Moshe Shek – sculptor, potter, and unusual investigative artist in the Israeli sculpture scene.
Moshe was born in Poland in 1936, in the city of Zamość, where a large community of Jews that had been expelled from Spain had resettled. The heart of this community with its ancient roots was the magnificent bedecked synagogue that they built which served as a warm meeting place for those who came there to pray daily and also for holidays and festivals – when the place would fill with the songs and the voices of the children. He was only three when the illusion of Poland as the homeland for Jewish culture dissipated. His father knew right away that he had to flee in order to save his family’s lives from devastation.
The war pursued them and yet it did not reach them. The entire country of Siberia is forests and snow, there they tried to survive in the intense cold, gathering wood for heating and searching for food. Different people, unknown to one another, worked together to conquer the hardships. The short summer arrived bringing with it hope. Forests were colored red with delicious raspberries, free for anyone who happened by to pick. They couldn’t stay in the same place for very long, as they had to keep wandering in order to improve their plight.
The road stretched further and further until they reached the beautiful city of Bukhara with its colorful palaces. There the family settled for a long period to rest and reenergize so they could prepare for what was to come next. Moshe, who had never had a formal education, was lucky to have come into this world with a talent and knowledge of the art of sculpture, and his personal, reflective and spiritual growth resulted in the development of a large all-embracing general knowledge and ability to find creative solutions in every field. Bukhara, boasted mud and straw houses with rooftop terraces where they would spend their time in the summer, local craftsmen with agile axes who created wooden combs, and skilled blacksmiths smelting iron in the fire with their leather bellows. The silkworm tenders wove threads that were immediately dipped into steaming boilers of paint in order to weave spectacular fabrics.
Moshe, witnessing this work, felt the body’s contact with the material and knew that there was no other way to live.
The war ended. They would not return to Poland and they continued wandering toward Palestine, the home they yearned for.
On the way they passed through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with their rivers and seas, and Turkmen tents. They crossed the Alps by foot and drove through Italy to the Mediterranean coast. There, an illegal ship awaited them, as the British government would not allow Jewish refugees to join their brothers in the Holy Land. The sea voyage ended in Cyprus where they met many exhausted refugees like themselves, who were idle and engaged in craftwork to keep themselves sane. Toys, candlesticks, lanterns, graters – all made from cans that they found abundantly there. Sculpture teachers gathered groups of art-loving students around them. Story tellers fascinated a yearning audience with stories of legends and miracles. A 10 year old Mosh Shek initiated a papier-mâché puppet theater; a popular theater in the camps.
1948. The State of Israel. Jaffa. The parents hope they have finally reached a safe haven and the end of their wanderings. They open an eatery where they serve Jewish food and it’s an intimate place where the area’s Yiddish speakers gather. Moshe joins the Jaffa branch of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. There he meets a friend of his age, a painter at the early stages of his artistic career, Abraham Ofek. Together they decorate the walls of the branch with paintings of the boats in Jaffa Port. There, too, a community of young people gather around a great, cosmic idea to settle in the land of the State of Israel and establish a new Kibbutz. Moreover, it is there that Moshe’s fate is determined, he sets his heart on a community life. He never regrets his choice and so it remains until his last day.
1952. The talented young man says goodbye to his parents and friends in Jaffa and goes to Jerusalem to study at the Bezalel Academy. There he meets well-known teachers who immediately notice his rare talent, but toward the end of the year he is asked by his Hashomer Hatzair friends in Jaffa to end his studies in Jerusalem and return to Jaffa to mentor a group of young members of the movement – to the chagrin of his teachers and parents.
He considered this a very important step on the road to building up his future community. In the meantime, he had already established his artistic worldview. His collection of art books that accompanied him everywhere inspired his soul’s thirst for knowledge. He also had a full understanding, to the extent that he could give a reasoned explanation for why something was done in a certain way and not in another way.
1955. Nahal gar’in (core group) and the military, participation in many acts of retaliation. He left his suitcase full of his art books as a deposit with his girlfriend, Shula, when he was drafted into the war – the notorious Sinai War.
