Ilana Shafir, artist, survivor

Ilana ShafirBurning Bushurban detailfly queen

From sad portraits of Jews to intricate mosaics, Ilana Shafir has created many works of art. I had the pleasure of attending a Highland Park Arts Commission lecture Thursday night (thanks, Jill, for getting me out of the house) where Ilana spoke to a full audience.

Ilana was born in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. She always wanted to study art formally, but as a teenager there was no opportunity. Then the Nazis invaded. Her family managed to escape to a little village called Kula, where she drew portraits of the villagers. When asked how she managed to get art supplies during the war, she replied: “It was a miracle.” After the war, she studied at the Art Academy of Zagreb. In 1949 she made Aliyah (moved to Israel). She settled in Ashkelon, where she still lives today, with a garden full of her mosaics and her whimsical ceramic creatures.

In order to find models for her portraits in her early days in Israel, she went to the local “ma’abara” (transit camp) and created sketches, paintings and prints of the exotic (to her European eyes) residents from Yemen, North Africa, and other areas of the world where Jews had left to come to Israel. I was disappointed that these lovely portraits as well as earlier ones from her European days, which she showed us in her slide show, are not on her website.

At some point someone said to her: “Who is going to hang portraits of sad Jews in their museum?” Around the same time she developed an allergy to turpentine. At first she wore gloves, but this was not enough. She told us a funny aside, that on Purim, when the kids dressed up as artists in Ashkelon, they wore gloves!

Her art style switched to fantastic ink and watercolor paintings, ceramic creatures, and finally, the medium she loves the most, mosaic. She told us it takes 6-7 months for her to complete a mosaic. Talk about stamina and drive.

If you are in Ashkelon, her mosaics are on display in various public places, including a syngagogue, where her mosaic of Jerusalem has the names of family members who perished in the Holocaust and a “Z”, standing for the star Jews had to wear in Sarajevo during the war. Other Jewish themes are the Burning Bush (shown under her photo on this post) and the Tree of Life (with one tree on top of another, each generation has its roots in the former generation, she explained).

The presentation was an introduction by her daughter, a talk by Ilana with slide show, and a short movie by her son, Giora. Learn more:

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