Orna Ben-Ami working in her studio in the industrial section of Ramat Hasharon.A loud, busy, industrial area full of garages and equipment repair shops isn’t where you’d normally expect to find an artist at work in her well-appointed studio.
But it is exactly where sculptor Orna Ben-Ami feels at home. Inside the industrial section of Ramat Hasharon is where you’ll find her carefully organized workspace with her heavy yet graceful iron sculptures displayed in the entrance and the bulky equipment it takes to create them placed behind them. In the very back is an outdoor expanse so she can work under the open sky to the background noise of the cars being repaired on either side of her.
“I’m a welder. I make a lot of noise and I make a big mess, so this is a natural place for me to work,” Ben-Ami says, offering her visitor a cappuccino which she whips up in a corner tucked behind her office and across from her metal-bending equipment.
It took time for her neighbors get used to her presence, smiles the small energetic woman, but now the auto mechanics and other craftsman are her friends. “They are always there to help me move stuff,” she says with a smile. “They just think that I am a little crazy – or maybe to put it more accurately, they know I’m a little crazy.”
Though certainly not crazy, nothing is typical about the story of this sculptor, whose work was chosen this summer to represent Israel at an exhibition at the Palais Des Nations at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. The exhibition, entitled “A Time for Renewal” was organized to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations and is being displayed from June 26-Oct. 24.
The exhibit is intended to “illustrate the theme of peace – and to strengthen the dialogue among civilizations.” Each UN member state was invited to lend a contemporary artwork, and more than 70 paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations are on display.
Ben-Ami’s work chosen for the Geneva exhibit, entitled “Roots,” was uncannily appropriate to what is currently going on in Israel at the moment. The sculpture is that of a suitcase, with roots hanging from its bottom, reflecting the wrenching feelings that relocation causes. When it was displayed, viewers contemplated whether it was a comment on Gaza, the plight of the Palestinians, or the wandering Jew.
In fact, it was an intensely personal work. Dislocation is a familiar theme in her art – a moving box with a little girl’s feet peeking out of the bottom, a cot with a bare mattress peeled back. It says something about both Israeli and Jewish history, and tells the story of Ben-Ami’s childhood, which was a lonely one – her parents moved frequently and she grew up in more than 18 houses.
What her early life didn’t include was any hint that she would become an artist – a direction that she only discovered mid-life. She was over 30, with a thriving career in journalism, hotel management and public relations, working at some of Jerusalem’s major hotels, had a husband and three children, when her life took a radical turn.
It began innocently one day when she walked into a store that had a silversmith at work designing and making jewelry. And something inside her told her that it was something she wanted to learn. She had the opportunity to explore her interest when her husband, Oded Ben-Ami took a three-year assignment as Israel Radio’s correspondent in Washington DC, and she took a sabbatical from her public relations career. While in DC she studied jewelry-making at the Corcoran School of Art, and found that she had a knack for soldering small pieces of metal together into original designs.
When her teacher saw her jewelry, he said the works would change her life: he stood in front of the class, pointed to her creations and said, “This artist is making tiny sculptures and hanging them on her ears.”
He was telling her that she should be a sculptor.
She didn’t heed his advice until more than a year later. She returned to Israel, re-entered the hotel business, but soon felt she needed to make a change. She left her job and began making jewelry again, and didn?t forget the words of her teacher.
“I went to a welder and told him that I knew how to solder and I wanted to learn how to weld.”
Ben-Ami not only learned, but has also developed an original, feminine way of welding her sheets of metal together that allows a hard surface to flow and show folds of fabric, in contrast to most metal sculpture, which tends to stand stark and sharp-edged.
Her signature piece stands at the front of the display in her studio – a delicate ballet shoe with dangling ribbons, standing with pointed toe on top of a thick steel beam, with the shoe making a dent in the metal. It stands as a strong comment on Ben-Ami’s work – a small feminine woman who bends hard material.
In the booklet for one of her recent exhibitions in Israel, curator Ruti Ofek wrote that Ben-Ami’s work reveals her as a “complete master” of her iron materials. “Her use of flat iron plates, which she transforms into voluminous forms by cutting bending, welding and polishing, calls for high technical skills. Ben-Ami turns the steel’s hardness into the softness of a material that is both intensely expressive and powerfully present in space.”
With her background in public relations and marketing, she was able to establish herself in Israel’s artistic landscape remarkably fast – within her 12-year art career, she had more than 20 commissions for sculptures for public display, including a commission for the new central bus station in Jerusalem, which she found a particularly satisfying challenge.
“I was asked to create something that represented entering Jerusalem. I wanted to do something new, and not rely on the familiar themes of stones and arches. I decided that what Jerusalem means to me is the incredible variety of people. But Jewish tradition dictates that my work couldn’t include actual images of people with faces and bodies.”
Her ingenious solution – the walls of the bus station became a hat rack with eleven hats representing different populations, from traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim headwear, to the baseball caps of the tourists. To create a Hassidic streimel she welded 300 brushes together.
There is a great deal of humor in much of her work. Her work for a group exhibition on marriage was two toothbrushes in a cup side by side. She makes multiple ironic comments on her inability to paint, with sculptures of mangled easels and ripped canvases – she never took to the gentle materials of paint and canvas or soft sculpturing materials like plaster.
But she is also very socially conscious. When she joined a group of artists asked to create a work with the theme “Open House,” she didn’t create a domestic scene like many of her colleagues. “Instead, I made this,” she says, pointing to a life-sized sculpture of a park bench with a cloth draped on it that obviously is covering a homeless person.
Moving from broadcasting and public relations to art, in essence, hasn?t been as radical a switch as one might think, she says, because for her, “it’s all about communication.”
Her background makes her particularly skilled as a representative of her country when her work is shown overseas, as it was recently at Café Europa – Center for Contemporary Art in Rome.
It was the success of this show that led to her work being chosen for the UN exhibit in Geneva. She smiles and points to a picture of herself standing next to a spectacled man in front of her sculpture. “Do you know who that is? It’s a Libyan diplomat.” She was pleased and surprised when he agreed to the photo.
“When I show my art and give lectures, I know I am representing my country. I tried to connect with the audience, and I tried to tell the story of Israel and the Jewish people and my experience being of an Israeli woman through my art.”
This achievement caps off several recent international showings at respected museums in Israel and her first forays abroad – the Rome exhibit, and a show at the Kimball Art Center in Utah. Plans are underway for more, including an exhibit in New York City next year at Yeshiva University.
Her children, who are now 29, 27 and 21, have been incredibly supportive, she says, as has been her husband Oded, who broadcast for many years on Israel’s state radio and television stations, completed stints as media adviser to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and as IDF spokesman, and is now an anchor on the nightly six o’clock news on the commercial Channel 2.
If she to do it all over again, she says, she wouldn?t change a thing, “I don’t know if I would be any better an artist if I had started earlier. I think I was really ripe for it.”