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Artist's work rises from the ashes of a kibbutz attacked by Hamas onto a museum wall

Rescued from her studio in Kibbutz Be'eri near Israel's border with Gaza, artist Ziva Jelin's damaged painting <em>Curving Road </em>is currently on special display in the Israeli Art gallery of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Zohar Shemesh
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The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Rescued from her studio in Kibbutz Be'eri near Israel's border with Gaza, artist Ziva Jelin's damaged painting Curving Road is currently on special display in the Israeli Art gallery of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM, Israel – From a distance, the new painting anchoring the Israeli Art gallery of the Israel Museum mesmerizes with its simple, but deep hues of red and black.

Step closer, though, and squint, and something else catches the eye: small but deep cuts, chipped into the canvas.

They're a reminder of what happened on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants launched brutal surprise attacks in Israel that the government says killed about 1,200 people.

But like the artist who made it, Ziva Jelin's painting Curving Road is a survivor of one of those attacks.

Hamas fighters killed dozens of people and kidnapped others, and burned and destroyed houses and other buildings in Kibbutz Be'eri, where 61-year-old Jelin has lived her whole life. But in the middle of the ash and ruin of her home, dozens of her works were found intact.

Kibbutz Be'eri was attacked by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Kibbutz Be'eri was attacked by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.

"I see these paintings as survivors. Just as we survived, they survived as well," the artist said during the unveiling of Curving Road over the weekend at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel's largest cultural institution. Her comments have been translated into English from Hebrew.

The large piece captures the desert landscape of Jelin's home, with the focal point set on a long road. It's a path that Jelin took on her morning runs in Kibbutz Be'eri.

And it's the same one Hamas militants used to cross the border from Gaza into southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Like Russian roulette, a random turn saved a family

At 6:30 a.m. that Saturday, Jelin woke up to explosions.

She had planned a run that morning, but "then the chaos started."

"[The attackers] came in right near my house, right near the cemetery. And it's only by a miracle that I am standing here," she said during the painting's unveiling in front of a small group of reporters.

They turned right, away from her home, and not left.

"Like Russian roulette," she said.

Damage from shrapnel can be seen on <em>Curving Road</em>.
Zohar Shemesh / The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
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The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Damage from shrapnel can be seen on Curving Road.

Jelin and her family quickly ran to their bomb shelter, where they sat in fear.

"We just sat for 12 hours without making a sound, only whispering. We didn't turn on the air conditioning so they wouldn't know we were there," she said.

Finally, she and her family and the rest of her kibbutz were rescued and evacuated and sent to live in a hotel at the Dead Sea, where they remain more than a month later. Jelin said her gallery and her works were not a priority to her in the early days after the attack.

A man working with a search and recovery team from the organization ZAKA look for human remains in Kibbutz Be'eri on Oct. 21.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A man working with a search and recovery team from the organization ZAKA look for human remains in Kibbutz Be'eri on Oct. 21.

They were "the last things that I thought about," Jelin said. "But afterwards, when they evacuated us from Be'eri, I said to myself, 'There's no way that anything survived.'"

An artist for decades, Jelin ran her own gallery on Kibbutz Be'eri for almost 30 years. That gallery was burned to the ground on Oct. 7.

A separate studio, where she kept years of work, was an old building, full of cracks.

"I was sure it had completely crumbled," she said.

To her shock, it survived — as did dozens of her paintings, though much of it full of holes and damaged by grenades and gunfire.

In the conflict that has followed the Oct. 7 attacks, the Israeli military has carried out strikes that have killed more than 11,200 people in Gaza, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory, and trapped civilians with little water, power and medical care.

Painting has an unmistakable new interpretation

But out of this terrible tragedy, an opportunity arose that Jelin said she likely never would have had otherwise.

Amitai Mendelsohn, the senior curator and head of the Israel Museum's David Orgler Department of Israeli Art, had gone to visit survivors of the attack on Kibbutz Ber'eri and heard that some of Jelin's work had survived as well.

"I thought it would be a very, very meaningful thing to do for the Israel Museum at this moment, to display a painting that is also very powerful in its own right," he said. "The tragedy obviously puts in it a lot of meaning. It's hard to look at it neutrally now."

Workers with the Israel Museum hang Ziva Jelin's piece in the Israeli Art wing of the museum.
Zohar Shemesh / The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
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The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Workers with the Israel Museum hang Ziva Jelin's piece in the Israeli Art wing of the museum.

Jelin acknowledges that visitors to the museum now, and in the future, will have different connections and interpretations of her piece than she originally intended.

She expects them to see "fires, or massacre, blood war," she said. "I respect every viewer and their interpretation. But that isn't where I'm coming from."

For more than 20 years, Jelin has always painted in shades of red.

Using that color came "from a place of bold feelings," she said. She drew inspiration from her home and surroundings in the south of Israel and on her kibbutz, where each year red anemone flowers would bloom across the desert.

But now, she said, "with the bullets, the holes, the interpretation is unavoidable. Every viewer will have their own interpretation."

An Israeli soldier walks past destruction in Kibbutz Be'eri.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
An Israeli soldier walks past destruction in Kibbutz Be'eri.

Jelin has resumed making art, and said she is driven by this tragedy and the loss of friends. She and others on her kibbutz are using art as a kind of therapy.

"I haven't stopped painting since," she said. "I've never painted so much in my life."

Orange dominates her canvases now, she said, and her subjects are the people she and her community lost on Oct. 7, like her friend Hagi.

"When I sit down to paint Hagi ... it's something different," she said. "It's a kind of communion with the lost."

NPR freelance local producer Eve Guterman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.