David Schmidt’s hauntingly beautiful exhibition “Mesirus Nefesh” about life in the Israel Defense Forces, featuring large digital prints and mixed-media collages, is on display at The Jerusalem Theatre’s Sherover foyer and left wing until August 30.
The exhibition’s name translates as “self-sacrifice,” although the artist calls it “On the Line.”
According to curator Batsheva Ida, the viewer is confronted with “a difficult reality.”
The “IDF soldiers, a source of heroic and national aspirations, are seen at moments of fragility and compassion,” she says.
Ida compares the artist’s methods to those of Kurt Schwitters and Josef Beuys, and to the 1920 iconic tower of Vladimer Tatlin – in their “monumentality.”
“When my sons were in the IDF, they’d come home for Shabbos,” says Schmidt. “After Shoshana laundered their uniforms, and they dried, I photographed the material. I had stacks of swatches, in different tones.”Gesturing toward one of the collages, he says, “All these are individual pieces, and they give a real liveliness. So down to the core, these are soldiers.”
He would take a piece of foam board, called “kappa,” and start pinning on pieces until he had the shape and the expression of the figure that he wanted. Then he would glue the work and cover it with glass.
It’s clear that every single work here has a story behind it, and he shares some of them with me.
“This one is called Achi, (My Brother),” Schmidt says, recounting how “One Friday afternoon I was sitting up there on the balcony of the theater, having a cup of coffee, and I looked down here, and there were people gathered around this picture. And they were listening to their cellphones. I came down and I asked them, ‘What are you looking at?’
“They said, ‘This picture!’”
“I asked, ‘What do you like about this particular picture?’
“They said, ‘They’re talking about it all over the news! There were two soldiers who were struck by a pipe bomb in Jenin. And they couldn’t get out. And they were hoping for the medics to arrive. And they were holding each other together. How did you get enough information to make the picture so quickly?’”
Schmidt had created Achi in 2016. “Nothing changes in Israel,” he says.
He points at The Edge of Night. “In this one,” he says, “the soldier is walking along on graphic lines. From his perspective, he’s asleep. This happened to one of my grandsons and one of my sons. They had night hikes. The colors are all very quiet and he’s falling asleep, so he is in a different reality.”
Schmidt draws my attention to a work called Davening at Dawn in the Judean Hills.
“This was positioned by the curator in the center of the wall,” he says. “It speaks for the exhibition.”
THE BACKGROUND to the work called Bereavement “is that a soldier was in the tank corps and was shot by what’s called ‘friendly fire.’ One of the other guys in the unit thought everything was safe and gave the go-ahead to start cleaning the tank, and everything wasn’t safe. It’s awful, awful, awful for everybody. This was an expression of bereavement. I believe this would have been his feeling.”
We gaze together at a collage called The Hidden Tzadik.
Shoshana Schmidt explains that “since a tzadik is so at one with God, he doesn’t have a solidity but has a small ego. As a play on that, David made him transparent. You can see through his torso.”
“If you look for a while, you’ll be struck by two things,” Schmidt says. “One, this is a Ford pickup truck. You’re looking right through him so he doesn’t have the kind of solidity, physicality, that we have. People walk by this and they stop and say he has such a sweet face. It’s made up of scores of little pieces of paper. I kept adjusting it and adjusting it, so he ended up with the sweetest face in the world. Yet he has a nice big gun. He can’t be too sweet in Israel.”
Another piece is called The Agony of Staying Awake. It is about guard duty. “The most hated job in the army,” says Schmidt, “but it’s very high stakes because if you fall asleep, people can get killed. The whole base could be overrun.”
Schmidt points out a painting he calls And David Carried a Sword. “This is the first picture of my new series, which is on fathers and sons. I believe that it’s very important to have a strong, confident father in the house.” There are photos inlaid in the collage, which Scmidt says are those of his son and his grandson.
“The picture itself is a real story of how collage works. I worked on that picture for several days. And, at a particular point, I just knew it wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t make it happen. I started ripping the papers off. I had no intention of saving it.
“And then – this is the advantage of being a watercolor painter – you rip it all off and then all of a sudden, you see there’s something there. And when I saw there was something there, I added the sword and the gun and it was done. And before that, 10 minutes before that, I had nothing.”
