Sorour Abdollahi’s solo exhibit Intersecting Landscapes is now at Zack Gallery. (photo by Olga Livshin)
Over the years, Iranian-Canadian artist Sorour Abdollahi has participated in several group shows at Zack Gallery, but the current exhibition, Intersecting Landscapes, which opened on Sept. 7, is her first solo show here.
“Sorour is definitely not the first non-Jewish artist with a solo show at the Zack,” said gallery director Hope Forstenzer. For years, the mission of the Zack Gallery, which is in the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, has been to showcase Jewish artists and art dedicated to Jewish themes, she said. Non-Jewish artists were not excluded, but they usually appeared in group shows.
“The big difference in the past few years,” said Forstenzer, “has been an expansion of the definition of a Jewish theme to include a wider variety of human universal experiences that reflect on Jewish cultural history and traditions.… Sorour’s work, while not as overtly Jewish as some, addresses the concept of diaspora and its impact on culture and memory. When we made the decision to show her work, it was based on the concept of a cultural nostalgia for home as an inherently Jewish theme. And the response to it, so far, has borne that out – it has had a very strong emotional impact on the community here at the JCC and has already engendered discussion of the Jewish diaspora.”
Abdollahi has been a professional artist all her life. “I’ve always painted, since I was a child,” she told the Independent.
She received her art education in Iran, and her first solo art show happened there in 1987. A successful artist, working in mixed media and acrylics, she regularly exhibited in Iran, participating in multiple group and solo shows in various cities, including Tehran and Isfahan. The only big gap in her exhibiting schedule occurred when she immigrated to Canada. “We came here in 2000,” she said. “We did it for the children.”
Like all immigrants, she struggled with the new language and new culture. “It was several years later, when my children grew older, that I enrolled in Emily Carr [University of Art + Design] part time,” she recalled. “I wanted to become familiar with the local art scene, with the educators and the artists. I wanted to become a part of the local artistic community. And it worked beautifully. My friendships with wonderful Vancouver artists Devora and Sidi Schaffer stem from those days.”
Five years after her immigration, Abdollahi felt immersed enough in the British Columbia art vista to open her own studio and gallery in Yaletown.
“People would pass my gallery on the street, and some would come in,” she said. “They asked questions. I felt that my art connected.”
That connection gave her the courage to join the Eastside Culture Crawl – the biggest visual art festival in Vancouver – 10 years ago.
Abdollahi’s current show at the Zack represents the scope of her art perfectly. It consists of old and new paintings from several different series. A blend of abstract and figurative art, her paintings are airy and bright. Most of them have vague architectural connotations and employ a predominantly blue and green palette reminiscent of spring and rebirth. The abstract forms, sometimes utterly modern, often reveal faint outlines of ruins, shimmering in the mist, in the background.
“I grew up in the land of contradictions, where a traditional way of living juxtaposed a modern, Western lifestyle,” she said. “Those contradictions manifested in the landscape surrounding me, the historical against the contemporary, with layers of change and transformation.”
Immigration to a new country profoundly impacts her imagery.
“In my paintings, I examine the relationship between memories and the external landscape,” she said. “My Iranian background and my Canadian experience have had an enormous influence on my works. They inspired a negotiation between the modern and the ancient, the old and the new, the West and the East. Ancient ruins and Persian architecture play a pivotal role, too. They have enabled me to express the conflict and the negotiation process that often exists between two different cultures or societies. While the ruins speak of a mysterious, pure and mystical past, they also illustrate the corrosive effect of time and modernity, the constant reconfiguration of a country’s landscape, architecture and culture. The dripping paint in many of my pictures also illuminates the process of renewal. The old slides down, while the new grows over it. My paintings attempt to form a bridge between the past and the present.”
Two of the paintings particularly stand out. “The Magical Carpet” is a collage, full of the whimsical patterns, warm hues and bright shapes of a traditional eastern bazaar, with the artist’s customary ruins in the background.
Another painting, “Letters from Beyond”, with its strong punch of red paint, uses fragments of writing that are wholly imaginary. “The language and the letters in that writing don’t belong to any nation,” Abdollahi said. “I created it because I believe that we are all the same people. We should have no borders and no different languages separating us. That’s why I wanted to have a show here, at the Jewish Community Centre. I feel like my art is a link that connects us all.”
