From junk to art
Malka Nedivi is known for her huge sculptures — roughly hewn, sometimes eerie figures that can reach up to 10 feet high — and collage paintings that are made of galvanized metal, chicken coop wire, pieces of old clothing, and fabrics and papers.
Her choice of material tells the story of her life growing up in the house of a hoarder. As a youth in Israel, Nedivi lived among cardboard boxes and plastic bags filled with clothes and pieces of junk collected by her mother, who appears as the image of an old woman in many of the artist’s mixed-media art.
Malka Nedivi with “Bubbeleh,” mixed media (chicken wire, fabric, paper, acrylic paint and glue on a wood box). Photo by Ayala Or-El
“It’s interesting that all the things that she collected, and I couldn’t stand, are the things I’m using in my art,” she said. “It happened more after she passed away. Somebody told me that I’m one of those people who take a lemon and turn it to lemonade. It’s like taking those things which caused me pain and suffering and turning them into something beautiful. It was very healing.”
Nedivi, of Woodland Hills, said she always was embarrassed by her mother, Tzipora, who was so different from the other “cool” Israeli moms with their modern clothes and stylish hairdos.
“My mom was a hoarder, and I was very ashamed of her and my house,” Nedivi said from her home studio. “In between the walls [were] piles and piles of boxes and things my mom had collected throughout the years. Anything that ever entered our house never left it. My mom never threw out anything. The children in the neighborhood used to laugh at her, about the way she looked, the way she dressed and how she used to collect things out in the streets. I was very ashamed to bring friends over. I didn’t want them to see how we lived.”
Born in 1952 in Rehovot, Nedivi is the only child of two Holocaust survivors who shared the same room with her until she turned 18. “We had a small house. In the living room, we didn’t have a couch, only some chairs and a TV. We also had a balcony with table and chairs. I used to study there for my finals so I wouldn’t wake up my parents.”
After her service in the military, Nedivi married filmmaker Udi Nedivi and moved to Los Angeles. It was a career move for her husband, but for Nedivi, who studied theater and literature at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, it was a chance to get away from the memories and the shame. She went on to study film at UCLA and work as an assistant editor before getting involved in art, first through ceramics and then through large-scale sculpture and collage paintings.
Seventeen years after arriving in the U.S., Nedivi received a phone call from Israel: Her mother’s health was deteriorating and she refused to move into a nursing home.
“It was hard for her to part with her things … and also the management was not thrilled about having her move in,” Nedivi said. “They were afraid she was going to collect things. … I tried to bring my mom someone to take care of her at home, but none of them lasted long. They all left, one after the other. … I knew I didn’t have any choice but go and take care of her myself.”
By that time, Nedivi was a mother of three children. Her son, Ben, was about to go to college and her daughters were in elementary school and middle school. With the support of her husband, she packed her suitcases and moved back to Israel with her daughters in tow.
“I knew that if I didn’t take care of her, nobody else would,” she said. “Before I left, my husband handed me a new camera and told me: ‘You can do it. Document your mother.’ He knew that it was going to help me. So I took the camera and filmed 120 hours, which I edited later into a 93-minute film.”
The resulting documentary, “Tzipora’s Nest,” was filmed during the time Nedivi spent in Israel caring for her mother. It tells the story of her mom and the last years of her life, surrounded by endless piles of junk and plastic bags full of different items she collected.
“At first, when I moved back to Israel, I thought I should film my [older] daughter — how an American girl who studied all her life in an American-Jewish school arrives in an Israeli school — but in the end, I only documented my mom. And while working on the movie, something good had happened. I started understanding her better. I fell in love with her. I rediscovered my mom.”
Nedivi spoke with a psychologist about why her mom collected things.
“He explained to me that people who went through such a trauma — as she did during the Holocaust, losing her parents and all her family — are left with holes in their heart. She was trying to fill in the holes with the things she collected. Like filling the void in her life.”
That was something she didn’t understand growing up.
“Back then, in those days, nobody talked about this phenomena, no one discussed this problem of hoarding. I didn’t know why my mother collected all these items and why our house didn’t look like the houses of the rest of my friends,” Nedivi said.
“I remember going to visit my two best friends and enjoying the cleanliness and order in their house. I wanted to have such a house so badly. I begged my mother to turn the balcony to a bedroom, just like the neighbors did, but it never happened. I think that one of the reasons I was so happy to leave Israel and move here to Los Angeles was because I felt free of the shame that followed me back then. I have friends who live in the States and they would like so much to move back to Israel, but I never wanted to. I was always happy to live here; for me, it was a sense of freedom.”
After her mom’s death, Nedivi began cleaning the small house. “I threw away everything. Till this day, I love throwing out stuff. I can’t have any small stuff at home. Whatever I didn’t use for a year or two, I throw away,” she said.
The experience proved therapeutic — and influential on her art, in which she layers fabric with glue and other torn materials to form large, looming figures. Most recently, she had an exhibition, “Mother and Daughter,” at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles on Fairfax Avenue, which ended in September.
Although she was eager to please the critics, she said she is also ready to have her art reach the masses.
“There were those who told me in the past that the reason I’m not able to sell my art is because I don’t want to separate from it,” she said. “But now, I felt ready to let go, and suddenly I started selling.”