He also has collages called First Responders, Rage, The Road to Jericho, Don’t Ask What I’m Feeling, and others. One of the collages, called Shattered Hand, is about his son Ari, who was shot in Ramallah a number of years ago.
“His hand was shattered. He had four surgeries, and they didn’t know what to do. And it was just getting worse, more painful, and more infected. He came to me one day and his hand really hurt. But it was all wrapped up, you couldn’t see what was going on.
“I unwrapped it, and it was some shade of blue. So we immediately went back to his base. I told him I was going to tell them that I was going to take him out of there and put him somewhere where they could help him.
“He said, ‘They’ll never let you because the army has their way and they have their medics.’ I said, ‘Believe me, they’ll let me do this.’ When I told them what I was going to do, they blessed it. They couldn’t do anything more for him.
“I found the most prominent hand surgeon in Israel, Dr. Carole Pidhorz. And she put him in a gurney outside her office door and gave him an IV drip for the infection. When the infection was over, she said, ‘We’re going to send him home now. We’ve done what we can.’”
Shoshana adds: “Ari was shot, survived, thrived, went back to school during COVID, and is now in hi-tech.”
Says David: “I come here, to the theater and I go further up, to the highest level, and I look down at this space, and I think: How did I get here? That’s why I’m working on the next step because I can’t drop the ball at this point.”ww
Schmidt calls the Jerusalem Theatre “an incredible place to exhibit.”
“This show will run until August 30; then I have to come up with my next act. And there are not many venues that can follow this one.”
He wrote to the culture minister, saying, “These pictures, which are so positive about the IDF, should continue to be exhibited; and since many them are prints, they can be shown in multiple places at one time.
“Soldiers with their big guns, men in black coats [haredim], men and women pushing strollers, new recruits, all soldiers from all wars, ’67, ’73, and until now, all stream through the studio.
“Many have never been in a studio before and don’t know what to expect, but in the studio – and now at the theater – there is no conflict between Left and Right, observant or secular, because ‘Mesirus Nefesh’ is about our best collective selves,” Schmidt wrote to the minister.
“Old men wipe away tears, explaining to their wives what it was like, the image of what they were never able to express in words. For them, the graphic language developed to express their experiences as a passport to a new world of communication. I would like very much to share the exhibit with you,” he ended.
Schmidt would like the Culture Ministry to sponsor this exhibit in multiple places throughout Israel, including in the Knesset.
Asked if “Mesirus Nefesh” will be shown somewhere sponsored by the IDF, Schmidt answers: “No, but they should.”
Among other reasons, he says, “because there are some pictures here, and I have others at the studio, of soldiers in wheelchairs. And it’s called ‘Getting Back in Action.’ This is a big push of theirs. They’ve decided talk therapy is not helping very much.”
As I walk from collage to collage, perusing the exquisitely haunting, moving images, as a wife, mother, and mother-in-law of soldiers past and present, I feel the tears well up. I cry, and feel hopeful and proud. ❖
The exhibition will be at the Jerusalem Theatre until August 30. David Schmidt’s gallery is in the city center at 31 Ben-Yehuda Street. Times of exhibition tours with the artist can be found at the theater’s website jerusalem-theatre.co.il. The artist’s website is davidschmidt.art.
“I’m walking down the street in Laguna Beach and this guy crosses the street in front of me, dressed very casually, and he says to me, ’Would you like to learn something about Jewish mysticism?’ I say, ‘Sure.’ He says, ‘Come on, the class starts in about 15 minutes.’ So I walked over, and I really liked it.
“Rabbi Elimelech Goorevitch had escaped from Russia with his family and had been sent to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York, for whom he became an emissary.
“When he came out to California, he didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language,” Schmidt says. “We helped him at the time to get a building and organize minyan.”
Schmidt tells how he began to attend a course on Sefer HaTanya (the mystical-philosophic work by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi). When he was “about halfway through the book,” he encouraged his wife to light Shabbat candles. She was not prepared to “do something if I don’t know what it means,” so she started learning with the rebbetzin.
“And no one moves faster than Shoshana,” Schmidt says.