Abdollahi’s works can be found in private collections in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Micah Groberman with his son, Evan. (photo by Micah Groberman)
The current photography exhibit at the Zack Gallery, Discoveries: A New Way Forward, allows visitors a peek into the wilderness of British Columbia. A bird serenades the sunset. A bear crosses a road. A coyote glares into the camera. Even a Whistler bridge seems to lead to an adventure in the forests and mountains of our province. The photographer, Micah Groberman, talked to the Independent about his art and how the pandemic set him on his new creative course.
“Before the pandemic, I had a business with a partner, Ivan Solomon. We did many different things, but mostly we designed wall murals for children’s stores, hospitals and private clinics,” said Groberman. “After the pandemic hit, we couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t stay inside the enclosed spaces for the long time it takes to create a large mural. Many places closed. School was canceled. I had to stay at home and take care of my sons.”
For Groberman, instructing his elementary school sons from a set curriculum was frustrating. “I’m not good at math,” he joked. So he found something else to do with his boys. He shared his passion for nature with them. They went for walks in local parks. And they took photographs.
“I started taking photos when I was about 9,” Groberman recalled. “It was with a simple camera, the point-and-shoot kind. I enjoyed it and did it for a long time, simply for myself and my family. During COVID, my photography took a more serious turn. I wanted to do it well. I wanted to learn. I watched videos on YouTube. You can find all sorts of useful tips online. I got myself some professional gear, a large camera. And I took photos. Many, many photos. I learned by doing.”
Groberman classifies his images into three categories: landscape, wildlife (which includes all his animal and bird shots) and fine art. The last category is the most inclusive. It overlaps with landscape and boasts some unusual shots, like a PNE ride from a rare angle or an old pickup surrounded by flowers that displays an uplifting message in its cargo bed.
“I took it last year at the Richmond Sunflower Festival,” Groberman explained. “The organizers put the old truck among the flowers, and I thought it looked interesting.”
Many of his images, especially of wildlife, are fascinating because he has sought them out. In addition to artistic skill and adequate hardware, nature photography requires a great deal of perseverance and patience. Groberman has both.
“The bear that crosses the road – I took this picture from my car,” he said. “We were in Whistler, driving around, looking for bears. It took us three hours, until one walked out of the woods.”
Another of his amazing wildlife shots is a coyote on a piece of driftwood. “I noticed him hiding in the bushes on the other side of a stream in Richmond. I followed him for about five minutes, with only glimpses, until he came out and stared at me. I took the shot, but I was glad there was water between us.”
While taking his own photos, Groberman tried to share his knowledge with his sons. “My younger son wasn’t that interested,” he said, “but my older son, Evan, took to photography. I taught him, and he inspired me. Many of my photos in this show I took when I was with him. I think teaching him made me a better photographer.”
Groberman hadn’t ever exhibited his photos prior to the pandemic. He had never even thought about doing so. “It was just a hobby,” he said. “But, in 2020, I participated in a group show at the Zack. A couple of my son Evan’s photos were also on display. That’s how I first met Hope [Forstenzer], the gallery director.”
According to Groberman, the current show was supposed to be a double feature, including a sculptor as well. “But the sculptor didn’t happen,” he said, “so it became my solo photography show. There are 37 images in the show: 30 are mine, seven are Evan’s. We have a show together.”
The name of the show – Discovery – came from the experiences shared between father and son. “Our walks together were bonding,” said Groberman. “We discovered things together. Evan discovered new skills. I discovered a new way to move forward and I discovered teaching. That’s where the name of the show came from.”
Groberman hopes that his wall mural business will recover once the pandemic ends, but he also sees several new avenues for his creativity.
“I want to do more with my photography,” he said. “I’m exploring different options, trying to establish myself locally. I went to stores to offer them prints of my photos and postcards. I rented a bunch of my prints to a movie set. I entered local contests. One of my photos – a mama hummingbird feeding her babies – was featured on CBC. Another – a photo of a heron – won the Richmond banner contest last year in the nature category. You will see my heron on the streetlights in Richmond. I have an Instagram account. I’m just starting with photography, but I want to see where I can end up.”
