November 13, 2018

From Lace to the Art of Steel

It might be the strangest career shift ever: A woman who was a successful wedding dress designer left it all to sculpt dogs out of discarded bicycle parts. 

But Nirit Levav Packer has never been happier. For the 55-year-old Tel Aviv native, happiness is inexorably linked with the ever-changing process of creativity. Despite owning a thriving bridal-wear business with multiple stores throughout Israel, Levav Packer felt her creativity was going stale.

“It just no longer felt good. Most of the day-to-day [routine] had very little to do with creativity,” she said in her newly minted gallery in Jaffa’s flea market. “It was more [about] running a business, dealing with seamstresses, customers and that sort of thing.”

So, in 2013, Levav Packer shuttered her business and embarked on a journey of self-discovery. She took courses in everything from ceramics to silversmithing. She built a greenhouse in her backyard in lieu of a workshop and started creating, using little more than her intuition and bits of scrap. 

“I just started collecting stuff: silicone, mattress springs — anything I could get my hands on — and played with it until something emerged,” she said. 

Pretty soon, Levav Packer had become an obsessive collector of junk. When she had enough of any one item—keys, matches, stones or candles — she’d start to create. But while people loved her work, they weren’t “getting” it, she said. “I knew I had to focus, to narrow it down to one subject and one material.” 

And so, “Unchained,” a series of sculpted dogs made out of bicycle parts, was born. Like real dogs, every one of Levav Packer’s canine avatars is unique: from “Sit the Dachshund,” made with a bike seat for the head, pedals for paws and a bicycle chain for the body, to Tuzy the pooping mutt. Despite their cold, steely elements, the one thing these creatures have in common is a startling warmth and lifelikeness.  

I just started collecting stuff: silicone, mattress springs — anything I could get my hands on — and played with it until something emerged. — Nirit Levav Packer

Another series, “From Within,” documents Levav Packer’s fascination with pregnant women. Crude materials typically associated with masculinity, such as engine valves, are juxtaposed with the soft lines of the female body. But for Levav Packer, their coupling is seamless and represents the power of women, which, according to her, is felt most during pregnancy and childbirth.  

Her unconventional use of materials was influenced by her parents: Her mother is an arts and crafts teacher who told Levav Packer it was a pity to throw things out, and her father is a well-known set designer for both theater and film. He fashioned the planes for the 1976 movie “Raid on Entebbe.” 

The nature of her father’s job meant that he was often under deadline pressure. During those times, Levav Packer was instructed to skip school and come and help him in his workshop, which is where she learned to weld. 

The opening of her first gallery in Jaffa this month represents a reconciliation of sorts surrounding a central conceit in Levav Packer’s creative process. While on the one hand her instinct is to close herself in her studio and enter into her work as a kind of solitary meditation, she is acutely aware that her creations have far more exhibitionist tendencies than their creator. 

“Everyone who encounters them is moved in some way,” she said. 

Because her creations beg to be seen—and in some cases even touched—Levav Packer only charges a token entrance fee of a couple of dollars. The idea, she said, was to make sure that even those without pockets deep enough to buy art feel comfortable enough to come in and enjoy it. 

Her gallery — converted from stables that once belonged to the historic Khan hotel — has exposed brick walls and yawning arches, and is just as raw as the materials she uses in her art. Her rags-to-riches sculptures look as if they had always been there.