Artist Carmel Ilan puts paper on the fine art map

It is only in the past decade that paper artists have received the credit and attention they deserve.

Carmel Ilan: 'Samsara' (photo credit: NIMROD GENISHER)
Carmel Ilan: 'Samsara'
(photo credit: NIMROD GENISHER)
In Jewish tradition, paper bears spiritual weight. Be it notes placed in the Western Wall or the strict laws regarding disposal of sacred texts, paper is treated as a sacred material.
This sensibility seems to have seeped deeply into the fibers of Israeli culture, barring even the most secular individuals from tossing books into the trash can. On her wanderings throughout the country, artist Carmel Ilan came upon pile after pile of books placed sheepishly beside trash cans.
“People didn’t have the heart to throw them away,” she said over the phone. “There were encyclopedias, a book by Amos Oz, magazines, atlases.... I couldn’t leave them there. I just couldn’t. So I took them to my studio.”
At that point, Ilan was working with bronze as her prime material. She had no plan for these abandoned books but intuitively knew that they were meant to be with her.
“I have loved paper since I was a child,” she said.
Ilan, 60, was born and raised in Jerusalem. Her father was a well-known lawyer. Her mother worked with pottery. On weekends, the family would visit galleries. On vacations, they would explore museums abroad.
“We loved art and aesthetics in my home; that was our passion,” she explained. “My father always said, ‘Be anything but a lawyer,’” she added with a laugh.
Ilan began her official training at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and went on to pursue further studies at New York City’s Parsons School of Design. Upon completing her degree at the Basis Art School, she embarked upon a career as a fashion designer. After garnering a good deal of success, she changed tracks for a second career in furniture design for children. Ilan proved good at this, too. And though her future could have been in interior design, Ilan continued to search for the optimal conduit for her creativity.
“I did very well as a designer, but I felt I wasn’t ready for art. It was there, all the time, waiting for me to mature. When I finally came to it, I felt I was coming home,” she said. “My father managed to see my first shows. I remember he said to me, ‘People come to me because they need me. They come to you because they want to.’”
Earlier this month, Ilan opened a solo show at the Chelouche Alley Gallery in Tel Aviv titled “Samsara.” The show, which includes works from her first moments manipulating and sculpting with paper through her most recent creations, will be open throughout the first week of August.
“The exhibition has both works from 15 and 16 years ago and from the last year. I think it was interesting for me to see what’s happened to me with the development of my language from the sculptures of the beginning. I think I didn’t know anything but I knew everything. I needed to develop more technique and get into the paper in order to speak the language.”
Ilan is one of a handful of paper artists at the forefront of putting paper on the fine art map. Usually seen as a craft or handiwork, paper was ostracized from the illustrious halls of museums and galleries for centuries. It is only in the past decade that paper artists have received the credit and attention they deserve. Ilan, who has shown her breathtaking sculptures at art fairs and group shows around the globe, is grateful for the opportunity to be part of a community committed to this material. Though she does not enjoy embodying titles like “recyclist” or “feminist,” there is most certainly an empowered sentiment in her work.
“I use everything I learned from all over the world. From my grandmother’s kitchen rolling grape leaves to me sitting around the studio and rolling paper... it is very much a continuation of that. I see myself as a point on that same timeline, women weaving together, my grandmother sitting with friends and knitting – I’m on that spectrum. A woman sitting and doing handwork, making something.”
And though she has developed her technique immensely, Ilan continues to reap all of her raw materials from tidy piles next to trash cans. “I never buy material and I don’t change it. I don’t paint it. I maximize on the beauty that is. It connects to my philosophy in life. I work with wood and paper. I am doing a backwards cycle with my material. The material begins as wood and then is processed into paper on which words are printed to become a book, a poem, a novel. I take it backwards; words, paper, wood.”
This flow backward and forward gave inspiration to the title of the exhibition, “Samsara,” the word for the life cycle in Sanskrit.
“Samsara” will be open through August 10 at the Chelouche Alley 6 Gallery, 33 Eilat Street, Tel Aviv (enter through Braverman Gallery).