Vibrant silk lampshades display passion for Israel

All Michal Aviv wanted to do was to buy a hand-painted lampshade for a wedding gift. It was, after all, for sale. But the Israeli craftswoman who made it had her own agenda.

"You do it yourself," the artist told Aviv and refused to sell. The two women argued but the artist wouldn't budge. She was certain her fellow kibbutznik Aviv had untapped artistic talent and should create her own artwork.

Finally in frustration, Aviv grabbed the paper and paints the artist pushed on her, saying, "I'll show you I don't know how to paint."

But Aviv was wrong.

She could paint, and at 40 years old, discovered her talent and passion.

"For five or six hours every night after work I painted," said Aviv, who was then living on Neot Semadar, a kibbutz in the desert near Elat. Today, Aviv is a full-time silk artist, supporting herself through sales of hand-painted lampshades, scarves and other artwork.

On Sunday, May 17, Aviv's artwork will be on sale at the Virtual Israel Festival at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek.

And there's no need to worry. No one will refuse to take your money in exchange for a lampshade.

Aviv, who recently made a brief visit to the Bay Area, often uses Jewish symbols and scenes of Jerusalem on her vibrantly colored lampshades and scarves.

"When I paint Jerusalem, I feel like I take Jerusalem to the whole world," Aviv said in an interview at her brother's East Bay home. She added that she could express her emotion about Jerusalem much better in her native Hebrew. "I really love Jerusalem."

Before discovering her talent, Aviv studied chemistry and musicology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She worked as a chemist, teacher and flight attendant for El Al. She has also backpacked in the Far East and traveled around South America.

The Indian influence from her year in South America is apparent in some of her artwork.

Seven years ago, Aviv, along with about 100 other Israelis, founded Neot Semadar Kibbutz.

"People only talk about Zionism, but they're not doing anything about it," said Aviv. "We decided to leave everything and go to the desert to build a new way of life. To get away from materialism and live healthy and creative lives."

According to Aviv, these modern-day Zionists went to the best universities and had successful careers which they abandoned for a simpler life.

"It is very hard to start in a place where there's no water and [nothing has been] before, to have food and fulfill all your needs," said Aviv.

But it didn't take long before the kibbutz was self-sufficient. "It's very special to do it so fast," Aviv said of the kibbutz's prosperous seven-year existence.

The kibbutzniks grow their own organic vegetables and fruits, raise sheep and goats, make cheese, build their own homes and even have time to pursue their artistic endeavors. Currently they are in the process of designing and constructing a new communal building.

Aviv's passion for Jerusalem led her to leave the kibbutz about three years ago. She now lives on a moshav outside Jerusalem but visits Neot Semadar regularly.

"It's like a garden of God," Aviv said. "Every time I come I don't believe my eyes. They've planted trees all around — palm trees, olives, grapes. It's really beautiful."

Last summer, Aviv's brother, Nitzan Aviv, the shaliach (emissary) at the Jewish Federation for the Greater East Bay, brought a group of 80 East Bay teens to Israel. When the group arrived, she shared her talent with them. In a forest outside of Jerusalem she gave them silk, paints and enough instruction so they could paint their own scarves.

The teens signed their scarves, and Aviv took them home to do the finishing work. And now 80 East Bay residents wear art around their necks, reminders of an Israeli original.