In the beginning, there was just the sand and the Mediterranean sea and the promise of a life after the Holocaust. The young artist Jelena Stark made her way to Israel with her family, which had escaped German-occupied Sarajevo during the war. The year was 1949.
In 1952, renamed Ilana Shafir, she moved as a new wife and mother into a brand new home in Ashkelon, the ancient coastal town an hour south of Tel Aviv. It is to this house that I make my way during a trip to Israel, the house where for six decades she has grown and flourished as a mosaic artist of unequaled originality and craft. Simply put, there is no one else in the world who is doing quite what she is doing, as well as she is doing it, in the world of fine art mosaics. This is, for me, a pilgrimage.
I find her sitting at a table on the open porch of her Mediterranean-style home, a comfortable one-story spread surrounded on three sides by an intriguing garden. Her gardener, a young Jack Nicholson lookalike, is master of the outside domain defined by the fences on which her mosaic works hang. He is pruning and weeding a path that winds through a population of her three-dimensional ceramic creatures and rare plants that are equally fantastical.
“Who are these creatures you sculpt?” I ask Ilana in amazement, for they look like models for a science fiction film of the intergalactic genre.
“They are the result of my fantasy. I imagine they came from another planet and are watching what we do here on this earth,” she says without blinking, as she strokes a favorite ceramic figure crouching on a dresser. “They are friendly and have good intentions. They have different personalities. I love them very much.”
At 89 -1/2, Ilana Shafir is white haired and frail, but her eyes are lucid and she speaks English haltingly but well.
“Mentally I'm fit and I work with no problem, but walking is now a problem for me,” she says, gripping her walker. “Age is coming and I need more help than in the past. But I don’t need someone to keep me company. I like to be lonely.”
She may have meant “alone.” Or maybe not.
Help comes in the form of housework, gardening, and lifting heavy things. But in the work she does tirelessly, day after day, even cutting stone, “No help -- ever! Cutting is not a difficulty. Only time is a difficulty -- to have enough.”
How much time is enough to absorb the blows of history and to strike your own in order to balance out your fate? Even after all these years, “I use every free time that I have,” she says.
Ilana Shafir was artistic from a very young age. Born into a Jewish family in 1924, her world was full of culture and multiethnic stimuli.
“Sarajevo was like Constantinople: on every every corner you had the mosque. I learned with children from Muslim families and from orthodox Christian families, and from the Catholic -- in Sarajevo everybody had another religion. Living in peace! And we were invited to every holiday, to two Christmases -- one Catholic and one Orthodox, and the Muslim holidays. They came to us, too, and everything was very smooth. It could be the best example of all people living together. But you never know what will develop.”
Everything changed with the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia. Her early studies in the high school of architecture were interrupted. The situation became so dangerous that her father, a railroad engineer, planned their escape.
“My father decided we’d leave Sarajevo secretly, and that we’d go to the station and read books, not looking at one another, like strangers, so we would not be recognized as a family leaving. Our papers were not legal; we were under big stress. It would be four, five hours on the train until we reached the Italian Occupied area, where we would be safe,” she recounts, as if it were yesterday.
“Then one moment the train stopped, and they said we could not continue because the partisans had demolished all the bridges. So everyone gets out, and we are in the middle of some deserted place, still in the German Occupied zone, not knowing where to go. It was very dangerous.Then along comes a worker from the railroad who said, ‘We have organized at the bridges that somebody will take you out. There will be workers who will transport you with some vehicle on the road, then you will come to the next bridge and so on.’
“You know,” Shafir confides, “to arrange something like this, in a country where normally when people will say they’ll be there at 4, they are still not there at 7 --- how can this work? But at every bridge there were railroad people waiting for us, taking our things and going around another way. We do not know who these people were. We could hardly say thank you. When we come to the Italian territory -- again we had help. Things that you cannot imagine will be. I have no explanation for it. But it happened. You can only say that this a miracle.”
I can’t find it in me to tell her that it was the railroad workers union, and the Resistance, whose planning and execution of escapes were legendary in France and apparently Yugoslavia too. I can understand that at 17 it seemed like a miracle to her. But you don’t contradict a nearly-90 year old woman, nor her memories.
The family rode out the rest of the war in Kula, a small Yugoslavian village then under Italian rule. Again, they owed their lives to the ‘miraculous’ fact that not one individual chose to reveal their presence to any Nazi or pro-Fascist authorities. It was there that Ilana began to develop her skills, endlessly drawing and painting the faces of the villlagers of Kula. At the war’s end, she began her studies at the Zagreb Art Academy. Shortly after her graduation in 1949, the family emigrated to Israel along with two cousins who had survived the concentration camps.
"To come to Israel was freedom, and we are thinking, ‘this is a place where nobody will attack us because we are Jewish’,’” she recalls. “But my parents were broken. After the war they could not do anything. My father lost six sisters, with their families; they were all gone, and my mother lost two sisters and one brother. My father was the stronger one; my mother collapsed. Only in Ashkelon, they were happy again; they saw that we had our new families, and children, and there were other families speaking German as they did. It was a good time for them.”
Ilana’s transition to Israel stimulated her interest in portraiture. She responded to the environment by drawing and painting the faces of the new blend of nationalities and ethnicities she saw around her.
"Survivors and newcomers from every country: I had never seen Jews of this kind before. I was enthusiastic to see in every man a prophet, every woman a Queen of Sheba. They were so beautiful and so special, and I was fascinated,” she recalls.
