Touch and feel the Negev

The art in and of the Negev is palpable at The Artists' House in Beersheba.

negev feat 88 298 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
negev feat 88 298
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Be careful to phrase it right: The Artists' House of the Negev - "Beit Ha'omanim b'Negev" - isn't intended to mean that the artists themselves are from the Negev - although most are, or did at one time live in the South. What the title really means to convey is that the Negev itself is the subject of the artwork. Everything in each of the seven rooms of the recently opened Artists' House is made of materials found in the Negev or reflects in some way Israel's southern wilderness. Be careful not to call it a gallery, either. "A gallery is a place where art is displayed," says creator and curator Yehudit Mayer. "The Artists' House isn't just a show place. It's a home, an artists' home. Every room is filled with growth, life and action. Go ahead - reach out and touch. Here you can feel the Negev, not just see it." Mayer's own work is a perfect example. One of Israel's most respected ceramists, all her clays and glazes come from the Negev. "I make periodic expeditions to gather materials," she says. "My clay comes from several different spots. I blend different tones and textures from different sites to create the look I want. An olive-colored glaze I love comes from oxides found in Amudei Amram. My black oxide comes from the Timna mines." The idea for the Artists' House originated with a visitor to Mayer's own popular ceramic workshop. "For many years, I'd open my studio right before the holidays. Other artists would join me, and we'd invite the public. Three years ago, someone said at our pre-Rosh Hashana open house, 'It's too bad you don't have a place that could be open all year round.' That's when I started to think about establishing a permanent home for art from the Negev," says Mayer. The house at 55 Rehov Ha'avot in Beersheba's Old City became available. It is an airy, light-filled Mandate-era buildingon a tree-lined street. Each room is filled with all kinds of artwork - paintings, ceramics, sculptures, weaving, woodcarvings, wearable art and more - all featuring some element of the land mass that constitutes 67% of Israel. One of the most unique aspects of the Artists' House is the strategically organized arrangements. The work of all 28 participating artists is mixed and blended in the rooms. "No one artist has a defined space," says Daniella Meller, a painter whose work appears in different combinations in several rooms. "We didn't want a painter, for example, to have a wall all to herself. Mixing weaving, paintings and ceramics allows a visitor to see how each item plays off other pieces. Because the theme of everything is the Negev, each piece enhances the others." It's fascinating to see similarities between the various works. A jagged line that defines one of Meller's paintings is echoed in a nearby weaving, and jumps out again in a piece of sculpture. "In a painting, it might be the crest of a ridge," Meller says. "In the weaving, it's traced by color. In the sculpture, the same shape appears over and over. Each in its own way reflects the colors, texture, subjects and shapes of the desert. We display a few photographs that were taken elsewhere, but you can see that the artist's perspective was formed by the Negev." The ethnicities of Negev dwellers are all represented - Beduin and Jews of every country of origin. In one room, colorful, intricate Beduin embroidered wall hangings set off an Ethiopian statue of a woman holding a child under one arm and a goat under the other. Set on the floor looking up, a ceramic statue by an artist called Simon portrays a laughing Russian peasant who may be enjoying another of Simon's creations, an 80-cm donkey who looks real enough to bray. On the opposite wall hangs a weaving by Ilana depicting a queue of human legs and feet, standing in a line. It also has a red bow, the artist's trademark. Once you learn that Ilana is a Holocaust survivor, the line of legs and feet suggests an entirely different scenario. Depictions of the women of the Negev are common throughout. Many, like those of artist Suzanne Eilat, show strong women, earth mothers who look as through they could work the fields, haul water and nurse the baby all at the same time. This theme repeats itself in sculptures and paintings. In the largest of the display rooms, two paintings by Dyna Melamed occupy a central area. The complementary canvases reflect two seasons in the Negev: The first, mostly in warm orange or sandy tones, suggests the Negev's arid summer; the other, with bursts of blues and turquoise, evokes winter when vegetation appears. Melamed's colors are echoed in reverse on an opposing wall, in a floor-to-ceiling triptych by Daniella Meller. Her reproduction of ancient engravings she found on black rocks in the Negev repeats and expands Melamed's theme. The primitive drawings, reproduced in sandy orange against a dark background, allow ancient dwellers of the Negev - whoever they might have been - to tell their own story. A few meters away, a large abstract painting by Israeli artist Abraham Lucki dominates one wall. Utilizing geometric forms and shapes, his work mirrors the colors of the Negev - orange, burnt sienna, brown, yellow and green. Like several of the other artists, Lucki lives in Kibbutz Hatzerim. His art, he says, is his attempt to understand the Negev by recreating the essence of the wilderness. His paintings range from abstract to others in which lines suggest a Beduin tent, an ancient ruin or a local building. The fragile artwork of Laura Behar of Metar is under glass. She makes her own paper, using the inside layer of local tree bark which is then boiled, soaked, screened and dried flat. Her art does not only reflect the Negev, it is the Negev. Artwork from Tatreez Al-Badia', the Center for Beduin Embroidery, is scattered throughout. The center is located in the Beduin village of Lakiya, where exquisite rugs and crafts, both decorative items and more practical ones like tote bags and pillow covers, are fashioned. Each item was created by Beduin women on traditional ground looms, using pure local wool. The embroidery center began as an income generating project, but demand for authentic crafts has inspired an interesting side effect in the cultural revival of ancient Beduin techniques and designs. The Artists' House itself is still a work in progress. "Eventually 40 artists will be featured," says Mayer. "Our range will continue to grow. We're adding a coffee house and have begun a lecture series where artists talk about their work or demonstrate techniques. Landscaping our outdoor lawn area is another project - we'll create interesting places to relax outdoors and show outdoor sculptures. Our goal is to allow everyone to reach out and touch the Negev." The Artists' House is open free to the public Monday to Thursday, 10 am to 2 p.m., and Friday and Shabbat from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Call (08) 627-3828 for further details.