Behind the scenes at the Open Museum

Aleksandra Stoyanov, whose tapestries are on display in the Western Galilee, cleans, cards, spins and dyes the wool herself.

open museum 370 (photo credit: barbara bamberger)
open museum 370
(photo credit: barbara bamberger)
For the past 28 years, Tefen Industrial Park, established in 1982 by industrialist and philanthropist Stef Wertheimer, has been home to a vibrant little gem of a museum. Just around the corner from Ma’alot-Tarshiha, set amid green lawns dotted with outdoor sculpture, the Open Museum showcases Israeli artists for whom artistic expression and craftsmanship go hand in hand.
Ruthi Ofek serves as director and chief curator of the museum, and of the Open Museums in Omer and Tel Hai. Together with Wertheimer, she is dedicated to bringing art and artistry to this corner of the Western Galilee.
The museum is currently exhibiting a collection of monumental, woven tapestries by artist Aleksandra (Sasha) Stoyanov. The layout of the gallery allows visitors to stand far enough away to see each piece in its entirety, but to then get close enough to see the incredible care Stoyanov has taken in crafting each one. It is hard to imagine how she is able to work on such a large scale, in such an infinite amount of detail.
“I relate to her weavings as drawings,” Ofek says. “I called the exhibition ‘Warp and Weft Painting.’ The material she works in is less important than her ability to draw and to express her ideas in the works she creates. She works in a way that is very complex.
It’s beyond weaving – it’s out of the ordinary.”
Originally from Ukraine, Stoyanov has a background in art and theater. She has been weaving for more than 20 years, but has produced all of her major works since she immigrated to Israel in 1990. “Until I came to Israel I didn’t have a loom,” she says. The move to Israel also affected the way she uses color.
“Sasha says that here there is too much sun,” says Yan Belinky, her husband of many years. “She says ‘under the sun you see shadows.’ You see in monochrome.”
From a distance, her work appears monochromatic, but a closer look reveals this isn’t the case. The black areas, for example, are a rich blend of dark gray, brown and even blue. Along with the faint scent of wool, there is a hushed stillness in the air, partially due to Stoyanov’s chosen subject matter.
The tapestry titled Between Reality and Imagination shows two women sitting on either side of a table. One is looking out and the other is looking to the side where there are more images of women. “They’re all the same woman,” says Ofek. “You see there’s a lot of thought there – not just in the way the figures are woven, the technique – but in the way the woman is looking into herself.”
“This is my interpretation of her work,” Ofek says.
“Sasha doesn’t explain very much. She lets us get what we can from her work – but she does give them titles, that give us a direction for interpretation.”
Both Ofek and gallery manager Sawsan Dakwar say this exhibition is attracting a particularly large audience.
Literally hundreds of people have come to see it.
“Every Saturday it’s like a pilgrimage,” says Ofek, laughing.
“People come to see it because it’s a kind of wonder.
I don’t think anyone has seen anything like this.”
Dakwar, who spends a lot of time in the gallery, notes the reactions of the visitors.
“People sit and talk about the pieces. Many of them come back, with their sister or a friend. There have been exhibits where some people feel the art didn’t do anything for them. But with this exhibit, no one leaves unaffected.”
When asked how she finds the artists who exhibit at the museum, Ofek replies that the artists usually find them.
“Many approach us. The artists we choose are established.
They’ve been working for many years in a steady and serious way. It’s never ‘gimmicky.’ We have exhibitions lined up for a couple of years ahead of time.”
She says two to three years is typical between arranging with the artist and mounting the exhibition.
Two of Stoyanov’s most recent pieces are included here. Aleph, done in 2012, measures two meters high and over five meters wide. It is woven in wool, sisal, silk and cotton threads. A statement about leadership and rulers, it depicts a massive bull with feathered wings.
Approximately the same size and woven from the same mix of fibers, Monologue was created in 2010. It shows a long curtain, tied open just enough to reveal darkness and a single chair.
“There is mystery,” says Dakwar, formerly the docent for Arab-language school groups. “The curtain hides black, but there is a lot of light.”
Stoyanov, who lives in Yokne’am Illit, works on a large loom in her small living room. She makes sketches, but works mainly from her head. As she weaves, she sees only a few centimeters of the piece. The part that is finished is rolled up “like a film,” says Yan. In fact, Stoyanov never even saw the larger works completely unrolled until they were hung for this exhibit.
WHEN CHOOSING pieces for an exhibition, every curator works “from the gut,” Ofek says with a little smile. “They choose works that speak to them. This doesn’t mean I choose what I like more, but what I think is more important in terms of the creativity.... These aren’t the types of things we would hang at home,” she says, sweeping her arm around the gallery. “These are museum pieces, meant to make a statement, to express an idea.”
For Stoyanov each piece takes from six months to a year. She begins with unprocessed wool, which she cleans, cards, spins and dyes.
“This is part of the work,” says Belinky. “This is not something she can buy. Without this, her work doesn’t exist.”
“Sasha is in complete control of her material from the very first step until it’s hanging on the wall,” says Ofek.
“There is no other influence that comes between her and her work.”
“She does everything except raise the sheep,” Dakwar says, laughing. Dakwar keeps a basketful of Stoyanov’s fibers on hand, pulling them out for visitors to touch.
Mounting an exhibition is truly a cooperative effort between artist and curator.
“I had already decided on the red accent walls, the parquet flooring and the benches,” explains Ofek. “But Sasha and Yan were here to hang the pieces. I thought the ones that were of a more personal nature should hang near the entrance; those where she speaks more about the world and politics should hang further in. This means that there are connections on the wall that you can see.”
Each exhibition includes a printed catalogue. The 160-page hardcover edition for Warp and Weft Painting includes a foreword by Wertheimer, biographical notes on the artist, three essays on Stoyanov’s process, the context and the importance of her work, all in Hebrew and in English, plus 72 pages of photographs. This is no small endeavor.
“In each catalogue I try to have at least one other writer, besides myself. Then there’s the translation, the photography and the graphic design,” says Ofek. “But I always feel, with a new exhibition, that I’ve finished the work once I’ve written my article. Everything else is more technical.” She shrugs and laughs.
The Open Museum hosts two exhibitions each year, sometimes in conjunction with other venues. A previous exhibit, of screen-paintings by Izhar Patkin, was a joint effort with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It is set to travel to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the US later this year. Ofek acted as guest-curator of painter and sculptor Naftali Bezem’s current show in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Associate curator Tamar Hurvitz Livne has an important role in the museum, and of course there is input from Wertheimer.
“I agree with him that ‘skills’ are something you can’t ignore and they need to be emphasized,” says Ofek. “I think every exhibition that has been here, since the beginning, has reflected that. Meaning, it is something the artist creates with great personal skill, and a high level of technique. That’s something [Wertheimer] values and I really accept that.”
At the end of the summer, Warp and Weft Painting will move to the Open Museum in Omer. Next, there will be an exhibit of art produced in two print workshops, in Kibbutz Kabri and in Jerusalem, with 30 participating artists.There is a gallery talk with Sasha Stoyanov tomorrow, April 13, at 12 noon in the museum. Cost: NIS 40. See website for info.