A rose is a rose is a rose

“I’m a free spirit, with no roots. But when I feel that I am floating, I look at the names on my arm.”

Varda Solell-Shamai (photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
Varda Solell-Shamai
(photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
The first thing you notice about 67-year-old Varda Solell-Shamai is her broad, beaming smile. The second thing you notice is the tattoos. On the left forearm of this Haifa painter, sculptor, poet and art teacher are inscribed the names of her now-deceased mother, father and brother.
“This gives me roots that I don’t have,” she explains. “I’m a free spirit, with no roots. But when I feel that I am floating, I look at the names on my arm.”
Ringing her right wrist are the names of her children. Smiling radiantly, she taps her still blank right forearm and says that her grandchildren’s names will someday be written there.
And the third thing that kind of jumps out at you, if you happen to see Solell-Shamai at her current exhibition at the Artists House Tel Aviv, is a huge 4.5 m. x 80 cm. vividly colored, heart-stopping, gut-grabbing, mind-blowing, phantasmagoric mural that may depict the apocalypse, the final struggle between Good and Evil, Gog and Magog, and the end of the world. Or it may just as likely be about something else. In any case, it, along with around 20 related black-and-white framed sketches, make up a fascinating exhibition called “Journey of the Rose.”
“It all started when my mother died three years ago,” she says. “It was a trigger for me to start dealing with my name, to trace the journey of my name. Even now, when someone calls me by the name Varda, it takes me a moment to relate to it. I started to remember that my mother had wanted to give me the name Vered, without the letter heh. But then she was pressured by people who told her that Vered is not a name for a girl. And I cannot relate to the [letter] heh that she added. Because in its form as ha [the] – havered [the rose], hasha’a [the hour], and so on – it is defining things. And I don’t like definitions. I want to be free of definitions. This is the first thing.
“And then the second thing is that it’s the name of God. I have had a long debate with him. I am not against religion but rather [against] what people have done with it. They have given people false visions, false light and false hopes. All the great wars that have taken so many lives have been in the name of God.”
We see some of these sentiments reflected in the mural. Indeed, we see apocalyptic war almost everywhere we look. Masked riders on snorting warhorses gallop into battle. Frightening clown figures and a girl in white wearing a large blood-red rose appear to have arrived on the scene directly from a 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte. Visions, almost surreal, appear everywhere – some capturing the warriors’ attention, some going on beyond their awareness. Although the artist cites Renaissance Italian fresco painters as some of her major influences, we see perhaps the much heavier hand of Hieronymous Bosch and his 1495-1505 triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Varda stands at the mural and says, “The blue horse in the painting is supposed to be carrying the Messiah, but there is no one riding it. Instead there are two bags of books on the horse’s back. It’s because the Messiah will not save humanity. What will save humanity is all of humanity’s culture and knowledge. This maybe will save us. Nothing else.”
How exactly all this relates to her desire to “start dealing with her name,” or to “trace its journey” will probably be far more evident to the artist than to anyone viewing the painting, but Solell-Shamai insists that the mural is intensely personal. “The painting represents myself in different ways,” she says. “I am the rose. I am the horse. I am even the packs on the riders’ backs. I am the girl from the commedia dell’arte. And if you can see, there is a vision. Everyone is pointing to that vision, but she is not. She is not pointing, because this is a false vision.” The vision appears to be several people in crucifixion-like positions, with a handful of clowns flying behind them.
Across from the mural and arrayed in an adjoining room are some 20 smaller framed black-and-white sketches, featuring images, concepts and feelings derived from the large mural. Some of these are, as it were, almost “midrashic” statements developed from the mural, reflecting deeper insights and explanations. Others were done before the mural was painted, as Solell-Shamai was playing and experimenting with ideas before starting the big painting.
“It’s all related. It’s all one concept,” she says. “It was a very long process. I started to think in terms of black lines. And then it gained more color and started to develop. And it developed itself. I couldn’t plan it. It had its own life.”
Perhaps the most striking part of the painting is at the upper left-hand corner, where Solell-Shamai has painted herself as a spectator, watching with excitement as the painting’s story develops itself, peeking from behind a curtain at the amazing goings-on.
It took her around eight months to paint the mural, she says, working more or less every day.
“I teach at my big studio in Haifa. I have a lot of students, from the age of eight to 80. They come four days a week, from morning to evening. When they go home, I start to work. On weekends I can work for 14 or 15 hours, until I drop,” she says, laughing.
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, trained in Italy at the Accademia dell’Arte, Solell-Shamai lives and works in Haifa but insists, “I’m an international spirit. I belong to no place and nobody. I’m a free spirit. I think I’m kind of the voice of humanity, because of what’s going on with the world. Wherever there is suffering, I feel it’s my suffering. I have something to say, and I say it, with my heart.”
We congratulate Solell-Shamai on her unique exhibition, wish her good fortune, and remind her of Shakespeare’s observation that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
“Journey of the Rose” is on until July 16 at Artists House Tel Aviv, 9 Alharizi Street. For further information: (03) 524-6685 or www.artisthouse.co.il.