Discover opened on Oct 4 and runs until Nov. 7. Learn more about Groberman’s work at micahgphotography.com.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Patch cultivation, or box fields, in the Judean Lowlands. Image is from the 2017 article “The Origin of Terracing in the Southern Levant and Patch Cultivation/Box Fields” by Shimon Gibson and Rafael Lewis in the Journal of Landscape Ecology. (photo from Rafael Lewis)
Rosh Hashanah is upon us and that means time for a special seder with blessings over eight different fruits and vegetables. One of the chosen fruits is the pomegranate (rimon in Hebrew), most likely because the Israeli pomegranate ripens around the Jewish New Year. Over the pomegranate, we recite the following blessing: “May it be Your will, G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that we be filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate [is filled with seeds].”
Interestingly, the pomegranate is one of the seven species mentioned in the Torah (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25). Jerusalem has never been considered prime agricultural land, but farmers of old actually grew pomegranates and other fruits – once they had cleared the rocky hills for cultivation.
How challenging was ancient Jerusalem’s topography and climate? Jerusalem has no natural resources (including water) or fertile land. It is situated on a range of hills running north to south between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Jordan Rift Valley to the east. The Hills of Ephraim extend from the Jezreel Valley southward through Shechem (Nablus) and Ramallah. The Judean Hills run southward from Jerusalem through Bethlehem and Hebron down to Beersheva. The watershed runs through the heart of the range. Jerusalem is about 800 metres above sea level; the hills to the north, Shechem, 950 metres; and, to the south, Hebron, 1,000 metres.
Today, Jerusalem’s annual rainfall is about 553 millimetres, with rainfall limited to the months of November through March. Historically, however, while there were fluctuations – including two periods of severe drought – it still appears that, until the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was receiving more precipitation than it does today.
Given that less-than-compelling physical description, it is somewhat amazing that any early people stuck around to farm on Jerusalem’s hillsides. Those who stayed applied the ancient technique of terracing, which, as Haaretz’s Nir Hasson has stated, is simply “a series of steps, with the earth held back by a wall of stones to enable tilling the mountainside.”
Setting up and maintaining the terracing, however, is easier said than done. After you manually clear the rocks (a process called izuq in Hebrew), you have to haul over a layer of fertile soil. But your preparations still aren’t complete. You then have to lug back the cleared rocks to create retaining walls. The retaining walls keep the terraces from collapsing during Israel’s rainy season. Only then could you get down to planting.
Most of the farming on the terraced areas of the Judean Mountains was done without artificial irrigation. Farmers harvested pomegranates, grapes, olives and figs watered solely by rainfall.
How do we know people used terraces so long ago? Jon Seligman, an archeologist and the Israel Antiquities Authority’s director of external relations and archeological licensing, wrote his doctorate on the “rural hinterland” of Jerusalem during the Byzantine period. He concluded that, given Jerusalem’s hilly and rocky topography, there must have been terraces. In fact, in Hebrew, the word step also refers to terrace.
Other scholars have noted that, at some Judean Mountain sites, such as Mevasseret Yerushalayim, the terraces were natural features of the landscape. That the terraces were already there did not rule out all the problems, though. For instance, archeologists discovered that the soil in this area was a different colour, implying farmers had dragged in earth from other locations. When the terrace was wide enough, the farmer worked with a plow. When it was very narrow, the farmer was forced to use a hoe or mattock.
Overall, the size of the irrigated areas in the Judean Mountains was quite small. In these irrigated terraces, farmers chose to grow vegetables, rather than to cultivate orchards. The irrigated areas consisted of three parts: construction of a storage system to hold spring water, slightly raised channels to convey the spring water and level terraces.
In the valleys of the mountains, farmers occasionally had to deal with draining off excess water caused by floods or heavy rains. They did this by extending the terracing deep into the valley. Where necessary, they built drain lines. The drain lines were built at levels lower than the channels. On a needs basis, farmers constructed stone walls to divert excess water.
There is evidence that early terracing took place initially in the lower parts of hill slopes, closer to the wadi (valley or ravine which is dry except in the rainy season) beds, which were also terraced, with newer terraces later being built further up the slopes following woodland removal.
