The line between art and craft

Jeremy Kimchi represents Israel in the Fabriano in Acquarello International Watercolor Festival in Italy.

 Angels’ Wings Torah Ark, bimah and podium, Beit Mishan Assisted Living, in Givatayim. (photo credit: Udi Katzman)
Angels’ Wings Torah Ark, bimah and podium, Beit Mishan Assisted Living, in Givatayim.
(photo credit: Udi Katzman)

Jeremy Kimchi, a wood artist, creates one-of-a-kind wooden furniture for synagogues, hotels and private homes. He has been transforming craft into art for exactly 30 years. Kimchi practices Tai Chi, and as he explains in an interview with the Magazine, its philosophy helps him keep his work from becoming routine.

His second passion is watercolor paintings, which he started as a hobby. This year, he represents Israel in the Fabriano in Acquarello International Watercolor Festival in Italy.

A few months ago, by coincidence, I saw a watercolor landscape painted by you, on social media. It was very enjoyable for the eyes. I wanted to see more of your work and I learned that most of all, you are an artist in wood. You sculpt, you create furniture for homes, hotels and synagogues. So let’s start with: why wood? How did it begin?

I was always very connected to the trees. I grew up in a farmhouse in Ithaca, New York. I was surrounded by forests and I was into farming. I used to milk goats. I had an alternative education and open schools. It was the post-’60s thing – finding your own way of doing things. My parents, both university professors, were supportive of whatever I did. They believed that it is important to get some kind of liberal arts education in order to know about the world, but other than that, as long you can make a living, to do your own thing.

 Jeremy Kimchi in front of the ‘Return to the Mount of Olives’ Torah Ark and bimah, at Ma’aleh Hazeitim, Jerusalem. (credit: Udi Katzman) Jeremy Kimchi in front of the ‘Return to the Mount of Olives’ Torah Ark and bimah, at Ma’aleh Hazeitim, Jerusalem. (credit: Udi Katzman)
So you studied Jewish History and Middle Eastern Studies and after… 

Yes, I studied that after my army service. I wanted to understand a bit of what is happening here (if it can be understood). I completed the studies but I understood I wanted to be a wood artist.

This is not the most obvious life path choice… 

I was always inclined to do something artistic. Also, my grandmother Beatrice was a hobby wood artist. She made the dining table we were always eating at. But she died before I was born.

You never met her, but you were aware of the table she made.

Yes, there were also some woodcuts she made which were pretty good. In Israel, after the army and university, I started to work as a simple help in a carpentry shop in Jerusalem, and I got hooked. I started to read literature about it.

For how many years had you already been in Israel by then?

Some years. I came first to Israel at age 15. My father had a sabbatical year and my mother, who always wanted to come to Israel, convinced him to come here. My parents stayed in Jerusalem. I was always interested in agriculture, so I went to a boarding school in Nahalal. The first year was a cultural shock to me, but I decided I want to stay. In 1982, 40 years ago, I officially made aliyah.

And a few years later you were starting your path in wood furniture. Was there a place to study it?

No. I took a basic course at Labor Ministry, but I was doing many things on my own, and some of them were disasters. I knew I had to learn from a master. Together with my family (by that time, I was 25 years old, I was already married and we had our first baby), I went back to America for a year-long apprenticeship at the Jeffrey Green Design Studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. We came back in 1992 and I started my wood shop.

Exactly 30 years ago. When you opened your business, it was a big passion. How did you keep the passion going for so many years?

That’s a good question. I think this is relevant to all aspects of life... I have been practicing Tai Chi for 22 years. I learned from it that, even if you did something thousands of times, each time should be meaningful. The idea is to meet each project you do, each situation, and each person as if it is for the first time, instead of: “I know what it is, I know what to expect.” It’s kind of a dichotomy because on one hand, I have these years of experience and I want to use it in order to have things done in an efficient way. On the other hand, I want each piece to be a new experience. Otherwise, what’s the point of it? I never do the same piece twice.

For example, I have a Moroccan bimah on my website, and someone calls me saying: I want such a bimah to my synagogue. I respond: “Let’s take it as an inspiration and design something new. Let’s experiment with it.” 

