fine piece of aesthetic crafting it is, too – includes texts written by family members or spiritual leaders of the artists in question, as well as some by the artists themselves. In Schliachter’s case her husband Marco did the honors.

Marco sheds light on his wife’s work, and also on the philosophical substratum underlying the biblical book. He talks about the “allegory of old age in Ecclesiastes.” “The Book of Ecclesiastes,” he posits, “takes a critical look at the reality of the world and the meaning of human life. It was no coincidence that King Solomon wrote this book in his twilight years, after he had acquired a wealth of life experience. At this point, King Solomon chose to convey the essence of life, while recoiling from the valueless and meaningless affairs of this world.”

The allegory of old age “attests to metaphysical despair with the purposeless return to the point of origin, and from the meandering path one has to traverse in order to get back to it,” Marco writes. He also lets us in on some highly personal motives for his wife’s work. “As Simone is currently dealing with her father’s aging, and the complexity of this situation, the content of Ecclesiastes reveals itself in its full significance.”

After I jokingly question her and her fellow paper cutters’ sanity, Schliachter offers a contrary take on her art. “For me, it is absolute magic. You make some of the paper cuts with folded paper and, when you open it up, it is like a child’s game. You discover something new – that is wonderful!”

She is, naturally, also keenly aware of the fragility of the creative process in her chosen field. “If you make the wrong cut somewhere, even the smallest of cuts, you lose the whole work,” she notes. “Everything is interconnected.” Sounds like an allegory on life itself.

THERE IS a nice mix of monochromic and polychromic offerings. Schliachter’s brace in the exhibition tends toward the latter. That, she says, is a reflection of her approach to life. “I am an optimistic person,” she declares, adding that she benefited from a few pointers from one of the country’s leading figures in bible education, Dr. Nava Cohen. “When we started with this [Ecclesiastes] project, I attended study sessions with her. For one reason or another we only had three or four sessions but, after that, each [of us] took what we had learned into our paper cut work.”

The albeit curtailed series with Dr. Cohen left its mark on Schliachter and drew her into the biblical book, and some of the gems to be gleaned therein. “There is a lot of movement in Ecclesiastes, constantly. You go up and down, you fall and arise. You build and you destroy.” 

It is a learning curve that takes time – and maturity – to appreciate. “You really begin to understand the content of the book only when you get older. It is not all black and white; there are so many shades in there.” And so it is with Schliachter’s exhibits.

“I also love calligraphy,” she observes somewhat superfluously. It is hard to imagine someone producing such finely fashioned lettering without a deep affinity with the subtleties and nuances of aesthetic penmanship. That and an appreciation of the viewing pleasure to be provided through the intelligent use of color shading continuums. 

“The colorful background to my work was very important because, otherwise, it might have been depressing,” she says, referencing the dystopian tale of the verses she fed into one of her paper cuts at Hechal Shlomo. “Life is beautiful.”

That, Schliachter feels, is something we should all celebrate, and we should absorb the enlightening lessons of the pandemic passage of time. “I think a lot of the works in the exhibition, to which artists brought their personal story, connect with all of that. The exhibition came out very varied, and very aesthetic.”

SHE CAN say that again. Visitors will, no doubt, be drawn to San Francisco-born Jonathan Lyon’s captivating, rotating installation he dedicates to his late father Karl David who, he notes, served in the US Army in World War II. The multifarious Lyon creation cites the poignant verse “a time to tear down and a time to build.” The spirit of intimacy carries over to one of a pair of Lyon’s highly colorful warp-and-weft style paper cuts, which he dedicates to his late mother and grandfather, both of whom were Holocaust survivors.

In terms of delicacy, Lydia Clem’s paper cut has most of the others beat. The paper doily-like work is a wonder of gossamer-like intricacy in which she somehow manages to fashion the words to an apt quotation from the said biblical book: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” There are all kinds of flora and fauna in there, too.

Shapira also connects the discipline to the Jewish world. She says that paper cut creation began around 600 CE and that researchers believe Jews got in on the act in the 14th century. The very nature of paper cuts makes them highly degradable and, hence, few have survived the test of time. That goes double for works crafted by Jews, who were exposed to all manner of persecution over the centuries with, for example, synagogues burned down during pogroms. 

The curator says that paper cuts became part and parcel of Judaica aesthetics with artifacts making appearances in synagogues. “They would have a paper cut sign that said mizrach (east) and would have it on the eastern wall of the synagogue which signified the direction of Jerusalem. But a lot of these works were lost in the Holocaust.”

Meanwhile, back here, paper cutting seems to be thriving. “There are many artists in Israel, but not all exhibit,” says Shapira. “But, compared with disciplines like painting, it is less well known. I hope exhibitions like this help to spread the word.”

If Ever Turning Blows the Wind is anything to go by, let’s have some more where that lot came from. The exhibition is due to run until September. ❖