1957. The heart’s desire of the Hashomer Hatzair youths becomes a reality. They establish Kibbutz Beit Nir in the Judean lowlands. The meeting between person and place has a decisive influence on Moshe Shek’s future as an artist. The Maresha hills, Tell es-Safi, and Jadeidi fascinate him. The area has not yet been explored, but he is already captivated by the magic of the place and begins exploring its latent secrets. He hikes alone and finds almost five hundred caves. The dreams of the landscapes of his youth are now returning. He finds secret worlds combined with the sound he was hoping for. A system of tunnels and caverns, full of surprises hewn into the soft rock, spread between different periods and emerging time and again for thousands of years.
Moshe finds fragments of early ceramics with the right adornments scattered whetver he goes. Moshe feels how, beyond the millennia that separates him from the creators of these decorations, they have the same freedom. “You can really reach out to the potter who made this out of clay,” he says in an interview to the “Al HaMishmar” newspaper. The shape and sound are attuned to the material, attentive to its qualities and whims.
Reflection and appreciation for man and his expertise, like the Bukhara market artists and craftsmen in the Cyprus camps. Caves in the Judean lowlands, the possible architecture, ways of contending with material, its ability to take on the role without collapsing. To stretch out a space to the furthermost of its ability to support the dome above it. The desire, and the longing to expand, to dare and the fear of collapse measure the limits of the material. The provisional encounter of artists who are familiar with the material, makers of tools and figurines. Who have relinquished elegance in favor of stability. An attempt to understand terraced tombstones, preserved rhythms and rock paintings, expressions in converstaions about volume, material, time, length and width, like a guide in the maze between form and content. Morals of the masters, “simplicity is not a goal simplicity is an achievement”.
1959. The wisdom of the craft, understanding the material and the sequence of time. Like many artists living in Israel, he tries to familiarize himself with the material and the laws that apply to it. Moshe sees in the daily newspaper a wood carving by Rudi Lehmann and immediately knows that he must study under this man. He must study wood carving under Rudi and nobody else. He has to be the grandson of a carpenter. Thus, in order to meet the standard, Moshe makes screws for wooden olive presses using an Arabic axe. Thus the journey begins. For twenty-seven years, Moses serves as an apprentice in Rudi Lehmann’s court.
Towards the end of the journey, a group of his students decide to establish a school of Judaism. Teaching Halacha and solutions for tools, which over years of experience are improved to the threshold of perfection. Perfection of function, material, weight, sound and fragrance of space. All these are our new culture. Now, in the Land of Israel, as opposed to the bookcase culture of the diaspora.
1961. In the early 1970s, Shek creates monumental sculptures in Kibbutz Beit Nir, Givat Haviva and Kibbutz Ein HaMifratz. Sculptures which are mainly zoomorphic in style – a cow, horse, owl, etc. They are made of iron, concrete and wood, and shaped in the spirit of popular cultures, in the spirit of his teacher, Rudi’s beit midrash (study hall), and in the spirit of sculptures such as Brâncuși and Chadwick; characterized by massive lumps, assimilating rich geometric figures with precise technical ability.
1973. Here and all throughout the 1980s he tries out different materials, the formative experience and toil he invested in getting to know the material made him an expert. Wooden sculptures made of mahogany with ancient motifs of tools that are basically totems. The wooden sculptures are all exhibited at the Baltman Gallery in Tel Aviv with his friends Rafi Mintz and Calman Shemi.
1975. At the beginning of the year an archaeological excavation is carried out in the Golan Gate area and an ancient culture is discovered there, the Yarmukian culture that existed there 7000-8000 years ago. The enthused and affected Moshe identifies with the ancient artists who etched lines on oblong basalt pebbles by hand and filled their living quarters with fertility goddesses and small altars made from clay. He keeps in touch and they inspire him to create 20 plaster sculptures of personal totems that exude magic and mystery. Along with the plaster sculptures he creates clay animals with concealed spaces inside of them, larger than what is revealed, like a subterranean cave with many tunnels and on the outside ostensibly essential and energetic disposable creatures that seem to have emerged from a ritual. Such a love for the material, such a search for a path, a creator who with the roots of his soul holds on to the simple lines of the animals.