So, there is a lot of hard work, and a lot of sanding (I have an assistant who helps with it)... I will not lie, I will not say that every minute is of full of passion, but Tai Chi’s attitude helps me a lot to find meaning and passion in it, even after 30 years.

You said that you were always connected to trees. Where is the line between loving trees and loving wood? Does it hurt to cut them?

If they are from sustainable forests, no.

Before our meeting, I went to see your Torah Ark “Ascending to the Temple” and bimah (reader’s platform), which you made for the historic Av Shalom synagogue in Tel Aviv. I understand that you needed a specific kind of woodwork for that. What kind of wood did you use for them?

That’s mahogany. There are different kinds of mahogany. There are some kinds of wood that are now protected, like Bolivian Rosewood, that I used to work with, which now is protected. But I still have a few boards left over from 30 years ago. Otherwise, woods that are protected, you don’t use. But all the others, in theory at least, are sustainable.

 Neo-Moroccan salon. (credit: Udi Katzman) Neo-Moroccan salon. (credit: Udi Katzman)
What comes first: the idea or material? When you see a piece of wood, do you know what will come out of it? Or is it the other way around... you have a project and you look for the right wood? 

It depends on the kind of piece I am doing. Usually, now, I have a concept and I am looking for wood that will serve that concept. But there are some cases, (not a commission, just the pieces I am doing for fun) where I see a beautiful piece of wood and I am just playing with it and something comes out of it. So it’s not a designed piece, it just sort of happens. But most of the work I do now is commissioned, and when someone is ordering a piece, they want to know what it will be made of.

Did it ever happen to you, that you saw a beautiful piece of wood, and you didn’t want to change it, just maybe polish it and leave it in its natural form?

Yes... But I would use it as a top of a table, for example.

...and how long does it take you to make a Torah Ark and bimah for a synagogue, for example?

It depends... It can be a smaller piece, but with a lot of details that demand time. As per the work for the synagogue at Bograshov [Street], in Tel Aviv, that was two months for the ark itself and two weeks for the bimah. For another example, let me show you something I am working on now. These are four doors out of 16 I am doing for Los Angeles, and these are framed sculpted panels. I draw the sketch first, then I make each panel separately and at the end put them together. Only then do things pop to life, and you say: “Wow, there it is,” the result of last month of working 10 hours a day is visible.

Speaking of ways of work, you wrote on your website: “To learn and grow each day we must be willing to explore new ground, master skills and disciplines... in order to free ourselves from disciplines.” Could you elaborate on this thought, please?

Again, dichotomy. You need to know how to do stuff, but it must be so natural that you don’t have to think about it anymore. What I do is very physical. Someone seeing me working with different kinds of machines could think I am some kind of a maniac, who doesn’t know what he does [smiles], but I’ve developed my own technique, which tool to use when so now I don’t need to focus on technique but more on composition.

Do you have a name for your own technique?

No, it’s just the way I sculpt things.

 ‘ONE GLASS Too Many’ watercolor painting.  (credit: Jeremy Kimchi) ‘ONE GLASS Too Many’ watercolor painting. (credit: Jeremy Kimchi)
Where is the line between art and craft? In my ideal world, art is not something that people order, it’s something that happens.

In the Renaissance times, it was all commissioned. Michelangelo spent four years on his back, getting paint on his face, doing something he didn’t want to do, but thank God, we have it now.

Good point. So where is the line between art and craft?

This is something I deal with every day. Inside of me, and also how I present myself.

Is there anything that a client would ask you which would be against your taste and you would refuse to do it?

Definitely! If something is not right in my opinion, I say I am not the person to do it.

How different is it from making a piece for a synagogue to making something for a private home or a hotel?

The first difference is its size. When you are making an ark for a synagogue, this is something bigger than you, both physically and metaphorically. When you are making a coffee table, your line of sight is from above it. The other aspect is the things for a synagogue should be spiritually uplifting. But also, when I make a table for a home, I want it to enrich the experience. I want a person to want to touch it, feel the wood, to connect with it. I hope it is like that.

Is making wood for the synagogue a way of expressing a prayer for you?

