A soaring success

Welding engineer Leonid Feigenson has won acclaim with his invention – sculpting steel rods into monolithic, solid forms. And his town of Bat Yam is reaping the rewards.

New directions. Leonid Feigenson (photo credit: Courtesy )
New directions. Leonid Feigenson
(photo credit: Courtesy )
It all began with seven headless geese. When the painted plaster birds on the lawn in front of the dolphin-decorated fountain at an eastern entrance to Bat Yam were vandalized yet again in the spring of 2008, Leonid Feigenson, a welding engineer employed by the city’s Maintenance and Construction Department, was asked to help produce sturdier figures.
Feigenson, then in his late sixties, had no idea the task was going to open a new chapter in his life.
He had started shaping a goose outline from metal when suddenly he had a revelation: “It dawned on me that I could make a three-dimensional figure,” he recalls. “I got so carried away I could think of nothing else.”
Feigenson came up with an original way of welding metal into monolithic, solid forms. Enlisting the help of a professional artist, Boris Kotlyar, he made an elegant one-meter-high sculpture of a crane, a bird he found more poetic than a goose.
That crane was so lovely that Bat Yam Mayor Shlomi Lahiani said it would be stolen outdoors; so instead, it landed on a tiled pedestal in the safety of the municipality’s entrance hall.
For the lawn in front of the fountain, Feigenson – with Kotlyar’s help and design – created three abstract sculptures: metal outlines suggesting cranes. But having worked with metal all his life, he couldn’t get his mind off the unique texture of his three-dimensional crane.
Though he had previously harbored no artistic ambitions, he started dreaming of applying his newly invented method in a monumental sculpture: He and Kotlyar proposed making a large figure of a surfer, to be installed on the Bat Yam promenade.
Kotlyar was initially skeptical: sculptors generally start out with a block of, say, marble, from which they remove excess material; Feigenson’s method of doing the opposite – starting from scratch to build up a figure from metal rods – is technically much more daunting.
“At first I thought it was undoable on a large scale, but Leonid was so enthusiastic I couldn’t refuse,” Kotlyar says. He created a small plasticine model, and Feigenson, with his guidance, set about scaling it up in steel more than 10-fold.
For Feigenson, the work on the surfer became an obsession. As artists do, he lost sleep, often staying in the workshop past midnight, only to wake up at 5 the following morning, with fresh thoughts about getting the stubborn metal to obey his design.
An athletic former weight lifter, he wasn’t worn out – on the contrary: He describes the nearly year and a half it took him to make the 3.5 meter sculpture, composed of steel welded by 5 kilometers of seams, as a period of tremendous elation.
“It was an excitement I’d never known before,” he says. “I created this sculpture in a single breath. But it was such a huge job, looking at it now I can’t believe I actually made it.”
Completed in December, the surfer must now ride out its ultimate storm. It was slated to be installed at an observation point on the Bat Yam promenade, with benches overlooking a popular surfing beach, but that part of the embankment was destroyed in the storms that ravaged the coastline in January.
As a result, rather than towering against the backdrop of the sea for the enjoyment of the general public, the surfer still greets employees and visitors of the municipality’s Maintenance and Construction Department.
According to the Spokesperson’s Office of the Bat Yam municipality, as soon as the promenade is renovated, an appropriate spot for the sculpture will be found.
Rehovot sculptor Luisa Sternstein, who saw the surfer, was astonished. Creating monumental sculptures normally takes years of training, she says.
“Even professional sculptors don’t always manage to accomplish what Feigenson has done,” enthuses Sternstein, herself the creator of a number of monumental sculptures, including one at the ghetto memorial in Lvov, Ukraine.
She was so taken with Feigenson’s rod-welding method that she asked him to make a new version of one of her own sculptures for an upcoming exhibition.
“His feeling for shape and composition is truly amazing,” she says. “He’s a natural.”
THE ORIGINS of creativity are always somewhat mysterious, but in Feigenson’s case, they seem particularly so.
His childhood, in the shadow of World War II, was unusually harsh, leaving no room for the nurturing of any sort of talent.
As a three-year-old, he had survived the more than two-year Siege of Leningrad, which nearly achieved Hitler’s goal of starving the city into submission. His father had been killed on the front.
In the postwar years in Moscow, he shared a single room with his mother, stepfather and two new brothers.
He was then drafted into the Soviet Army, serving in a missile unit – the same missiles that in 1959, the year Feigenson joined, were for the first time wheeled through Moscow’s Red Square in a military parade, creating one of the Cold War’s most iconic images.
In his youth, Feigenson’s creative streak made itself apparent when, in ninth grade, he outfitted his school with a radio network. So his stepfather suggested that he enroll in a college for decorative art.
“I decided against it because the students there had to wear ugly proletarian uniforms,” Feigenson recalls.
Ultimately, however, he became a welding engineer.
In this profession, his creativity expressed itself in his constant engagement with inventions and innovations; for nearly two decades, he was in charge of introducing new technologies at an Energy Ministry industrial research plan, which employed 500 welders.
When grassroots anti-Semitism became rampant under the declining Soviet regime – “Yids get out of Russia!” leaflets started turning up in mailboxes – Feigenson decided to move to Israel with his wife and two children. After making aliya in 1990, he worked as a welder for the Bat Yam municipality for 18 years.
He was always brimming with ideas. One of his initiatives for the municipality was to build an awning for the chess players who used to gather on the seaside in scorching sunlight.
“They brought along umbrellas, but they could barely protect themselves from the sun,” he says.
With his design, the municipality created an outdoor chess meeting place: tables and benches shaded by a 15-meter-long shelter on the Bat Yam promenade.
That project was completed several years before Feigenson was to venture into three-dimensional sculpture, but it marked the beginning of his artistic collaboration with Kotlyar.
Near the awning stands the first sculpture they produced together: the metal outline of a chess player contemplating his next move in the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker, next to the outline of an oversize chess knight.
Feigenson’s obsession with sculpture, however, was to begin only later, when he invented his method for welding threedimensional figures.
In November, Feigenson was named a yakir klita (“distinguished immigrant”) of Bat Yam for his artistic work on behalf of the city. He was one of six city residents thus honored for their contribution to the community at a ceremony marking 20 years since the latest wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. The award was given to him as a sculptor, in the art category.
Now retired at 71, Feigenson is as busy as ever thinking up new projects, in line with the improvements that have transformed Bat Yam’s appearance in the past few years. Naturally, his thoughts turn to sculpture. His dream: to create an entire sculpture garden in Bat Yam, populated by animated and fairy-tale characters.
Pondering the sources of his sudden artistic inspiration, he believes it must have run in the family.
After World War II, an aunt had given him a box of oil paint tubes, dried out after years of disuse: the only memento of his father, killed when Feigenson was two.
“I know virtually nothing about my father: by the time I was old enough to inquire about him, there was no one left to ask,” he says.
He never learned why his father had owned the paints. But they do hint at the father’s untapped talent, which now, several decades later in a faraway land, has so unexpectedly burst through in the son.