Israel trip inspires art

In organizing a 12-day trip to Israel with a group of friends last May, USC Professor Ruth Weisberg made certain that her itinerary included historic sites, cultural events and meals in the homes of friends. She also blocked out at least four hours daily for her fellow travelers to draw, paint or sketch.

“We drew every day,” said Weisberg, director of the USC Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities. “It was not a trip for everyone. It was a trip for people who really wanted to work.”

This agenda came as no surprise to the tour-goers, as all are working professional artists who have taken similar trips with Weisberg before. Participants included Jan Langdon Handtmann, a mixed-media artist and designer whose works have been displayed around the world; Ellen Lee, an oil painter who has exhibited in China; Gayle Garner Roski, the watercolorist who endowed USC’s Roski School of Art and Design; Susie Gesundheit, an acclaimed painter and printmaker and her architect/photographer husband, Jaime. Weisberg herself is an internationally recognized artist and scholar with more than 80 solo exhibitions and 190 group exhibitions around the world. 

The product of the trip is on display at the USC Hillel Art Gallery through March 9, titled “Israel Through Our Eyes.” Jaime Gesundheit documented the trip via a series of photographs, which are also on display.

The works that came out of the trip were an assemblage of styles and themes, from the 4-by-8-foot mixed media collage “Conflict Resolution” to Susie Gesundheit’s series of monotypes reflecting on a Chassidic man in Jerusalem drinking from a cup. Roski turned her sketch book/travel journal into a series of water colors, which she bordered with designs from Armenian pottery that she encountered in the Mount Zion Hotel. 

Some of the territory and accompanying experiences were familiar to Weisberg, Roski and the Gesundheits, who all have been to Israel multiple times. The Gesundheits even visited family in the Holy Land during this trip. 

Lee and Handtmann, however, were visiting Israel for the first time. Since some of the participants are are not Jewish, Weisberg programed visits to important Christian sites that she had never seen, such as the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 

In addition to providing plenty of inspiration for creativity, the multifaith elements of the itinerary led to emotional experiences. Lee, who viewed the trip as much as a pilgrimage as a work trip, marveled at the diversity of people she encountered in the Church of All Nations and was particularly overcome with emotion when she touched the Western Wall. 

“In the church, you could see Ethiopian Catholics next to Korean Protestants and they would all be praying and singing hymns. There would be a group of Greek Orthodox listening very intently to their spiritual leader,” recalled Lee. “Sometimes you had the feeling that, although we’re all so different and so diverse, if you looked a little bit underneath, there are similar sentiments that we all share.” 

The group spent a day at the renowned Jerusalem Print Workshop. Excursions out of Jerusalem took them to the coastal cities of Jaffa and Caesarea, where Weisberg was particularly struck by the ruins of Herod’s palace and pleasure grounds. 

“The sense of the passage of time is so powerful,” Weisberg said. “We sat up on a cliff at a restaurant overlooking these formations that I just assumed when I first glanced at them were rock formations. If it were the California coast, you would think rocks.  No! These are ancient walls built by Herod.”

During the designated work hours, the artists most often gravitated toward restaurants offering views from terraces, which they quickly commandeered. On one occasion, representatives from the Jewish National Fund tried to help stir the creative spirit by bringing the group into the Sataf forest on the western fringes of Jerusalem to a hill with a marvelous vista. The view was indeed panoramic … but artistically unsuitable.

“Everything is in the distance. It’s not a good place to draw,” Weisberg said. “They were shocked that we weren’t thrilled at their choice of place. We had to very quickly find another solution, which turned out to be a restaurant with a terrace, and we had a great day.”

Weisberg laughed at the memory: “The best laid plans sometimes get changed because you don’t know what it’s actually going to be like until you get there. You’re having an experience in real time and that’s part of the pleasure and a little bit part of the tension, especially if you’re leading a group.”

Back in the United States, the artists had an ideal exhibition space at USC Hillel, one of the few Hillels on an American college campus with a working art gallery, according to Bailey London, the Allen and Ruth Ziegler executive director of USC Hillel. Weisberg and Susie Gesundheit, who chairs the art gallery committee, have long associations with USC Hillel. When they approached newly appointed London about the “Israeli Through Our Eyes” exhibition, she jumped at the opportunity. 

So did the public. The exhibit’s opening reception on Jan. 26 with all of the artists drew 100 guests to the gallery. London estimates that about 10 percent of the student population at USC is Jewish, and the Hillel community often turns out in great force for art-related activities and programs.

“The subject of the exhibition is incredibly relevant,” she said. “This is an opportunity to bridge the art of USC artists with the Jewish students on campus. Some of these artists are not Jewish, but they responded to issues that are very dear to the heart of our Jewish students.”  

Erica Muhl, dean of the Roski School, knows all of the artists and was intrigued to see what they would produce.

“They’re all extraordinary and very different, and so I was really anxious to see how each one of them would portray not just the actual country and the actual locales that they visited, but their impression of it,” Muhl said. “I was kind of excited to vicariously visit Israel through these artists’ eyes.”

The artists returned from Israel with more than just art and fresh inspiration. Weisberg, who was scheduled to be part of a b’nai mitzvah upon her return, had hoped to find a tallit in Israel. Jaime Gesundheit guided her to a store in Jaffa where Weisberg found what she was looking for. When she went to pay for it, the storekeeper refused to take her money. Members of the group had purchased the tallit as a gift.

“So if you want a moving story, there it is,” Weisberg said. “I have a very beautiful tallit and every time I wear it, I think of this wonderful group of friends and fellow artists who kind of understood my spiritual journey. They all came to the b’nai mitzvah and it was very special.”