Illustrator Hanoch Piven left his current home in Barcelona, at the other end of the Mediterranean, on the morning that a meeting was scheduled in the Tel Aviv neighborhood where he lived until five years ago. When asked why he chooses to live in Barcelona, the illustrator, famous for his use of objects, immediately replied, "Why not?" as if he had expected the question and rehearsed the answer on the eve of the meeting to launch the Israeli version of his third children's book "Alufim!| (the American version, "What Athletes are Made Of," was preceded by "The Perfect Purple Feather" and "The Scary Show of Mo and Jo").
The language of Barcelona is no obstacle for Piven - he is a native of Uruguay. The choice to live there is a natural one. The city combines the Spanish culture of his native land with the Mediterranean vibe he came to love in Israel - his homeland, as he defines it. Between here and there, he lived in New York for a decade and is, thus, no stranger to wandering among nations.
"I have a portable profession and that suits me," he says. "The more you move, the easier it is to move."
Barcelona is not his last stop.
"I enjoy going in and out of Israel," says the man born as Ernesto Piven 43 years ago. He received the name Hanoch, which no one beyond the boundaries of Israel can properly pronounce, when he immigrated to Israel at age 11.
"This place creates a lot of noise. In the last five years, I have found that quiet helps me. My first development was not here. Working with objects, my ability to believe in it, did not happen here. That is no accident. I have a need to disengage and listen to myself," he says.
The move with his family, his wife Jeanette ("a truly talented painter," according to him), Jacob (his wife's biological son and his adopted son), who will be celebrating his bar mitzvah in November, and his 7-year-old daughter Anna, was easy. Jeanette is American.
His profession transcends geographic barriers. "It's a combination of many things that came together and work well. When I left New York in 1996, I decided that the city would remain my base of operations, that I would not depend on Israel for my livelihood."
Although his employment at weekly magazine New York failed to survive the Atlantic crossing, Piven secured a unique status as a regular feature of the Haaretz supplement and a caricaturist in the paper.
"In any case, I felt that I needed a change.," he says. "I learned that change only does me good in my life.
"My field is caricatures made with objects. I am completely fluent in that language. The expressions of it depend on what I find while wandering in the flea market or wherever I get off the bus on a given day. All of my games are home games - I'm playing on my own turf."
The game that he plays is the minimalist use of objects to create caricatures in which facial features are biting metaphors that come at the expense of the subjects of the portraits. Images from the world of sports - long-distance running, home playing fields - befit the subject of his new children's book, launched to coincide with the opening of the World Cup (edited by Dov Alphon and published by Am Oved and Zmora Bitan).
"What Athletes Are Made Of" was published on the heels of another book illustrated by Piven, "What Presidents Are Made Of," which Time magazine chose as one of the 10 best children's books of 2004.
The American version of the athletes' book features Michael Jordan on the cover and Ronaldinho graces the cover of the Israeli version.
The Israeli book, published just in time for the World Cup, is packed with soccer players (even Piven appears in a soccer uniform in a photograph of himself and his son at the Tel Aviv Sportek sports complex): Pele, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Maradona and David Beckham. In exquisite coordination with the French Open, tennis players Andre Agassi, Venus and Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova also appear in the book. Shahar Peer's achievements were not yet known when the book was written but Israeli players are not ignored: There is a remarkable caricature of Yossi Benayoun and a similarly fine rendition of Israeli hoopster Shay Doron.
Piven tells a story of each athlete's childhood on the lower part of each page that features a caricature. Ronaldinho's father died when he was a child; Zinedine Zidane received a tip worth gold from his father; Beckham's father warned him that children would laugh at him; Benayoun's father drove him to training sessions; the father of the Williams sisters taught them how to play tennis; Tiger Woods' father told him bedtime stories about golf; Michael Jordan watched his father fix cars; Joe DiMaggio's father wanted him to be a fisherman, Babe Ruth's father sent him to reform school. The only mothers who appear to play a role in their children's careers are Mia Hamm's mother - she sends Mia to her brother's games as his "secret weapon" - and Lance Armstrong's mother, who encourages him to continue.