In October 1993, only a year after she had koshered their kitchen at their home in Laguna Beach, one of its famous forest fires broke out, she explains.
“Two hundred houses burned, including ours. Everything was gone, even some of David’s paintings. The house we rented after the fire was closer to the Chabad shul, although a mile straight up a huge hill. The area was called ‘Top of the World.’”
Shoshana retells the story of how “the Chabad rabbi said to my husband, ‘If you walk down the hill to shul, after Kiddush, I will walk up with you.’ This is when we became shomer Shabbos [Shabbat observant]. The rabbi and his wife rejuvenated the Laguna Beach Jewish community.”
The Schmidts made aliyah to the Old City of Jerusalem in 1996. David credits Shoshana with urging them to make the move.
After 27 years in the Rova (the Jewish Quarter), they moved to Rehavia. In the meantime, he was flying back and forth to his business in America.
Two of the Schmidt sons served in the army, one in shiryon (tanks) and the other in palchan (a unit that studies explosives and goes before others to determine if there are land mines or bombs in times of war and on special missions, and goes into Arab villages to arrest terrorists). Schmidt says with pride, “Each year they would select one person from each of their units to compete against each other in krav maga, and he came in first two years in a row.” Schmidt also has a grandson who was in Egoz, one of the Special Forces.
Four of their five children now live in Israel. A married son and a married daughter live in Beit Shemesh with their families, and another married son and his family are in Tekoa. Another daughter returned to Laguna Beach, where she is a personal trainer and author. One son lives with his wife in Nachlaot and is a mixed martial arts and krav maga instructor.
In the beginning
David Schmidt got his degree in fine arts at UCLA Fine Arts in the mid-1960s. Like many other alumni and professors, he rented a studio in Venice, California, right off the coast, and sold his art to people coming to look for the next big success. The artists did very well.
In 1969 he met his wife, Shoshana, and they got married on the beach at sunset. They lived in Spain for a number of months until Schmidt’s father became very ill. After his father’s passing, Schmidt had to deal with his own autoimmune illness for a year and a half.
“When I ‘woke up,’ so to speak, from being sick, my wife reminded me that I needed a job. So, I looked in the phone book. The only thing I’d ever done up until then, other than painting, was teaching some art classes in Watts.
“I got to this section in the Yellow Pages that said, ‘Help you find a job.’ And there were two sections. One was executive placement and the other was physical work. I said, well, I’d rather be an executive, so I applied at one of the biggest executive search firms in California. When I got that job I got a haircut, put on a suit… In two years, they folded, and I opened my own firm.
“By the time I stopped doing that, after about 20 years, I had one of the most important executive search firms in the United States. We dealt only with the most senior people in America. If they were in academia, they were aspiring Nobel laureates. If they were in the government, they were at the very least an undersecretary.”
After being a successful businessman for 20 years, Shoshana told him, “Come home to the studio and start doing that again.”
Today, Schmidt is still a senior adviser in that executive search firm, called Insight, where his son Aaron is now president and CEO.
When David flew to New York or Washington, he would pack a plywood panel at the bottom of the suitcase, stretch watercolor paper on it, take a camel hair brush (Winsor & Newton number 10, “the best”), a tube of ultramarine blue paint, and Archer’s 140-pound paper. For several months, he would use just one color.
“I wasn’t trying to paint objects. I was trying to get back the feel of the wetness of the paper and how thick the pigment has to be. I did this night after night until I could control the flow of the wetness of the paper.
“Then after several months, I added Cadmium Red. And when I got back to the Old City, I could spend more time with art.” He has 20 little watercolor pictures on a stand. They’re called The Days of Creation. “I could have sold those 10 times over. But I can’t reproduce them, so I didn’t want to sell them.”
For his artworks, Schmidt makes most of his glue himself, from a mixture of flour and water.
“I tried every sophisticated plastic base glue on the market. And a very old-time framer, a friend of mine, came to the studio one day and said, ’I’ve been using flour and water for 60 years.’”
The writer is an award-winning journalist, director of Raise Your Spirits Theatre, Mikva the Musical, the Na’na and Hamra Playback Theaters, and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com