Apparently, the chief consideration in ancient and Arab settlements in the Judean Mountains was on preserving cultivatable areas. Hence, most of these settlements ended up on mountain plateaus and adjoining ridge crests.
But how did early people come to consider terracing? For more than 100 years now, some archeologists have been suggesting box fields or patch cultivation may have sparked early attempts at terracing. Box fields or patch cultivation denote the natural step-like appearance of the rocky slopes of hills, with thin layers of chalky marl interposed between limestone or dolomite strata.
Some researchers contend that these box fields were used on deforested slopes. Shimon Gibson and Rafael Lewis write in a 2017 article in the Journal of Landscape Ecology that their appearance on Jerusalem’s hilly slopes (and in other parts of ancient Israel and Jordan) were “sufficiently broad and deep enough to accommodate the root systems of one or sometimes two trees, usually olive trees. While limited in size, they constitute leveled cultivable soils on sloping rocky ground.”
Moreover, “box fields were also recorded as a phenomenon on the hill slope of Sataf, west of Jerusalem. During excavations at this site, the remains of houses and installations dating from the Chalcolithic period (4800-3500 BCE) were found adjacent to two springs of water. Due to the very steep angle of the Sataf hill slope, there can be no doubt some form of retained fields must have existed there during that period…. Indeed, an agricultural terrace from the Early Bronze I (3330-3050 BCE) was excavated at the site, and it too may have been a development of a box field.”
About 35 years ago, at the Sataf Spring, the Jewish National Fund began to reestablish the ancient terraced fields. The organization’s purpose was to preserve the cultural heritage of terracing and to preserve the landscape. The terraces are more or less the same size as the ancient steps. The trees found at the terraces are from the original species – basically, the biblical seven species, which includes olives, pomegranates, dates, grapes and figs.
Part of the terraces have trees, which grow from rainfall only, and part of the terraces contain organic vegetables and herbs irrigated by Sataf’s springs. Spring water travels to the vegetable plots via channels. These channels are simply opened and closed by earth and stone banking. When Jerusalem has a “wet winter,” i.e. with plenty of rain, the fields are watered solely by rain.
The terraces are maintained by a small staff headed by Gidi Bashan and a large number of volunteers. The work is all done by hand. There is no mortar used in the stone walls. Consequently, heavy rains occasionally seep in between the stones, eventually pushing out the stones. The collapsed walls must then be rebuilt, one stone at a time. In addition, there are some 55 small allotments, which allow Jerusalem residents – for a token fee – to farm in their spare time.
Terracing in the Judean Mountains has altered the flow of both the spring water and the run-off water. It has largely halted the growth of the area’s natural vegetation. It has changed the course of paths and roads.
South and west of Jerusalem, Arab villages have continued to employ terracing. Thus, according to EcoPeace Middle East (formerly known as Friends of the Earth Middle East), Battir, a village south of Jerusalem, still uses irrigated terraces, which date back 4,000 years. The terraces are the product of centuries of work. With the billion collected stones “piled one on top of another, generations have engaged in traditional farming. Spring water – stored in small pools – is channeled to the terraced fields by open canals. Today, Battir families grow olives, cabbage and eggplant just as was done in antiquity.
Terraces in any given area will look different, as it depends on what on-site raw materials are available.
From the First Temple period onward, thousands of agricultural terraces were in use around the Judean Mountains. They were destroyed and rebuilt during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. Farmers – including Arab families, until Israel’s War of Independence – and Jerusalem residents were able to make a living from a small number of repaired ancient Jerusalem-area terraces. While terraced farming will no longer provide enough produce to feed a large and expanding population, it is hoped that some terraces will continue to be part of Israel’s cultural heritage.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Cornelia Oberlander collaborated with architect Arthur Erickson on many projects, including the Downtown Vancouver Law Courts. (photo by Joe Mabel via commons.wikimedia.org)
At 95 years old, landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander can look back on a string of stellar accomplishments.
From the Arctic Circle to Vancouver, from Ottawa to New York to Berlin, Oberlander has carved out a new relationship between the urban environment and nature, created innovative approaches to playgrounds for generations of children and spearheaded initiatives for environmental sustainability.
But she is still struggling with one of the most intractable problems that she has confronted throughout her career, now stretching into its seventh decade. What does a landscape architect do?
