Nature’s poet

The enigmatic Sigal Tsabari on self-portraits, horses and her grandmother’s kitchen towel.

painting of girl521 (photo credit: courtesy)
painting of girl521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Sigal Tsabari is an extremely puzzling woman. This article about her and her art should probably have been written by another woman, or at the very least, by a man who is less obtuse and has a greater understanding of human nature.
Tsabari is a figurative painter who paints realistic images of nature, landscapes and people. She was, in fact, one of two winners of the 2012 Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art, which awarded her $10,000 and a solo exhibition of her work at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, currently ongoing. Her paintings of horses grazing in a meadow look like, well, horses grazing in a meadow.
Portraits of her daughters look like her daughters, her rooftop vistas of Rishon Lezion look convincingly like rooftop vistas of Rishon Lezion, her renderings of louver windows look like virtual photographs of louver windows, and her late grandmother’s white-and-orange kitchen towel – which appears in many of her paintings – looks, I imagine, like the actual white-and-orange kitchen towel that Tsabari keeps in her studio, close to where she paints.
Her self-portraits, however, are rather hard to understand. At first glance they are frankly erotic. Her slim, toned, athletic-looking body is depicted realistically, sometimes clad only in the minimal clothing she wears in her studio when painting. Her arms are long and graceful; her bare legs are shapely and sleek. Her face, though, is another matter. In some of her paintings her face is blurred, while in others the features are distorted and disturbing. Her tongue is stuck out in many of her paintings, and not in a particularly appealing way.
In one painting, titled Winter Sketch (2011), Tsabari’s self-portrait is almost monstrous.
Asked why she paints herself like this, she replies, “When I look in the mirror, that’s what I see. I find more and more that people look at my paintings and say that I’m very tough with myself, that I make myself look ugly. But that’s what I see.” Asked if she likes herself, she says, “I express myself. I don’t ask myself if I like myself. It’s not an interesting question for me.
Also puzzling is what goes on in her mind while she paints. While most figurative and realist painters try to paint what they see, Tsabari says that she paints figuratively but sees things abstractly. “I feel that figurative painting and abstract painting is very close,” she says. “The way that I observe nature is always abstract. The result of this is something that becomes very realistic and figurative. It’s not because I think that is how a painting should be. It’s a kind of a natural relationship, how I observe, and then how I express my observation.”
So when asked if it all boils down to her perceiving things abstractly and then painting them realistically, she replies, “Of course! Always!” TSABARI IS not only interesting, but comes from an interesting family.
Born 47 years ago and raised in Haifa, she was named after her grandfather, Joseph Segal, who according to family tradition was a relative of painter Marc Chagall (né Moishe Segal). Tsabari’s grandparents were among the founders of Haifa’s Ahuza neighborhood. Their son, Yedidia – Tsabari’s uncle – was a member of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi, and was tortured and murdered by members of the rival Hagana. Tsabari explains that this was around the time that the Hagana fired on and sank the Altalena, a ship bearing arms for the Irgun, which also had caches of weapons stored in her grandparents’ house in Haifa. Haggai Segal, right-wing author and columnist, is her cousin.
Asked if her family’s dramatic history is in any way relevant to her art, Tsabari replies, “I’m not sure that it’s relevant in terms of my art, but it is certainly relevant to my feelings. Because I feel that with the tradition of my family, I belong to this country so much that I can’t imagine any different way to live. My whole nature is about this place. As far as my art is concerned, it involves certain motifs, like my grandmother’s towel. I keep it in my studio.
“Truthfully, though, I feel more connected to things that I heard about in stories, about how my grandma and grandfather were planting trees in Ahuza, in Haifa. The nature, the beauty in Haifa… they did it for me. That is more relevant to me.”
Asked if she harbors any interest in politics – coming as she does from a political family – she says, “No, not at all. But I am proud of my family.”
So when did she know that she wanted to paint? “I didn’t know. Art just came into my life, sometime during my teenage years,” Tsabari recalls. “I was playing music before I was painting. I was playing the piano from the age of nine, and at 16 years old – the same time that painting came into my life – I was playing the flute. The flute came into my life, and that was much stronger for me than the piano. Because the flute is a kind of melody instrument which is kind of like your soul, and it was much closer to my personality. Then I was playing in an orchestra the same time I was studying painting.
“You know, my family tells me that I was always kind of different. But I don’t see this. I just feel that for all these years, I’ve always done what I love to do.
The only conflict was deciding where to commit myself, to the music or to the painting. This was a very difficult decision for me, which I finally made when I was 33 years old. I left the flute, I left teaching the flute, I left my flute teacher – and devoted myself to painting.”
TSABARI’S CURRENT exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art – part of her award from winning the Haim Shiff Prize – is called “Hymn of Weeds.”
“There are many ways to understand this name,” she explains. “First, the nature: something not deliberately planted, but just appearing naturally. It’s also about a shepherd having to listen to the song of the weeds in order to properly care for his sheep. It’s also about loneliness. It’s also like a nigun, a song of prayer.”
Aside from several self-portraits – erotic from the neck down and disturbing from the neck up – the show features many paintings that celebrate nature and the natural environment. Exhibition curator Dr. Doron Lurie has in fact dubbed Tsabari “nature’s poet.” Will she now let this designation define her as an artist and influence her future work? “No, not at all. I find the term very complimentary, maybe over-complimentary. But when I paint, nothing outside has any effect on me. All that’s there for me is what’s right around me,” she says.
Several of her paintings depict horses, including a miniature study of horses grazing in a meadow – which is barely larger than an iPhone, and which Tsabari says is her favorite piece in the exhibition.
“I didn’t know I could paint something so small,” she explains. “It’s a lot more difficult than to work on a big canvas. Just looking at it, you lose the sense of how small the painting is. There’s a full landscape there, with foreground, background and middle ground, all there in the small canvas.”
Why so many paintings, as well as charcoal drawings, of horses? Tsabari explains, “The horses came from I dream I had, in 2004 or maybe 2005.
I had no relationship or connection to horses before the dream, and I don’t really have any today. I’m even afraid of them. But in my dream, the horse was huge and strong.
The landscape in the dream was very unique. One of my daughters was sitting in the midst of it. There were two sides to the landscape, separated by a big gap. On one side there were many, many people. And then the horse tried to jump from one mountain to the other one. He couldn’t do it his first two tries. On the third try, he tried so hard he did it. He jumped over the gap, over my daughter, who was sitting with one of my flute students.
“I told this dream to a psychologist and he told me the horse is me. I don’t know.
But my way of understanding things, of thinking about deep meanings, is to paint. It happens for me when I’m painting, never talking. Just when I paint, I know the thing. So I decided to get the answer to this dream, I had to paint.”
Tsabari bought a horse mannequin and tried to do drawings of it. She did one, she says, before deciding that she was not going to get her answer that way.
“A mannequin is not something alive, so I decided to paint horses from life. And then the dream no longer interested me. It was enough to sit with the horses.
I sit so long the horses don’t pay any attention to me. They ignore me. I have become interested in the existence of the horses themselves.”
So what is next for Tsabari, after her current exhibition? She mentions several pending projects, like the Jerusalem Printing Workshop, where she is a featured artist and will have an exhibition in the near future, but says finally, “I never think very much about what will happen next. I just want to be back in my quiet studio, working.”
“Hymn of Weeds” is on exhibit through November 23 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 27 Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, Tel Aviv. For opening hours and information: (03) 607- 7020;