Weaving Memory and Environment, Canadian-Israeli Artist Turns Heads

Melanie Daniel's unlikely path from Canadian science student to Tel Aviv artist started with a chance encounter in India and culminated with the 2009 Rappaport Prize for Young Israeli Painter - and now a new show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. "Had I stayed in Canada I'm not sure I would have followed the arts and definitely not in the capacity that I am today," Daniel told Anglo File.

"Evergreen," her exhibit at the museum, "reveals the culmination of the artist's interest in how people assimilate and camouflage themselves in their environments, combining a sense of strangeness with a sense of belonging," according to Sagi Refael, the show's curator.

"I needed to be removed from that environment in order to reference it," says Daniel.

But none of this could have happened without first crossing paths with her future husband, Yair Harel. A year after meeting him in the subcontinent, she moved in 1995 to Jerusalem to give their blossoming long-distance relationship a try, she recalled last week at her home in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa.

"I just upped and left and said it's now or never," she said, noting she was a semester shy of graduating college. "If I don't go to Israel and see if I can make a life with this man I won't do it at all." She says that growing up in Kelowna - some 250 miles east of Vancouver - she had never dreamed of moving to Israel, but then again, "a lot of my decisions have been that way, from a visceral, gut level." The couple married 15 years ago. She and Yair, a fiction and screenplay writer, have a baby son, Ido.

She says she started college at the University of British Columbia thinking she would be a doctor and did not take her first fine arts class until she transferred to Concordia University in Montreal. Although Daniel, who mostly focuses on painting landscapes, displayed artistic tendencies, she says it never occurred to her before arriving in Israel "to go full throttle to pursue a career in art."

Fifteen years later, Daniel became the first native English speaker to claim the Rappaport Prize, which was established in 2006 and goes each year to one young and one established Israeli artist. She says the award has been a huge boost for her, in terms of exposure, critical success and the value of her works.

Daniel says she plunged into the arts when she applied to the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in part because back in 1995 she didn't really know anyone beyond her husband's family and a few other friends. "I knew I would need my own corner, my own world to maintain my sanity," she recalls. She was accepted into the program, where she was the only native English speaker in her class. After obtaining both a Bachelor's and Master's of Fine Arts in 2006, she began exhibiting her works in galleries here and abroad while residing in Jerusalem, Herzliya and most recently Jaffa.

Nahum Tevet, the head of the master's program at Bezalel, says Daniel's development as a student was remarkable. "She came out as a completely surprising, unexpected and different artist, and she is an example of what can happen if you are really devoted to your work and open to changing your image of yourself." He adds that the influence of the immigration experience on Daniel reminds him of a couple of Russian students who also attended the program.

Daniel says that even if she had become a painter but had stayed in Canada, "I don't believe that I would be painting my family." But since she left, her immediate family, young and old, comes up in a number of her works currently displayed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art - around and on top of a birthday cake in one scene.

The palette of colors at the exhibit predominantly comes from Canada, she says, with somber purples and greens. Although one might think the images evoke comforting memories from the Old Country, such as a painting of her grandmother sweeping snow off a car, Daniel insists her works are "anti-nostalgic," stressing they are "completely not sentimental."

Another influence on her current exhibit - open through June 12 - was the arrival of Ido 16 months ago. Whereas she says she used to go to her studio and paint like a 9-to-5 job, motherhood has forced her to "steal moments" whenever possible, even after midnight if necessary.

One of her favorite works in the current show is "Peacock" - a self-portrait with Ido, alongside a body of water. "It was the painting I struggled with the most; one which I nearly scrapped after periodically returning to it during several months," she explains. "It was so visually dense and demanding, that I could never stay in the room with it for longer than a few hours at a time before my eyes and brain started burning." She says at one point she cut it in half and saved the left side, plugging away until it finally worked for her.

Motherhood also brought out certain anxieties, which are reflected in her exhibition. "I am a sunny person by nature, but I carry with me very dark thoughts constantly, and this came to a peak when my son was born," she explains. "I became a very fearful person, and poignantly afraid of the world and this definitely had an impact on this particular series."

Some of those anxieties reach back to her first year in Israel. "The idea that life is vulnerable was sharpened after I landed here in the middle of a great big mess. Rabin was assassinated, the [second] intifada broke out, and my world just became absurd," she says. "I think everyone has been scarred."