Moshe paints geometric shapes on the animals using colored slip, inspired by ornate fragments of urns scattered around the area. The children of Kibbutz Beit Nir also paint on some of the animal sculptures expending plenty of imagination and great seriousness. The plaster sculptures and the animal sculptures are exhibited at the Holon Art Museum.
1977-1978. Shek is linked to Shemi, who is also one of Rudi Lehmann’s students, together using a unique technique they create artistic wall carpets, which are displayed in an exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater and in Tel Aviv – where the carpets are still hanging. Despite using synthetic wool to make the wall carpets, contrary to his adherence to using natural materials hitherto, Shek remains true to the themes of using archaic motifs for his creations and designs. One of these carpets remains hanging to ths day in the Presidential Palace in Cairo, a gift from Israel to President Sadat.
1980. Shek’s pottery work begins to take form under his quick and confident hands. Dozens are created. And, none is similar to another. The common thread is that they are all made using the same method, with a lightness and precision as though they had been written in a hidden code. Some of them tower, some are spherical, bowls of various sizes as well as cup-shaped creations, and the walls of all of them are astonishingly thin, a massive record in the use and understanding of clay. The pottery is exhibited in a large exhibition at the Tel Aviv Artists House.
1984. On the wall of the Kibbutz Beit Nir jewelry factory, where his wife Shula works, Shek sculptures out of concrete and plaster, a columbarium-like wall with perforations and bumps, a creation that constitutes a cultural continuation of the area to the site of Khazan Caves and the rock-hewn oil jug storage facility. He always associates with artists whose families have lived in Israel for many generations and who know the local materials for creating tools and objects and understand the spirit of time and rhythm.
1986. Moshe exhibits in the Kibbutz’s gallery, an exhibition of bowls and pottery using the pressing technique together with animals decorated with the children’s paintings.
1990. Two of Shek’s bronze statues are placed on the pedestrain promenade in Nahalat Shiva in Jerusalem, one is a deer and next to it is a turtle “that dreamed that it was a deer and whose legs became long”.
1992. The Tel Aviv Municipality placed a bronze bird-like statue with its upright tail and wings ready to soar on Merkaz Ba’alei Melaha Street in Tel Aviv.
1993. A bronze bird – like an eagle in action on the ground, was placed on Marmorek Street in Tel Aviv.
1992-1993. Two exhibitions, Shek’s bronze animals, are exhibited in succession at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art and the Wilfried Israel Museum in Kibbutz Hazorea.
1994. A statue of a clumsy bird, is erected on the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Mazeh Streets in Tel Aviv.
1994. Moshe Shek presents in a group exhibition “Israeli Sculpture in Tefen – The Last Decade”. Four of the bronze statues remain in the Sculpture Garden of the “Open Museum Tefen”. “Pipe”, “Bird”, “Deer” and “Horns”.
1994. Shek presents at the Eretz Israel Museum Pavilion – plates, vessels, and mainly clay animals. The exhibition is a great success and continues for six years, all catalogs are sold and an additional edition have to be printed. Ancient antiquities from the Early Bronze Age are exhibited adjacent to the exhibition, the connection is striking, the same forms, the same molded solutions, the same approach to texture and decoration.
1996. “Then I made one thousand plates”. What spurred me on are the potsherds I have collected for close to forty years, potsherds from the Early Islamic period. From around the sixth century to the ninth century. In Israel there was a tradition of decorated pots, the fragments can be found almost everywhere, the same shapes also appear on potsherds from the beginning of the ceramics. Forms that are an abstract interpretation of a shape, which have rhythmic scribbles. In the ninth century the vessels were covered with decorations, there was a kind of competition between the tool and the painted element. In the sixth century, vessels were adorned with one line. Beginning in the ninth century, anxiety of void spaces was evident, therefore all the empty surfaces were filled with embellishments. “I made a thousand plates, I thought that a cultural proposal should come in multiplicity”.
1997. Two bronze statues, a large deer and a bird, are placed in Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Garden Square.
