Good Things in Small Packages

Back when he was living in London, George Weil - sculptor, art collector, goldsmith and owner of a successful jewelry design workshop - received a strange letter. The sender was Cornelius van Roosevelt, a distant cousin of the late American president. "I am enclosing one of my molars," he wrote from Washington, expressing the hope that Weil would put it to good use in his work. "It will be interesting to see if the customs officers who inspect this package think I'm an extinct species."

That was in 1979. Weil did make use of the tooth. He incorporated it into a netsuke - a traditional Japanese fashion accessory. "The Japanese people are geniuses," says Weil recently in his studio, "but they forgot to add pockets to the traditional kimono. If they wanted to carry something with them, they tied it to the belt using a little accessory called a netsuke, which inspired an amazing amount of creativity."

Weil, born in 1938, already owned an impressive collection of antique netsuke in the 1960s. In the early `70s, he decided to try his hand at making them himself. A solo exhibition of Weil's netsuke, most of them produced here in Israel, where he has been living since 1989, opened at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa two weeks ago.

The demand for netsuke, which were immensely popular in the Japan of the 17th and 19th centuries, began to fade from the moment the Japanese began wearing Western-style clothing about 130 years ago, explains the exhibition curator, Dr. Ilana Singer. Production grounded to a virtual halt, and netsuke became collectors' items. Today, there are very few artists who make them. In most cases, it is an art which has been handed down from father to son.

Weil, who studied at St. Martin's College of Art and Design in London, never deluded himself that anyone in Japan would teach him how to make netsuke. He set out to learn on his own, through a lengthy process of trial and error. In 1978, he exhibited his work in London, showing 25 netsuke carved from wood and ivory. The response was excellent. Weil was invited to Japan and became the first foreign member of the Association of Japanese netsuke Sculptors.

After a second exhibition, held two years later, he felt drained. Producing these works, he says, was too time- and energy-consuming. So, at the peak of his success, he simply stopped. He did the same thing at other points in his career. In 1979, in a similar frame of mind, he closed the jewelry design workshop he established in 1956, at the age of 18. He wanted to devote himself to art. "My workshop supplied jewelry to half the stars in Hollywood," says Weil. Among his regular customers were Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Peter Sellers.

He admits that sometimes he misses the intensity of London. Sitting behind the heavy wooden desk he brought with him from England, Weil, a very friendly man, full of energy, reminisces about those heady days of old.

"The dilemma of how to define myself nearly did me in," he says. "When I met with jewelry clients, I wore a jacket and tie. As soon as they left, people would come to see my paintings and sculptures. In that case, a jacket looked silly, so I would hurry to change into jeans and a T-shirt. At a certain point, I was changing clothes at the most insane pace," he said with a smile.

The British Museum purchased several artworks from him. "It was very unusual," Weil recalls. "In one go, they bought six pieces on Holocaust themes. And the British Museum, you know, is not exactly known for its interest in that subject."

B-G's `shadow'

In one corner of Weil's studio is a sculpted bust of David Ben-Gurion. Weil made it when he was 18, based on a photograph. There were two copies of it: One was purchased by a philanthropist who donated it to the Israel Museum, where it has remained until today, and the other has moved about among different art dealers. "Twenty-five years later," says Weil, "I received a Sotheby's catalog for an upcoming public auction in London. Flipping through it, I saw a photograph of my sculpture under the heading `Contemporary British Artists.'" Weil bid for it and won.

He has regained other works of his in the same way. "See this nice painting?" he asks, pointing at a large canvas. "It was important to me to own something of mine from that period. I haven't had time yet to take it out of the horrible frame that whoever owned it chose for it."

Weil used to visit Israel several times a year. In the early `70s, he was commissioned to do busts of Moshe Dayan and Ben-Gurion - this time in an official capacity and with their cooperation. "I followed Ben-Gurion around like a shadow for three days," says Weil. "He refused to speak a word of English. Only Yiddish and Hebrew. I sketched like a fury. The guy was an artist's dream. He had a face like a craggy landscape, constantly changing. One evening, after a couple of days of work, I went back to my hotel and found that someone had stolen my sketchbook."

Weil left the country disappointed, and never made the busts. In 1989, he settled in Israel for good: "I think there's no other place for a Jew," he says. "I always planned to move here." Zionist aspirations aside, he was also looking for a little peace and quiet compared to London. In Herzliya Pituah, however, it seems he found more of that than he bargained for.

"The truth is, the Israeli art world has been a disappointment," he says. "Things are so sluggish around here. This country is not a center of art any way you look at it. Sometimes I miss the action in London."

Two years ago, Weil decided to go back to making netsuke. In his studio, jockeying for space among molds for casting the giant bronzes and paintings he did at different times in his life, is a plain little table. He has spent many hours hunched over it in the last two years. He carves the netsuke using chisels and fine modeling tools, some of them of his own making.

As a Western artist, he does not restrict himself to ancient traditions. In addition to wonderful imaginary creatures from Japanese mythology, he is showing "Geisha," a tiny female nude carved from ivory, wood and coral. Weil is always trying out new materials for his netsuke. Some pieces incorporate seashells, fragments of deer antler and pearls.

Answer to nightmares

Making these miniatures - netsuke are usually about 5-10 centimeters high - is a lengthy process. Weil says he likes to work on several netsuke at once. Because it is such delicate work and demands a great deal of concentration, working simultaneously on different pieces livens things up.

The mythical creatures are fascinating. One of them is "Kirin," a cross between a dragon and a cow, half-male and half-female. Kirin is a pure and noble creature that appears only once in a millennium, according to Japanese legend. Confucius is said to have seen one. Another legendary beast is "Baku," sporting an elephant's head, the ears and tail of a cow, and the body of a lion. Baku eats bad dreams. Sleepers disturbed by nightmares can summon up Baku and sleep peacefully.

Next to the netsuke display are a sample of the meticulous sketches Weil makes before getting down to work.

"Unlike sculptures that are five meters high, with netsuke, you can't make mistakes, no matter how slight," explains Weil. "You have to plan everything down to the last detail. You can spend hours on a single piece. But once I found a scrap of wood that looked like a perfectly formed bird. All I had to do was sand down the bottom so it could stand, which is one of the rules of netsuke, and add two eyes from black horn."

Netsuke are not yet perceived by everyone as genuine art, notes Weil. "Today, any shmuck can pick up a brush and declare himself an artist. The thing about netsuke is how it embodies the absolute essence of art. It's a format that allows you to walk around with an intricately carved sculpture on your person. You can't do that with a Henry Moore."

Weil is a very prolific artist. Standing in the studio is the scale-model of a sculpture he is designing to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. His idea is a colossal, semi-abstract monument that visitors can go into. The interior will look like the sleeping quarters of a concentration camp. In another corner of the studio is the cast of a sculpture commissioned in 1991, after the Persian Gulf War. Weil designed the sculpture, but the municipal officials who ordered it disappeared when the time came to pay for materials.

In his 1979 letter, Cornelius van Roosevelt enclosed other raw materials for Weil's netsuke: a metal plate from his leg and a bit of spinal vertebrae removed during surgery. Weil, who was excited at first about his contacts with van Roosevelt and the significance of the artist-donor relationship, now prefers to concentrate on conventional materials. On his work table is a deer antler, which he makes a point of telling me he obtained legally.

"When I have time," he promises, "I'll make netsuke out of it."

CORRECTION: The beginning of the article "Torn between art and poetry" (Week's End, August 23), should have read: "Located in the home of the Zisquit family in Jerusalem, the Artspace gallery is now one of the most active and stable galleries for contemporary art in the city."