Bohemia Comes to Netanya

There are some disengagement evacuees who have landed on their feet: The artists of Sa-Nur are turning a rundown building in an urban marketplace into a hub of creativity.

There is something rather extraordinary about one of the abandoned buildings in the middle of Netanya's open-air market. Once this neighborhood was dotted with diamond-polishing workshops, but in recent years the buildings there have been abandoned, providing shelter to the homeless and to drug addicts. The state of neglect is pervasive. Garbage and filth are everywhere, and a host of dubious characters assemble here every evening.

"It doesn't disturb us at all. On the contrary: This is precisely how Montmartre began. This is the authentic bohemia," says the painter Eduard Grossman, a Sa-Nur evacuee.

The disengagement has brought with it new activity - decidedly different from what had previously characterized this derelict area. Evacuees of the northern West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur have arrived here to rehabilitate themselves. About one-third of the veteran residents of this artists' community, all of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, are renovating the building that will be their work place and a new center for artists. The din of construction and smell of paint and whitewash permeate the air. A few workers, along with the artists themselves, are energetically working to complete the renovations. Although the center is not yet ready, about half the studios have already opened, and several painters and sculptors have begun to work. The artists show up every morning and, as emigres of the former Soviet Union, they bring with them a meticulous approach to the work of being creative: discipline, diligence and regular work hours.

"If the place looks scary now, you should have seen it before we began to renovate. Even if it is still a little hard to envision, I'm convinced that this is going to be an incredible place. The garbage will be hauled away. We'll place sculptures on the terrace. We'll build a big gallery over here. This dilapidated section is going to become a home for lots of artists," says painter Eduard Paskover, one of the initiators of the project.

In the wake of this initiative in Netanya, artists from Sa-Nur who moved to Jerusalem are trying to replicate it in the capital.

`Brotherhood of artists'

In 2000, there were about 30 artists living and working in Sa-Nur, all of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Most had settled there not for ideological reasons, but because they felt they could work and create in the community. Indeed, it provided them with ideal conditions - a beautiful place, exhilarating views, an atmosphere of creativity and, most important of all, lots of space to build roomy studios.

"We had a brotherhood of artists there, and that is the most cherished thing of all," relates sculptor Baruch Sakzier, one of the founders of the artist colony at Sa-Nur, who immigrated to Israel over 30 years ago. When times were good at Sa-Nur, he tried to enlist Israeli artists into this "brotherhood," but to his regret they did not integrate so well. Why? "The mentality is different and also, they do not know how to drink vodka like us. All of us came from the same background, we were raised on Russian culture. Nevertheless, I do have an ambivalent attitude toward my roots, toward this culture that beats in my soul. Russian is the language of Pushkin, but it is also the language of great anti-Semites. Dostoevsky and Gogol, for example, were distinguished writers, but remorseless anti-Semites," says Sakzier.

Sakzier has sculpted since he was seven years old, and was a promising artist before he left the Soviet Union. In Israel, he has created and exhibited many of his works, including the well-known sculpture of Janus Korczak at Yad Vashem. At Sa-Nur, he had a big studio as well as a prosperous business - a foundry for sculptures that was popular with sculptors from all over the country. One of the original residents of Sa-Nur, he recalls how Ariel Sharon once came for a visit, to encourage the settlement. "I was proud that I, too, had contributed my share in building the country," says Sakzier, adding that he spent the best 20 years of his life in Sa-Nur. It is difficult to gauge the torments of creativity or the successes that he and his colleagues experienced there - or, for that matter, the quantities of vodka they consumed.

Now Sakzier has lost his home, his studio and his business. He still hasn't received any compensation, and doesn't understand this. "But life is more powerful than anything else, and you have to go on. At age 60 plus, it is very difficult to start over," he notes. Although he opposed the disengagement on political grounds, as well, Sakzier is nevertheless optimistic and certain of the success of the new arts center in the Netanya market.

"It isn't Sa-Nur, but the surroundings seem just fine to me. Drug addicts hanging out around here? They're addicts, I'm an alcoholic - we're get along fine," laughs Sakzier, as he continues to sculpt in his new studio.

Over the years, relations between the Sa-Nur artists and the Yesha (acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza) Council were excellent. Most of the artists supported settlement in the West Bank, and the council backed the artists and assisted them in organizing exhibitions in Israel and even abroad. The rift began in 2002, when the possibility of disengagement, and the evacuation of Sa-Nur, were first raised. Young settlers, suffused with ideology, ready for battle and determined to thwart any possible withdrawal, arrived in Sa-Nur with their families and began to augment the settlement's population.