And yet, deeply affected by the war, she drew the portraits in black and white.
“They were sad faces,” she admits without apology. “People said, ‘Nobody will buy pictures like that, faces like an old rabbi -- too sad.’ But this was the right moment in time to do it.”
And then, one day, in about 1960, she took a pen and ink and began to draw some paradisical landscapes, lush with natural imagery and Middle Eastern architectural forms. At about the same time, she began to experiment with the mosaic medium.
“And there I am until now,” she says. “I finished with the difficult memories. Israel was a very healing place.”
By 1968 her landscapes had bloomed with color. In 1972, she began to bring forth the ceramic creatures of her imagination. She became a dedicated art teacher and founded the Ashkelon Art Center, today a flourishing educational institution. Signs of her influence can be seen all over the city, from mosaic murals on public buildings to playgrounds displaying mosaics by her adult students. And still, day in and day out -- a widow now with her two grown children leading lives of their own -- she relentlessly pursues the intrinsic aesthetic dynamic that is the muse of all true artists.
The mosaics of Ilana Shafir are really indescribable, but I’ll give it a try: tactile rivulets of rough, natural materials flow in directions that seem more found than planned, suggesting but not insisting on things we can recognize. If it is the sea, it is about the movement of the sea; if it is a house or a temple, it is the essence of a temple, with visual patterns that speak of solidity, community and joy. Each work contains an incredible variety of unique pieces -- glowing chunks of colored glass; rocks cracked open to their inner mysteries; textured ceramic objects -- whose connections and arrangement somehow achieve wholeness. Her work is unique in the world of mosaics, very much her own, she agrees. What does she call it?
“Spontaneous mosaic.” Which is not strictly true, she says, but was a phrase given to describe her work at a lecture once in the mosaic mecca of Ravenna, Italy, and people have since adopted it.
What defines her method, she says, is that it is based on the materials she uses, not on an idea, or principles of composition, nor a style. Which is to say, not only rock, pebble, shell, glass, tile or ceramic, but what kind of rock or tile or glass: their essential qualities.
"The point of beginning is the material itself,” she says gravely. “You choose something that is speaking to you. This is the big point to learn: that every thing has its emanating strength or power, and it influences the one who is next to it."
The materials she uses are often very old, and have had a kind of ‘life’ before they came into her hands.
"Some of them were 300 years in the sea, or maybe they were in a household and were a part of a family, things like that.” And this history influences both the material itself and the thing that is -- she struggles to find the word -- "adjacent."
Finding the connections or relations between such a diversity of elements "is a very very long process,” she confirms, “and it goes very slowly, so I am concentrated for a year or more on one mosaic. During this time I am completely into this world and I always find new things; however long it takes, I find this [process] very interesting. For my work you do not need patience because you are always discovering something new."
For the next ten minutes we sit in silence as I watch her sort through a table crowded with potential elements for a new mosaic that seems full of light. As she places one stone consciously next to another, I watch her falling through the timeless portal of her creativity.
And then I bring her back. Does she ever ponder what Israel has become today, I ask. She looks up at me, as if gauging my capacity to understand.
“The problems are huge. People talk, but if you come into the problem, it has another face. It is not simple,” she says. “I have no good ideas for how to solve these problems.”
But she has some sense of their origins. Her father, she explains, was a Zionist student in Europe, and like many of his peers he eventually came to Israel.
“But nobody could imagine the other problem. They had not seen it. They were sure that here [in Israel] are native people; they thought that we will train them, we will teach them moden agriculture and we will give education to their children, and they will be very grateful for this, no? Nobody could imagine what really happened.The war of independence -- it was a miracle that we won. And until now you have the residue of this war, because they could not accept that they were not the winning party. They are very very complicated questions.”
Had her family had any interactions with the Arab population early on, and had that changed as Ashkelon grew from the sandy seaside village with crumbling ancient ruins, to the modern Jewish commuter suburb that it is today?
No, she says, she has no interactions today. “When I came, I barely realized that they existed. In my time there were some Arab families living in town of Migdal, now a neighborhood. They left because they were sure that the Israelis would treat them the way they would treat the Israelis if they were the victim. There were only two famiies left and they were good friends of my son, and their children were together in the schools. So there was no problem with them at all. The problems,” she says, “are artificial.”
She adds that in her view, “only commerce can be the factor (that) unites the parties. Because if you have commercial interests, you do not go to make a war. But we are not yet at this point. It will take time.”
Again, the refrain of time. How much time will be enough to get there?
“There are many people who try, and I hope they will find the way. I am always optimistic,” she says, “because otherwise I would not survive.”
Mosaic is widely understood as the art of putting things together, sometimes shattered things, sometimes things that have been deliberately cut. I tell her that her work makes more sense than all those little miracles that mark her life like a meme, the work of finding in the slagpile of history the exact pieces whose connection results in harmony and new beginnings.
“I imagine that all of them are happy pieces,” she affirms.
Shamelessly taking advantage of her experience, I share with her an iPhone photo of my own latest creation, a small mosaic on which I had worked very hard and for me represented a breakthrough in technical ability. She takes a quick glance.
“Ornamental,” she pronounces.
“It’s just an exercise,” I say, too quickly. “To work on my technique: cutting, form, line, color, flow.”
“These things are not so important. What matters,’ she says gently, “is feeling.”
Ilana Shafir has spoken. And my life as an artist, changed forever.