A shattered bridge and a sturdy spirit

Hava Mehutan left Philadelphia for Palestine in 1946. Her latest exhibition deals with the breakdown of her hopes of seeing peace in her lifetime.

Mehutan 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mehutan 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hava Mehutan, 84, is both an internationally acclaimed artist and a passionate Zionist. She claims to have been attracted to art since infancy. It took another 20 for her to embrace Zionism, leave her comfortable life in the US city of Philadelphia behind, and move to British Mandate Palestine in early 1946, soon after the end of World War II.
Becoming an artist was the easy part. With the voice of a much younger woman and a very infectious smile, Mehutan recalls: “I’ve been an artist almost from birth – probably was an artist at birth – but I didn’t realize it until I was four years old.
“From early childhood I went to Saturday morning classes at the Graphic Sketch Club, and Sunday mornings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the age of eight.
I was always interested in the arts, and it was not difficult for me to learn. I loved learning.”
Becoming a Zionist, however, was the end of an unusual emotional journey that began with her fascination with the color of a young man’s eyes. Mehutan’s own eyes light up and her face becomes animated as she relates the story.
“I had a high school friend, and we used to help at the Little Theater downtown in Philadelphia, making sets and all sorts of things for the stage, because the men who had worked there were all in the army during the Second World War. We also painted some murals on the walls of the lobby. When they were finished, we had our pictures in the newspapers.
“Soon after that, a young fellow in one of my friend’s classes told her that he had just joined a Jewish club. And they had a club room that was in need of decoration. He asked her to come and see what could be done. She told him, ‘I don’t do anything without my partner,’ so the young man said I could come too.
“So we went to an old grocery store in a rather poor neighborhood of South Philadelphia. It had a big front window, and the oatmeal colored wallpaper was flopping along the walls. It looked like nothing much could be done with whatever little bit of money they had.
“I have to give you a picture of what we looked like,” Mehutan says. “We were very bohemian, Nadine and I.
We had special collections of shoes, we had Victorian jewelry. We were playing ‘artist.’ Being involved in the theater had something to do with this, too.
“We came with our jewelry and our fur coats, and we looked at each other and wondered what we were doing there.
“These young people were very peculiar-looking. They were wearing faded blue work-shirts and neckerchiefs.
None of the girls were wearing makeup, of course. And they all looked very strange to us.
“There was an older fellow there who was giving a talk about the White Paper. I was very curious, because most things were written on ‘white paper,’ and I couldn’t understand what exactly he was talking about. He talked about how the British were listening to the Arabs, who did not want any more Jews to come to Palestine, and how they were limiting the number of Jewish refugees who could come.
“Being Jewish but knowing practically nothing about Judaism, and nothing whatsoever about Zionism, it was all very interesting to me. I had never heard anything like it before.
“But what was more interesting to me was the color of this man’s eyes. Every time he moved his head, they were a different color. They were brown, they were green, they were bluish, they were gray… very, very interesting.
“I can see myself now as this stupid kid, interested in these two things – Zionism and this man’s eyes.”
That was in December of 1943. A little more than six months later, she and Asher Fishman – the “man with the interesting eyes” – were married in a small ceremony at the home of a local rabbi. Mehutan adds, “I discovered what color his eyes actually were: hazel, which is changeable according to the light, and even what one wears.”
By this time, she had also discovered that the group her husband led was the Philadelphia chapter of Hashomer Hatza’ir, the now iconic labor-Zionist youth movement. After her marriage, Mehutan became increasingly involved with Hashomer Hatza’ir, while also studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, for which she had earlier won a “Mayor’s Scholarship” from the city of Philadelphia.
Late in 1945, the youth group received a limited number of certificates from the Jewish Agency, allowing entry to what was still British-controlled Palestine. The group selected Mehutan’s husband to be one of the new immigrants – but rejected Mehutan herself on the grounds that she knew “not one word of Hebrew,” and was too “bourgeois.”
The girl was too soft to do agricultural work and would certainly return to America in the shortest possible time, the group decided. So why waste a perfectly good immigration certificate? “I had to sit there and listen to this discussion,” Mehutan recalls.
After a lot of wrangling and emotionally charged debate, it was eventually resolved that Mehutan would get the entry certificate, and that Asher would make his way to the country illegally.
“After all the very uncomplimentary things they said about me, it turned out that no one else was ready to leave for Palestine at that moment but me,” she says, with laughter.
Asher entered Palestine by train from Alexandria, impersonating a British soldier. Mehutan crossed the Atlantic on a World War II vintage “Victory ship” and arrived on the morning of February 8, 1946.
Her first home in the homeland was a large tent camp within Rishon Lezion, full to bursting with aspiring pioneers waiting for land to build a kibbutz. She recalls: “During the War of Independence, I was very pregnant with my first child. For a time, I was evacuated with other pregnant mothers, and mothers and babies and children, to a place closer to Tel Aviv. But I found that I couldn’t sleep with all the noise, so with my big belly I hitchhiked back to Rishon Lezion.
“I was met by the head military man in the camp, who said, ‘You can’t come back here. I cannot be responsible for you.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be responsible for me.’ He said, ‘Okay. You can jump into a ditch if you hear firing.’ Well, I wasn’t about to go jumping into a ditch, pregnant as I was. I just took my chances; and that’s what I’ve done all my life.”
