Israeli sculptors enigmatic Spirit adds imagination to Marin showcase home

A man approached a statue crafted by Israeli sculptor Yair Aharon at the Marin Designers Showcase, then turned to the artist.

"I see a Madonna-like figure," the man said. "Is that what I should be seeing?"

"Yes, there's a spiritual quality there," Aharon answered with equanimity. His piece, "Handing Spirit," greets visitors to the spectacular hilltop property in San Rafael, overlooking San Pablo Bay.

The sculpture's face is not defined "so people will use their imaginations," said Aharon. His work is based on a kabbalistic idea of bringing peace through physical movement.

Aharon is one of many talented artists, interior designers and others involved in this year's Marin Designers Showcase home, a major fund-raiser for the Volunteer Center of Marin Auxiliary. The theme is "Cape Cod Reflections."

This is the first time, however, that a grand-scale outdoor garden sculpture has been part of the execution. Its creation brought together three dynamic people from divergent parts of the Jewish world: auxiliary chair Barbara Schwartz, a Reform Jew; the lapsed but very spiritual Aharon; and grounds designer Shuli Madmone, an observant Sephardic Jew who belongs to Magain David Sephardim Congregation in San Francisco.

At an opening reception on Wednesday of last week, "the sculpture was lighted…and it was gorgeous," Schwartz said.

However, Schwartz allowed that she had balked when the piece first began to take shape. It is massive — almost as tall as the treetops overhead.

"Initially, my understanding was that there would be a small sculpture in the front. The reality was a huge surprise," she recalled. "Just the metal framing of the sculpture was there, and I said, 'We can't do this, this isn't part of our process.'

"Then I said, 'Oh, why not?' This is a huge home with a huge amount of property." The sculpture, she said, "turned out to be a wonderful conversation piece."

The body, is, on closer look, a hand — raised in the American Sign Language symbol for love, which is what sold Schwartz on the project.

"I worked with the hearing-impaired for years," she said. "Seeing that is what made me accept the work. That meant a lot to me."

Watching it develop was "a fun process," she added. "People would walk by and say, 'What does it mean? Where is it going?' "

Sculpted in dramatic reddish-gold stucco, "Handing Spirit" is already changing hue — as Aharon planned — because of sunlight.

Madmone, an Israeli transplant who had been hired to redo the grounds, brought in Aharon. The two men met while living together on a moshav in Israel's Negev and have remained close friends. Madmone now has a landscape design business in Marin.

"I asked him to come here because he's a very, very, good artist," Madmone said, adding that Aharon returned to Israel immediately after Yom Kippur. "He listened a lot to my idea, and then he came up with this. Yair's style is to surprise people."

Aharon's piece was an integral part of Madmone's vision for the grounds.

Although Madmone himself sees a perfect union of heart, body and spirit in the piece, "Yair would never go there," he said. "He'd just say, 'It works.'"

Madmone's garden boxes, which approximate Egyptian bas-reliefs, match the red-gold color of "Handing Spirit." .

Aharon, who spent about a month in Marin working on this project, is well-known in Israel. Shy and diminutive, he turns out to be a powerhouse: A former Israeli army officer, he founded Fruit of Peace, an artists group comprised of Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

The group produces exhibits in Jewish and Arab villages. In a year's time, it has grown from seven to 100 members.

Two weeks ago, Aharon, who has drifted far from his strict religious upbringing, joined Schwartz and Madmone for Shabbat at Madmone's home ,

"That was a first for me," said Schwartz, whose father, Sidney Rudy, helped found Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. "It was great. Shuli brings people together."

When the gates to the Designer Showcase opened last week, Aharon was already on a plane headed for Israel. Said Madmone: "He's not interested in America so much, but he's very, very interested in his art."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.