When she walks onto the stage of Temple Sholom’s Dreamers and Builders Gala dinner on March 5 at Vancouver Convention Centre East, Oberlander will come with a simple message. “I do not just bring the bushes,” she says. “I take care of the environment.”
During a recent interview at her home near Pacific Spirit Park, Oberlander repeatedly comes back to the challenge of explaining the work of a landscape architect.
She passes quickly over projects that made her an influential trailblazer on the global stage. She does not want a spotlight shining on her own life story and her quiet but unwavering lifetime commitment to Temple Sholom. She is hesitant to say too much about projects she is now working on.
“Look at the big picture and not all the other stuff,” she tells me. She wants to talk about the design process, building landscapes commensurate with climate change, and the need for green spaces in cities.
She sees the gala as an educational opportunity. “It’s about tikkun olam, which means, to heal the earth,” she says.
At the inaugural Temple Sholom Dreamers and Builders Gala, Oberlander will be honoured for her work as a landscape architect and as a founding member of the synagogue. A highlight of the evening will be biographer Ira Nadel in conversation with Oberlander. Among his numerous books, Nadel, in 1977, co-authored with Oberlander and Lesley Bohm Trees in the City, which advocates for integration of trees into the pattern and function of urban activity.
Temple Sholom will also unveil an $1,800 youth award for a teen who has demonstrated a passion for healing the world through tikkun olam.
Oberlander has been called a national treasure, the dean of Canada’s landscape architects. With a feisty personality and resolute sense of purpose, she has been regarded as “a force of nature” and “the grand dame of green design.”
World-renowned “starchitect” Moshe Safdie has collaborated with Oberlander on several projects over the past 35 years, including the Vancouver Public Library and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. “It was a joy to work with her,” he says.
Oberlander is passionate about integrating landscape with architecture, says Safdie. “Above all, Cornelia is a great craftsman of landscape, paying as much attention to concepts as to the craft of sustaining plant-life both in the natural and built environment.”
Oberlander is a fearless innovator, says Phyllis Lambert, architect and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Oberlander not only considers the ecology, the natural environment and the nature of soils, plants, light and shade, she also looks into the history associated with the landscape and the architectural design. “No one else does that,” says Lambert.
When I phone Oberlander for an interview, she has difficulty finding time to speak with me. She maintains an incredibly busy professional life. “I just got another job this morning. I have six huge jobs,” she says shortly after we finally meet.
Oberlander works from a studio in her spectacular 1970 post-and-beam home on stilts above a ravine, surrounded by hemlocks, western cedars, big leaf maples and 20-foot-high rhododendron species. The boundary between indoors and outside is fuzzy. With huge glass walls, she can see forest and sky from most spots in her home.
Oberlander’s mother Beate Hahn, a horticulturalist, published books on gardening. Oberlander, born in Mulheim, Germany, decided when she was 11 that she wanted to create parks. Susan Herrington, in Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape, writes that Oberlander, by the age of 15, was sketching drawings of wooded parkland and experimenting with organic gardening, using birds and insects to mitigate pests.
Oberlander’s father, an industrial engineer, died in 1932 during an avalanche while skiing. Oberlander came to the United States in 1939 with her mother and sister and, after completing high school, enrolled in Smith College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts.
By the time she graduated from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1947, she viewed landscape architecture as much more than gardens. She had been taught to look for inspiration for design and plant material in history, art and culture and to seek out collaboration across disciplines. Oberlander now describes her approach as the art and science of the possible. The spark of creativity is the art; research coupled with analysis is the science.
Her perspective continued to evolve. “I am trying to show in my landscape today the impact of climate change and clean air, emphasis on alternative energy with low carbon emissions, sustainable use of water and land, preservation of endangered species and protection of the biodiversity,” she says in the interview. “We [landscape architects] are no longer just garden-making. We are creating environments for human beings that are commensurate with saving the environment.”
Oberlander worked in the early 1950s in Philadelphia before moving to Vancouver in 1953 with Peter Oberlander, who she met while at Harvard. Peter had been invited to Vancouver to establish the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.
In her early years in Vancouver, she designed landscapes for private homes and children’s playgrounds. Her innovative approach to playgrounds began to attract attention following her work on the Children’s Creative Centre at the Canada Pavilion at Expo ’67.