1998. The municipality places a bronze deer statute in Ma’aleh Adumim.
1999. In the Vilnai Center, Ma’aleh Adumin – “Aircraft ” – bronze sculpture.
1999. A bronze statue of a cat is displayed for five years in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Opera House.
2002. A bronze “Deer” statue is placed in Givat Ze’ev in Jerusalem.
2003. Two large bronze abstract statues, the Totum Harbingers, are erected on the pedestrian mall in Herzliya.
2002-2003. The thousand plates exhibits in the large space of the artists’ workshops in Jaffa and is named “Potsherds” and later in the Wilfried Israel Museum in Kibbutz HaZore’a, named, “Traces”, this highlights another aspect of Shek’s art, alongside the dialogue with ancient ceramics. Shek talks often about rhythms and sounds that create the line and stain in nature and in life in general. This exhibition excels in its musicality. Each plate has its own rhythm and sound and a thousand plates create a powerfully resonant symphony and endless interpretations.
2004. The first Totems exhibition at the “Bineth” Gallery in Tel Aviv. A direct line is stretched between the totems to the animals and the pottery, which are in fact a type of totem in themselves: “The totem is the representative of the taboo, the supreme power, the creation, the god, the cosmos, the energy. The person wondering about the power of the universe is looking for a representative to identify with. The different cultures used humans’ yearning to shape something physically tangible in order to demonstrate the source of authority. Over the years, the cultures have adopted a form that expresses the existence of the taboo. These are the totems, the totems lead the idea, and sometimes they are completely abstract. In the Yarmukian culture it was pebbles with a groove, sometimes tangible and personified. In Christianity, statues of their saints. In Judaism, tefillin and mezuzah and the Western Wall are a material representation of the deity. They should not be treated as though they have powers of their own. From the Romans to Stalin, the totems were appointed to increase the leader’s power. The Roman emperors considered themselves gods, Stalin was both the totem and the taboo, its source of authority and symbol. Totemism is a real phenomenon arising from the person’s need to interpret reality. When the rulers were weakened they erected totems to strengthen their standing. The Hadera power station is ostensibly a modern taboo, the source of power.
The electric poles are the totem, representatives of the taboo, reminiscent of Theodora, Empress of the Byzantine Empire with her big earrings.
My totems are secular totems. They long to interpret the taboo. Every generation tries to interpret the reality. The dream of the totems that I have made is an intangible realization. A totem that is not a messenger of authority, religion or political ideology. The totem is the realization of longing without the burden of ideologies. Its formal solutions are suitable for everyone. They have a complexity and not a narrow locale and can be identified with.
Shek’s art is based on three elements:
The place – the work is made from local materials, the longing for regional characteristics and the respect and love for the generations of artists who knew the secrets of the environment and whose art is furtively passed down from generation to generation.
The material – that knows how to fool the reckless and to accede to those who are attentive. The material which must be examined, comprehended and made love to. The material that the Great Masters know is indistinguishable from the message, which together make up the core of the art.
The continuity – the yearning for the secrets of the past, for age-old solutions, for the exact statements of the craftsmen who lived in this land and for the people who drifted to its shores and who are trying to take root on their way to the homeland.
Some consider him a “Canaanian” artist. But, his Canaanism is of a unique breed, it heralds connection and intimacy, it points to the similar and it does not lock itself within diversity. The cultures that were formed in this region have maintained a bond of continuity and attachment. The “Ashdoda” figurine exhibits traces of Aegean origins and Eastern elements. “The locality of the area played a significant role in the synthesis of cultures. The different cultures met at a turning point and something new emerged from this. This is where the phonetic alphabet was created, this is where the Bible was written, this is where Judaism, Christianity and Islam originated”. Moshe Shek’s totems are secular and humanistic as Shek believes in the constant human need to elucidate and to seek. He does not believe in an external source of authority. The source of authority lies within us. Man, according to Shek, is responsible for [finding] meaning, for interpreting and for querying. Longing is our true homeland. Shek is a humanist in the deepest sense of the word, a humanist who believes that repair [of the world] is possible, and that art plays a part in this remedy.