Berkeley, diaspora artists see…light in Israeli desert

In the Judean Desert, there aren't many art supply stores.

And the closest film-processing dropoff to Arad, a small town situated between Masada and the Dead Sea, is miles beyond the nearest gas station.

But for Peter Allen of Berkeley and 10 other Jewish artists from the diaspora, Arad was both their home and creative center for seven months this year. At a cost of $2,000, not including airfare, each artist was provided with a studio in the Arad Artists Colony, as well as lodgings and all the facilities and services of WUJS, a nonprofit organization supported by the Jewish Agency and other Israeli agencies.

For the seven-month period, the artists learned to make do without easy access to the resources that usually sustain their inspiration.

Instead, participants in the Arad Arts Project of the World Union of Jewish Students, now in its fifth year, had the opportunity to pursue their art in alternative ways and to contemplate aliyah.

Working in the visual, performing and literary arts, the artists combined their work with classes in Hebrew, Israel and Judaica. They also had access to seminars, field trips and employment searches.

Allen and his companion, Berkeley sculptor Lynne-Rachel Altman, recently decided to return to the Bay Area rather than make aliyah. The cultural transition and language barrier felt too great to overcome, Allen said. But he cherished the time to focus on his art and learn more about his heritage.

"Just being out in the desert, which is such an unusual place, is kind of nice," said Allen, whose fortés are photography, mixed media sculpture and printmaking, all of which he used to explore the jarring city-to-desert transition.

"You get this moonscape feeling just by walking 10 minutes outside of town. The colors and the way the light looks there is completely different," he said.

Of course, light is the most important factor in many visual artists' work. In the desert, Allen also incorporated broken terrazzo tiles — a popular floor covering for Israeli homes built during the1950s and '60s — into paint prints and art installations. Allen's works were shown in Israeli museums during the seven-month stay.

The town of Arad itself served as the subject for some of the art that Allen exhibited.

"What fascinates me are the edges of the city. One step off the last curb and you are in the desert. There is no sense of transition."

While the program administrators tried to accommodate the artists, Allen said that obtaining art supplies in the isolated town of 23,000 could be problematic. He used Polaroid film to avoid the hassles of film processing, and Altman switched from her usual glass, wood and metal sculpture to carving soap.

"We wanted to start a unique program that would encourage gifted professionals to seek out an Israel experience," said Clive Lessem, the project's former director and founder."

So far, about 40 of the program's participants have made aliyah, and there have been more than 100 showings worldwide of artists who have been involved with the project.

Each of the artists involved in the project took something different from it.

Louise Hardy, a painter from London, said the program gave her "the opportunity to learn new things and meet new people, and — most important for me — time to develop new ideas.

"We could participate in as many of the courses as we wished, but it was not a requirement. Our only obligation was to work at our art. In London, I work in the professional design field. Now I feel like an artist again."

For American journalist Shawn Cohen, the desert experience enabled him to branch out into other literary endeavors.

"At the beginning, the other members of the group could tell that I was a journalist," he said. "Now the poet in me has come out. The words seem to flow better, and that is a help, regardless of what I write."

"I came to Israel to look for a different place to work," said sculptor Laura Nova, also from the United States. "I had no intention of making aliyah or doing Jewish art.

"A few months ago, I went to a class to make challah. Suddenly, I realized the bread I was forming took the shape of a hand, and challah dough became my latest sculpting medium."

Allen, too, has returned with a new perspective. "The city and desert have influenced my art enormously and inspired me to use different materials and look at life differently."

Since returning to the Bay Area, Allen has continued to work with Polaroid film. He also has furthered his explorations of cultural identity, boundaries and borders by focusing on close-ups of body parts and by using light to illuminate only a portion of the image.

No matter which directions in which the program's participants now move, they "will be deeply influenced by their experiences in Israel," said Zeev Shafrir, the program's artistic director. "In essence, they will become artistic emissaries in their communities.

"If they decide to remain in Israel, WUJS will do everything it can to help them find work and to settle in. Undoubtedly, these young artisans have a great deal to contribute to our cultural life."