Arrivals: The science of art

Trading in a high-powered job in molecular research for that of a full-time mom was not easy for Pamela Schwarz: ‘I felt I needed something to occupy my mind’.

Aliya from Seattle to Ra’anana, (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Aliya from Seattle to Ra’anana,
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Changing directions professionally is quite common for people who make aliya. A different country seems to offer a new perspective on life and gives olim the chance to do something they could only dream of in the old country.
For Pamela Ayn Schwarz, the transition was particularly startling – from PhD researcher in molecular biology to professional glass artist.
Today she creates beautiful and mostly functional objects in brightly colored fused glass, producing bowls, dishes, jewelry and even mezuza cases in the medium she has chosen to express her strong artistic leanings.
It’s ironic to think that she turned to glass art to compensate for the identity crisis she experienced on making aliya with her husband, Yoav, in 2007.
Whereas he went instantly into a hi-tech job, she transitioned from researcher to full-time mom, experiencing the not-inconsiderable shock of having the children return from school at midday.
Their move to Ra’anana was partly thanks to Yoav’s work.
He was employed by Microsoft, and the company knew he was interested in moving to Israel.
When the opportunity of a job in Israel came up, he was the natural choice.
The family had been living in Seattle, but Pamela grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, the granddaughter of the Amit organization’s national president, and from an early age she felt she would settle here one day.
She had spent a year in seminary in 1990, and although they did not meet then, Yoav was here at the same time.
“It was a very seminal year for both of us in terms of our feelings for Israel,” she says.
She had always had artistic leanings, having studied photography and ceramics in high school, but she loved science, too, and when it came to choosing a university degree, she chose science.
With an orthopedic surgeon for a father, she considered the option of medicine, but in the end went for research.
“I loved the impact that research can have on the world,” she says.
With a doctorate from Boston University in molecular biology, she began researching anti-cancer drugs in a post-doctorate fellowship program in Seattle. She married Yoav – pure American in spite of his Israeli name – and they have four children.
She found the research demanding, and art had to take a back seat in her life. But it returned to center- stage when she found herself in Israel as a full-time mother.
“Going from a high-powered job to cooking, cleaning and laundry 24/7 was very difficult,” she says.
“I felt I needed something to occupy my mind.”
She had come across a studio in the industrial area of Ra’anana where people could come in and create their own art.
There was a teacher who taught the rudiments of glass-making – cutting and molding. She would go there twice a week for a few hours at a time, and gradually began to learn the art of glass fusion.
“At the beginning, it would take me a week to make one piece,” she says, “but gradually I got more confidence and learned the ins and outs of firing glass.”
As she got more experienced, she was frustrated by having to use a communal kiln.
“One had no control over temperature or how much one could put in at a time,” she says.
Finally she decided the only answer was to buy her own kiln. She began to play with it, making small things and experimenting, while reading up on the whole subject online. Today she has two kilns in the basement of her large Ra’anana home.
The transition from hobby to business was gradual.
“A voice in the back of my head said it was crazy to own the kilns and not do something with them,” she says.
So she continued making her colorful glassware, and a year later had her first sale. She was pleasantly surprised to discover that people loved her work.
“It’s nerve-racking having to put yourself out there,” she says.
When not glass-making and working in hi-tech, she and her husband are active in the synagogue run by Rabbi Seth Farber, whose Itim organization helps prospective candidates for conversion navigate the rabbinate.
“We take care of Israelis, often soldiers who are not halachically Jewish but want to convert,” she explains.
“We invite them to experience Shabbat and festivals and match them with other immigrant families.”
Her husband was called to testify at the rabbinical court that a conversion candidate had been through all the necessary procedures to become a Jew.
Schwarz’s Jewish roots go back to the deep South – her grandmother owned a special Passover cow that was fed non-hametz for several weeks before the festival – and the surroundings of her childhood have impacted her strongly. As she herself puts it, “the vastness of the Phoenix landscape, the majestic red rock formations of Sedona and the raw beauty of the Grand Canyon were imprinted on my visual perception of the world.”
Having moved a long way from her childhood landscape and the laboratories of her scientific career, she and her family are building another life in Israel, one where beautiful glass objects also play an important part.