Oberlander reimagined what a playground could be. She replaced swings and metal climbing structures with trees, piles of sand, a stream, logs and covered areas. In the following years, her ideas about spontaneous exploration and unstructured play spread across the continent.
Although her name-recognition is limited outside professional circles, most Vancouverites have enjoyed the benefits of her designs. Oberlander reshaped how Vancouver relates to its waterfront with an idea she had in 1963, as she was driving along Jericho Beach. City staff were burning logs that had washed ashore. She recalls going straight to the park board office with a proposal to use the logs as benches. They gave her a hearing and heeded her advice.
It was her work in the 1970s with architect Arthur Erickson that took her reputation beyond the playground. Beginning a relationship that lasted more than 30 years, she collaborated with Erickson on the Robson Square courthouse and government complex, one of the earliest green roofs in North America. She created an oasis in the centre of Vancouver with white pines, Japanese maples, white azaleas, roses, dogwoods and citrus trees. Her work on Robson Square established her reputation for meticulous research into soils, plants and structures, her creative ideas, and her “invisible mending” for weaving nature into urban development.
At UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (1976), she designed a simulation of an open meadow in Haida Gwaii with indigenous grasses and plants used by First Nations for medicine and food. At the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 1988, she envisioned the landscape as an extension of the museum’s collection of Group of Seven paintings. Her work in the 1990s on the C.K. Choi Building at UBC, with its biological marsh to process recycled water, and the legislative building in the Northwest Territories, reflect her commitment to sustainability, the inclusion of social and cultural values and the use of native plants. Determined to rely on indigenous plants in the Arctic, she collected seeds and cuttings, and brought them to Vancouver to propagate. Three years later, she took the plants back and nestled them among the rocks outside the building.
Oberlander brought greenery to the heart of Manhattan in 2007, planting northern birch trees amid sculpted mounds in a central courtyard of the New York Times building. In Vancouver around the same time, she turned to botanist Archibald Menzies, who accompanied Captain George Vancouver in 1792, for the selection of plant material, bulbs and grasses on the roof garden at the Van Dusen Botanical Garden Visitors Centre. She used only plants that he described more than 220 years ago.
Pointing to stacks of research notes, drawings and books scattered about her studio and in two other rooms, she stresses the importance of research and of integrating the site with the building. She says she is constantly looking for new technologies to advance sustainability and respond to climate change. “As a landscape architect, you have to know the building, the reason for the building, the way the building works,” she says.
Oberlander is hesitant to reveal all her current commissions, saying some are “political.” But she mentions that, after our interview, she is going to a meeting on restoring the grounds of the so-called Friedman House, designed by Swiss architect Frederic Lasserre. The mid-century modern house, built in 1953 for Sydney and Constance Friedman, was her first project when she moved to Vancouver.
Also, she is part of a team redesigning a garden at the National Gallery of Ottawa, she is conducting research on the lack of green spaces in downtown Vancouver and she is working on a roof garden for a small apartment block in South Granville. As we talk, she pulls out drawings of a new roof garden at the Vancouver Public Library, where she is working with a team redesigning the roof garden that she designed in the early 1990s.
Oberlander has received the most prestigious awards in the world of landscape architecture but she diverts the focus away from her achievements. “What is amazing is that landscape architecture, the way I practise it, is being recognized,” she says.
Throughout her career, she and her husband Peter maintained close ties to Temple Sholom.
In searching for their place in the early 1960s in Vancouver’s Jewish community, the young couple with three children felt that something was missing. They decided to bring Reform Judaism, already familiar to Peter from his childhood in Vienna, to Vancouver. Gathering a small group of Jews in their living room in 1964, they were among the founders of Temple Sholom.
Oberlander shared her passions and talents with Temple Sholom over the years: providing honey and home-grown apples at Rosh Hashanah, reading the Book of Jonah with Peter on Yom Kippur for more than 20 years, and beautifying the holy community both inside with flowers for the High Holidays and with peaceful exterior landscapes. She also designed Temple Sholom’s cemetery in Surrey.
As I step outside at the end of the interview, she recalls the words of her husband Peter three days before he died in 2008.
