It's All in Black and White

Secrets and lies of her past have always influenced Daniella Sheinman's work. With her new exhibit, she reaches her artistic peak.

When she turned 40, Daniella Sheinman felt that she had been reborn. To portray this rebirth, she took the figure of Venus from Sandro Botticelli's famous painting and painted it three times in acrylics on a canvas to which she affixed strips of masking tape. She worked on it for almost a year. When she was done, she ripped off the tape. What remained were three wounded, imperfect women surrounded by a spiky orb - the symbolic womb from which a full-grown woman emerged: Sheinman herself.

That was in 1987. Now the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan is showing Sheinman's recent work, done over the last three years, in which her compact artistic language has reached a peak.

Sheinman studied at the Avni Institute under Yehezkel Streichman and Moshe Sternschuss, later abandoning figurative art for the abstract, under the tutelage of Chaim Kiewe. The current exhibit consists of enormous stretches of canvas covered with squiggles in black graphite. No figures, no colors. Just black lines on white canvas.

Sheinman's artistic career follows the process she has undergone in her personal life: unraveling the truth from the tangle of secrets and lies of her childhood.

Sheinman has vivid memories from a very early age. "When I was three, the neighbors called me to the yard and introduced me to a man they said was my [real] father," she relates. "They all laughed, and I cried. When this man appeared, I was sure my grandfather [whom she had always presumed was her father] - in whose house I lived, with my grandmother and mother - was dead. I ran home and demanded to see Grandpa, to make sure he was alive. I never told anyone about this strange meeting, and it sort of sank to the back of my mind."

When Daniella was five, her mother introduced her to her future stepfather. "She said it was my father, who had come back from Russia. But I knew it wasn't true," says Sheinman. "When I got a little older, I snooped around in my parents' drawers and found adoption papers. My mother was furious when I asked her about them. She made me promise never to tell her husband that I knew he wasn't my real father. And that's how it was.

"For years, we lived a lie. My stepfather loved me, but inside, I was seething, and we didn't get along very well. He was convinced that only my mother knew the truth, and I wanted to get out of that depressing house with its dark secrets as soon as I could."

Sheinman married at the age of 18. Her husband asked her if she wasn't curious to meet her real father, but at that stage, she preferred to leave it alone. Only years later, after the birth of her three children, did she feel strong enough to confront her past.

Instead of taking practical steps to find her father, she began to prepare emotionally for this encounter, mainly through her art. Pencil marks peeped out from under her colorful paintings. "I felt that color wasn't helping me, that what I learned as an artist wasn't getting me anywhere," says Sheinman. "I wanted people to see that there was a careful pencil sketch underneath. On top of that I worked in acrylic, in a much wilder style."

The dimensions of Sheinman's work also increased. These changes were visible in her show at Haifa Museum, "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," in the early 1990s. They were very conspicuous in a series she first exhibited in Frankfurt, in 1996. In her studio in Moshav Hemed, Sheinman has elongated wooden crates filled with fat rolls of canvas. These are the artworks - or scrolls, as she calls them - that were hung in Frankfurt.

She worked on them for three years, laboriously transferring her preliminary sketches to canvas. First she drew on paper, and then copied the drawings to huge bolts of canvas, ten meters wide. After that, she broadened the lines with graphite. The finished work has two layers: Clusters of fine detail, and on top of them, thick bands of black.

Rubbing the graphite in was hard physical work. She needed a vacuum cleaner to get rid of the fine dust. The Frankfurt show consisted of 70 meters of canvas, divided into seven groups of 10 meters each. From there, the exhibit moved to the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz. Sheinman placed the scrolls in an "arranged" space, with cages and wooden bars separating the viewers from the mounted canvas. At the far end of the hall, she installed a mummy made of plaster and wire. "I wanted only some of the scrolls to be visible from any one angle," says Sheinman. "You could look at whole setup through bars, or at one or two pieces individually. Either way, the experience was incomplete."

In 1998, the exhibit opened in Israel, at Sotheby's on Rothschild and Shadal streets in Tel Aviv. "When I was growing up, I lived on Shadal Street," says Sheinman. "On the corner was a beautiful building that housed the Russian diplomatic corps. It was this mysterious place I always wanted to visit. Years later, Sotheby's took over the building, and there I was, having a show across from the old house where my grandparents used to live. I felt like I was letting people into another one of those secrets from my childhood."

The great mystery of Sheinman's life was unraveled three years earlier: After her stepfather died, she wrote to the Interior Ministry, asking for the identity of her birth father. She was referred to the welfare bureau, where she was informed that her father had died at the age of 49. "My parents separated when my mother was three months pregnant," says Sheinman. "The welfare officials explained that adoption is possible only after the father dies or signs a paper waiving paternity rights. I guess my father must have signed such a paper."

Sheinman received an address where her father's family supposedly lived 50 years ago, in the vicinity of Gymnasia Herzliya in south Tel Aviv. The address was wrong. "We were wandering around, and a shopkeeper came out and asked us what we were looking for," relates Sheinman. "My father had four brothers and two sisters. We asked if he had heard of them, and he did recognize the name. With his help, we tracked down one of my cousins. When my husband called him up, he said it hadn't been a secret in their family, and `of course they knew about Daniella.' He just asked for a couple of hours to get ready before we came over. It turns out that all the brothers were dead, but my father's two sisters were still alive."

That day Sheinman discovered she had a large family. "Later, I visited my aunt and met my sister," she says. "All my life I wanted a brother or sister. After my parents split up, my father married and had a daughter. Meeting the family wasn't easy. We had no shared past to latch on to."

Sheinman has pieced together information about her father, and especially the reasons for her parents' breakup, which she prefers not to discuss. "It turns out that my father had a wonderful voice and planned to go to England to study professional singing, but then he got sick and his plans changed," says Sheinman.

For the past three years, Sheinman has been using graphite stripes even more intensively in her work. "For so many years I lived with a terrible secret," she says. "It's time for it to come out. I know that there are people who look at my recent drawings and see all these indecipherable hieroglyphics. But if they keep looking, I hope they'll plug in to the deep emotions and experiences I had while working on them."