It could sound a little bit presumptuous of me, but the idea crossed my mind... But no I would not say it’s my prayer. It’s my way of making the experience of praying better for other people. I really want to influence how people experience synagogues. I want them to engage with my work on an emotional level. My higher inspiration is to create art that causes people to pause, come closer and interact with the piece.

One person in Los Angeles took it too literally... He came too close. I read that recently, a part of your piece of art, Twelve Tribes, you did for a synagogue, was stolen.

About a year and a half ago, I made these Twelve Tribes, they were going to put them in front of the ark they already had. I sent them, they paid me. All was fine. And one day a man I have never met before, contacted me asking if I made such sculptures. He said, that someone was trying to sell six tribes [sculptures], and he thought it was suspicious; something must have been stolen. In fact, they had still not been hung up, they were standing on the side at the synagogue, and some drug dealer stole them. He must have been almost caught, so he ran away with only a half of them and he tried to sell them.

Did you think to yourself that if your work was worth stealing, it’s even more desirable?

My works don’t have worth like [Andy] Warhol’s, but yes, it felt great [laughs]. I felt even greater when they got it back, of course.

In 2014, you had an exhibition at Jerusalem Theater called: Negative Space – Positive Tension. What does this name mean, and why start from “negative”?

Negative doesn’t have to mean bad. Negative space means what happens between two objects. For example, the table next to us has four large legs and four inner legs, and there is space between them. There is something going on there. Looking at them, you experience the space between them. If it was just one solid leg, it would be very boring. I used it a lot, in almost everything I do.

And “positive tension”?

In almost everything I make, I see two people who go next to each other in life, sometimes changing a direction; sometimes they go apart, sometimes meet.

Wood is the metaphor for life.

Interesting... and do you like having exhibitions?

I don’t do a lot of exhibitions, but I like to prepare for them. You immerse yourself in one theme and you are exploring it from all different kinds of angles for a few months. Then, with a curator, you see the light set up, and the message is coming across. It’s really rewarding.

Moving away from the wood art to your watercolors, what is the role of watercolors in your life? Are you still in the process of learning, or is it already part of your work? 

I have been studying it for a long time, different kinds of courses in drawing and painting, but have only been painting watercolors seriously for six or seven years. They are more of a passion than work, to me. But... I am 57 years old now, I cannot craft wood when I will be 70, this is physically very intensive, so eventually, maybe watercolors will be something more. The wood I do is so physical that I am all covered with dust. Watercolors are almost transparent, and light.

They are also much smaller than most of your furniture and sculptures. So, do you paint outdoors, or while you travel?

I do a lot in our living room, and I paint outdoors, but also I like to go at least once a year to Italy or France, to spend a week alone and paint there. In the early morning, to get the early light... 

You represent Israel at Fabriano in Acquarello Festival, in Italy, this year.

I am not the only one, but participating in it confirms that I am going in a good direction.

Most of your watercolors are landscapes, stills, serious topics. Then, suddenly there is “One Glass Too Many,” a painting with a laughing drunk rabbit on it. What’s the story behind this painting?

I love drawing stuffed animals. I did a lot of them at the beginning in chalk and pencil, but I haven’t done a big one. I had some bottles, and I wanted to put them into the composition.

I must ask you about the painting, a snowy landscape called “All the Cows Inside,” and indeed there are no cows in the painting. The name is very intriguing.

I was trying to conjure up an image of what is going on inside the barn.

Some other of your landscapes are inspired by the desert, close to your home. You grew up in the area of forests, but in Israel, you chose a completely different scenery, Kfar Adumim. Why?

We [with my wife] were looking for a mixed community – religious and secular; not too big (now it got a bit bigger). At that time, I was somehow already connected to the desert, because I was working in Mitzpe Yeriho. A desert speaks to me just like a forest but in a different form. I like to watch the sun going down at the end of Shabbat, in different shadows. Also, you can see forever in a desert. In a forest you see things 20 meters ahead but in a desert there are miles.

You sound like a much-fulfilled man: family, work, passion, hobby and these beautiful views in front of your home. What is your dream?

I am looking for an opportunity to do something really great. I don’t know what it means, but I am looking for my “Sistine Chapel.”