“He said to me, tikkun olam,” she says. “I said, yes, you have done that all your life with the city and I with my greening efforts.
“And he looked me straight in the eye and said, you, Cornelia, must carry on.
“And so I know every day what I am supposed to do.”
Robert Matas, a Vancouver-based writer, is a former journalist with the Globe and Mail.
Sandy Blass’ solo exhibit No Other Country is at Zack Gallery until Dec. 12. (photo by Olga Livshin)
Artist Sandy Blass’ first solo show in Canada – No Other Country, a series of landscapes – opened last week at Zack Gallery.
Blass has always liked painting, and received her fine arts degree from the University of Calgary in 1984. She worked an office job full-time, raised her family in Calgary and painted as a hobby. Only after her children grew up could she allow herself the joy of following her heart into the arts. Although she still works – part-time at the Jewish Family Service Agency in Vancouver – she now considers herself a full-time artist.
Two important events contributed to her recent emergence as a full-time artist: first, she visited Israel for the first time in 2012; second, she moved to British Columbia in 2014.
Her show’s title, No Other Country, comes from the Hebrew song “I Have No Other Country,” about Israel, although, for Blass, a Jewish Canadian born and raised in Calgary, the sense of belonging is broader. “I belong in both places,” she said in an interview with the Independent, “Canada and Israel.” Her painting “Under the Same Sky,” an abstract play of lines and colors shaped like clouds, feels like the artist’s manifesto, reflecting her love for both countries.
Blass’ discovery of Israel and all things connected to Judaism came late in life. “My parents were Holocaust survivors. We didn’t talk about anything Jewish or about the war,” she explained. “Sometimes, my parents whispered about it but they never talked to me. Our home was secular and full of anxiety. My father always told me not to let anyone know that I was a Jew. Of course, after his concentration camp experience as a young boy, his fear was justified. I never questioned it.”
The older she grew, the more she wanted to learn about her roots and her family history. “I felt that I was missing something,” she said. “My father didn’t want to talk about the past, but my aunt did. She told me some of my family story when I was in my 20s. Later, I started painting with regard to my family history, exploring it through my imagery. I started going to shul. And, finally, I went to Israel.
“The first time – I traveled there in 2012 – I felt like I came full circle. I have family there, those who survived the war in Europe and immigrated to Israel afterwards. Since then, I’ve visited every year. I have even been thinking about aliyah, but not yet. I don’t feel that it is the right time.”
After that first visit, Israel found a permanent place in the artist’s heart and in her paintings. “Since I reconnected with my Jewish identity, I paint both Canadian and Israeli landscapes,” she said. “I traveled to Europe, too, but I never painted there.”
Blass’ bright, vibrant compositions are half real and half abstract, although they are always linked to a particular place. “The sky is always imaginary though,” she said with a smile. “I love painting sky and water. Blue and green are my favorite colors. I love painting reflections, whether in the ocean, a mountain lake, a sea, or just a puddle. This way, water and sky come together, and the best medium to express their coupling is watercolors.”
She paints her landscapes exclusively in watercolor, her favorite medium. “I fell in love with watercolor in high school,” she said. “I love its flow, the transparency of colors. I tried other media over the years – oils and acrylic – but nothing worked for me, while I flourish in watercolors.”
Although watercolor is not the most popular type of paint for professional artists – the majority throughout the centuries has preferred oils – she is in good company. “Watercolors have a respectable place in art history. Joseph Turner, one of the foremost British landscape painters, worked in watercolors,” she said, listing well-known artists who used the same medium she does. “Toni Onley, one of the few Canadian artists represented at the Tate Gallery in London, worked in watercolors. I also want to make inroads into contemporary art in watercolors.”
One of the reasons for her love of watercolor, surprisingly, is that the paintings are not finished when the artist puts down her brush. “I don’t have complete control. The painting is only done when the water stops flowing, dries thoroughly,” she explained. “I experiment with the water flow sometimes. I have a special art table where I paint, and I might change the angle of the surface to affect the water flow. The results could be interesting. Also, the time it takes to dry could be important. Vancouver is more humid than Calgary, so it takes more time for the paintings to dry here. I like the end results better.”
No Other Country continues until Dec 12. To learn more about Blass’ work, visit blassart.com.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].