AFTER HELPING to establish Kibbutz Hatzor, the young family moved to Beersheba in 1950, which had just been opened for settlement, and where Asher had a job with the electric company. Mehutan later resided in Jerusalem throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, and has lived in Karmiel since 1998.
Along the way, she has established and taught at the Visual Art College in Beersheba, and taught environmental art at Ein Hod Art School and Haifa University, and sculpture at the Israel Museum Art School.
Mehutan has been a member of the National Arts Council, the Tel Aviv Foundation for Literature and Art, the Fine Art Committee of Ben-Gurion University, and the Israel Art Prize jury selection committee.
She has been awarded the Histadrut Prize for Sculpture, the first American-Israel Cultural Foundation Travel Scholarship, the Dizengoff Award, Silver Medal at the 8th São Paulo Biennale, and the Ish Shalom Award.
Most importantly, she has exhibited extensively in Israel, throughout Europe and the US – including Philadelphia – as well as in Brazil, Japan and South Korea, in both solo and group exhibits.
Now she is somewhat frail and walking with difficulty, but Mehutan’s creative spirit is undiminished.
“I have never stopped working,” she says. “I am a sculptor – wood, stone, clay, stainless steel, iron, I work in anything. And I have a lot of things around.
One thing that has not changed is that my work is very personal, very emotional. I have a number of philosophical things that drive my life, that I know people find very curious.”
One of the most “curious” things people find is her apparent disregard for money.
“I do not sell my works. Some I give away, others I’ll put in a museum. But in order to preserve my independence, I’m not driven by any force other than what I feel and what I think.”
Another of Mehutan’s distinguishing characteristics is a disinclination to talk about her works. She says: “When people come to one of my exhibitions, I don’t tell them what it’s all about. They can decide what they want it to be about for them, but I know what the driving motive was for me.”
After no small amount of coaxing, a reluctant Mehutan tells Metro the “driving motive” behind her current exhibition, Shattered Bridge.
“For me, it has to do with the breakdown of any hopes I may have had for peace in my lifetime. The bridge between the two peoples is shattered, and that has caused a lot of loss of life. Those twigs and branches, to me, are people. And the bridge is symbolic of what I wanted. That was for one people to approach the other people from different sides of the bridge, and it’s all broken and shattered.”
A lot of the emotion conveyed by the pieces on display evidently reflects a recent and serious change in Mehutan’s mind and heart.
“Until a few years ago, I was the biggest peacenik in Israel. But now, I think I’m being very realistic. This ‘two states for two peoples’ idea, in this tiny landmass, is ridiculous. I don’t know how people could have imagined such a thing.”
Asked if she thinks there is any solution to the current impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, Metuhan replies simply, “None that I know of.”
The other items in the exhibition, Mehutan explains, are meant to support the “shattered bridge” theme.
“I have a piece here called “Antagonists,” made out of old Turkish railway ties. They’re standing up, facing each other, and pointing weapons at each other.
Nevertheless, they are bound together by chains and a padlock. That represents us, Palestinians and Israelis, constantly at each other’s throats, but we will always be together. I don’t see how not to be together in some way.
“I have also the wooden torsos that are bound together with a leather belt. We are bound. Then there are two figures facing each other with eyes covered, not seeing each other. And then there’s a piece with two groups, little forms on each side of double mirrors. They’re trying to get together and look at each other, but they see only themselves.”
ASKED IF any of her previous exhibitions have been as pessimistic as this one, Mehutan replies, “Well, they’ve certainly been sad. After the first incursion into Lebanon, I made a big work in a field at Har Sdom. I excavated a body-sized rectangle in the ground, and placed a body-sized bag of dirt beside it.
I made something like 57 of these, in rows. From above, it looked like a mass graveyard, with bodies prepared to be buried.
“What brought the idea to me was that we were getting a body bag from Lebanon every day, absolutely every day. I said, ‘This is our reality today.’ “I think I am blessed with the ability to get these things out of my system. Many people just walk around with these feelings and have no way to express them – words, music or any other way. My ability to express all this enables me to go on.”
Speaking of “going on,” one odd piece in the current Shattered Bridge exhibition deserves special mention in that it has nothing to do with the “shattered bridge” theme. It is a red, somewhat humanlooking form strapped to a table and looking as though it is struggling to break free.
Mehutan’s smile fades noticeably as she says, “It’s about my own situation, from being a very independent person who does whatever she wants to someone tied down by a combination of illness and age. The illness won’t go away because the body is too old to regenerate.
“I have accepted the fact that I am old, and that I must somehow or other organize my life in such a way that I can continue working.”
Evidently, she has succeeded. With the help, she says, of one “strong young woman assistant who does the heavy things – bending, working on the floor, and other things I can’t do any more” – Mehutan has not only created and mounted the current very ambitious exhibition, but is probably in her studio at this very moment, creating exciting new works for her next one.
“Shattered Bridge” is showing until August 12 at the Karmiel Art Gallery, Beit Yad Labanim, 48 Hativat Yiftah Street, Karmiel. Sunday – Thursday: 9 a.m.–1 p.m.; Tuesday 9 a.m.–1 p.m. and 6 p.m.–8 p.m. For further information, visit www.havamehutan.org.