People whom Eduard Grossman calls "the religious" overran the settlement, began to take control of the homes and the studio space of the artists, cut down trees to build new temporary structures, and simply "pushed us out. They dissolved our council and revoked all of its decisions. This is why some of our members still haven't seen a single shekel of compensation, because they ostensibly did not ever live at Sa-Nur. Because of the invaders, I was fired from my job as coordinator of the art exhibitions, in order to give the job and the salary to the new people. In the end, we were pushed out of the settlement - and yes, I am extremely angry."

Grossman has received compensation, but says: "I am not buying an apartment or a car. I am investing the money in my studio. Painting is the most important thing." He moved to Israel with his wife and daughter 15 years ago from the Ural Mountains, where he was a successful, well-connected artist. "I got fed up with the easy, comfortable life. All the Jews began leaving, and we decided to look for new stimuli, too." It was obvious to him, he explains, that the family's absorption in Israel would not be easy - a painter and a theater director with a ballet-dancer daughter hardly fit the bill for instant success in making a life in a new country.

Two months after their arrival in Israel, Grossman met painter Joseph Kapelyan, one of the founders of Sa-Nur, who had moved to Israel from Minsk in 1980. Grossman was invited for a visit and fell in love at first sight. Sa-Nur reminded him of the dacha (summer home) colonies where Soviet artists used to spend their summers together in a pastoral, creative atmosphere far from the tumult of the city. Grossman moved to Sa-Nur with his wife and daughter, and served on the settlement's council. He continued to work there even after the outbreak of the intifada until he was forced, as he puts it, to leave. Today Grossman is once again optimistic. His studio is ready, he has bought a new easel and is hoping to be able to work again soon with his friends from Sa-Nur.

`Collective' attraction

Kapelyan contends that artists who arrived from the Soviet Union are, unlike their colleagues in the West, attracted to a "collective," to collaboration and to professional friendships. He is pleased with the establishment of the new center and glad to continue to work among old friends.

"We talk about art, support one another; there is a professional collaboration. That is very important to me," says Kapelyan.

"Each of us works in his studio. Some of us close the door while we work; my door is always open. I like to chat with friends while I sculpt," adds Sakzier.

Like Sakzier and a few other friends, Kapelyan has still not received any compensation funding and is investing his own retirement savings in construction of a new studio.

Eduard Paskover, the last in the group to join Sa-Nur, moved to Israel nine years ago from Moscow, where he was a prosperous artist. He had come to Israel for his mother's funeral, and now says that he never had any plans to stay, but "something attracted me." He delayed his return to Moscow again and again. In the end, he stayed here.

"In Moscow I would be invited to take part in big projects, and would start to wrack my brains about how to do them. Here, the creativity just comes, and flows easily and without letup. Being a painter is not a profession. Painting is psychiatric diagnosis. That's why I'm here," says Paskover, in an attempt to explain what the "something" is that attracted him.

To earn a living, he works part-time for the Netanya municipality as the coordinator of a club for artists that is operated by the city's immigrant absorption department. When he and his Sa-Nur colleagues were left with no place to work, Paskover came up with the idea of the arts center in the market. Assisted by the head of the absorption department, George Dubin, and with backing from Netanya Mayor Miriam Fierberg, the artists were allocated a full story of the abandoned building, after agreeing to invest their own money in the renovation work.

"There was a fire in this building, but now it looks all different. The city promised to renovate the entrance," Paskover explains, "and when all the studios are opened, the place will look incredible."

The Sa-Nur evacuee-artists intend to turn the place into a center that will hum with energy and creativity. The gallery will feature exhibitions of the artists who work in the building, as well as that of guest artists, and lectures and other gatherings will be held. The artists are planning to open the center to visitors, to enable young people to come and get an impression of their work. Paskover says the city has also assured the artists that the center will become a tourism site, and will be part of an itinerary that will attract many visitors. Gradually, the entire rundown area around the center could be transformed into a bohemian district that would attract many artists; Paskover envisions the future opening of galleries and coffee houses.

So far, eight artists from Sa-Nur have found shelter in the new center. Says Kapelyan: "This will be our second absorption. It will be easier to get through it together. We know each other, are familiar with each other's creativity. We need this connection - we were like a family in Sa-Nur and like every other family, we need a home."