"No matter how hard you try to be politically correct, the one who runs with kids and a ball is the father," Piven says, leaving an impression that the lack of mothers in the book was unintentional and that he was not even aware of it. "When I involve Anna in our game, she makes a project of preparing the scoreboard. The division goes like this: She pastes the numbers on the board, Jacob and I play, and Jeanette gets mad because we make a mess. The man's role in the family is to run with the kids. It's in the genes, in the psychology that causes them to run. It's obvious that Yossi Benayoun's father would drive him to games."
When asked what objects he would use to portray his own face, he expresses discomfort, and not only because he is frequently asked this question. "It's hard for a person to see himself. When asked to do a caricature of myself, I feel as if it isn't fair, that it makes the objects of caricature superficial. I feel like saying that I am more complex. But every form of art is based on a lie. In their very first art lesson, students are told, 'Make something big even bigger and something small even smaller.'"
Victims of his caricatures apparently understand that. Only edgy radio personality Howard Stern complained about how Piven portrayed him - Piven replaced his nose with a dill pickle in a thinly-veiled nod to his Jewish heritage and his obsession with sex.
Piven's unique method was honed in an assignment that he did while studying art. He prepared a caricature of Saddam Hussein and realized that the beret and mustache were enough to invoke the Iraqi despot; then, he coincidentally used matches and understood that it lent the image more power.
"Like every good work, coincidence is a significant element. The wisdom is in discerning which accidents that occur in life are good and which are bad.
"I arrived at this form of work while searching for a way to cope with my shortcomings as an illustrator. I didn't draw well enough," he says.
"There are dozens of illustrators in Israel that sketch better than me, from Ruto Modan to the Hanuka brothers [twins, Assaf and Tomer] to Ruth Gwily and David Polansky. I am humbled in their midst.
"In recent years, because of a request from the Israeli consulate, I have been teaching in museums and schools around the world. In these workshops, I see that work with objects helps non-professionals get over their fear of drawing.
"Children age seven and eight, who become aware of their drawings, suddenly experience their artwork as not good. 'It doesn't really look like that,' they think.
"That frustrates them and reminds of them of past failures. The use of only objects liberates them. Now, I understand that this is what happened to me."
He likes these workshops with children and teens. "The life of an illustrator is very lonely," he says. "These are my forays out of the cave." Two months ago, he had a particularly moving experience in the pediatric oncology unit at the Schneider Children's Medical Center in Israel. There, the children were instructed to include objects which represent the harsh routine of their hospitalization in their work. Among other goals, the exercise was planned to create an affinity with objects that they perceive as negative elements in their lives. But they made very limited use of these objects.
"A child is a child even if he is a cancer patient," Piven says. "If you place a colorful ball next to a pale syringe in front of him, he'll prefer the colorful ball."
Other meaningful encounters took place in a school for children with Down's Syndrome in Buenos Aires. He showed them his first book and the dearest to his heart, "The Perfect Purple Feather," and they expressed enthusiasm. When he pulled a purple feather from the last pages of the book, they passed it around from hand to hand and gently brushed it against their cheeks.
The book was a best-seller in Israel and sold almost 25,000 copies. In the United States, it did not succeed at all, Piven says, and certainly not to the extent of "What Presidents Are Made Of," which appeared later. "They sold no more than 6,000 copies [of "The Perfect Purple Feather"] and the publishers consider that a failure," he says.
Two years ago, he returned to his native city of Montevideo as a visiting artist, mounted an exhibition, and gave a series of lectures. "I even found a caricature that I did of my teacher, who is still teaching there, and met her at my school."
Much of his childhood is connected with soccer. "Someone who did not grow up in South America cannot understand the role that it plays in the lives of the people who live there.
"My brother [Yoyo, to whom he dedicated this book] was a sworn soccer fan. He is a graduate of Wingate [Israel's National Center for Physical Education and Sport] and the professional coach of a youth soccer league. And when we were kids, he established a league for children age 12-13, with uniforms and everything, and when I was five, I was the team's mascot. Also when I immigrated to Israel that was what connected me to the place.
"I remember that it was one of the first things that I did. I ate pita and hummus and went to play soccer and talk to the kids on the field."
The glorification of Uruguyans of past victories in soccer, he says "is like their relationship to grand edifices which are all but crumbling. Everyone there will be happy to tell you that they won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, and they will even remind listeners of the relatively unimportant gold medal in the Olympic Games in 1924 and 1928. It's pathetic," he says.
Nevertheless, due to the fact that Uruguay hasn't made it into the World Cup that begins tomorrow, he is rooting for Argentina.
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