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Israeli artist Lisa Gross finds possibilities in everyday materials
By Lisa Kingstone, Jweish Ledger Weekly Newsletter, January 2005

When artist Lisa Gross made her sculpture Adam and Eve, she wanted Eve to lead Adam out of Eden, so she placed him slightly behind her, but because Eve's head was made out of a birdcage, people thought she was symbolically trapped.

"I'm not an intellectual conceptualizer," she says about this surprising interpretation. "I enjoy the surprise of what turns up after combining several parts, and the piece begins to take shape."

Her work has been shown in Israel and Vienna, and she is planning an Assemblages with Jewish mythological legends for a show at the JCC Manhattan, New York City next year.

In Israel, the constant news about bombings and armies influences how Israelis see her art. In one of her Assemblages, the lower third had an elongated animal that she envisioned as a mother bird with another baby bird walking in the opposite direction on its back.

"Invariably people saw this baby bird as a sight where one looks through a weapon," she says in a phone interview from her home in Tel Aviv.

Another piece had a textured rusty metal gasoline tin that she thought looked like a Korean lord, but Israelis saw it as a soldier's backpack.

Living in Tel Aviv, it is easy to find the materials for her work because "Israel is full of junk." Anything she is able to envision in her art will do: old leather gloves, cardboard in the rain with the soft layers exposed, the mudguards of a bicycle, an old folding porch chair, crushed tin cans, and (because she's in Israel), parts from date palms. Occasionally, she'll go to a metal supplier to look in the junk heap. Her triptych called "Dream" is Chagall-like with its dreamy ambiance and is made of painted corrugated tin. Her art is not limited to manmade objects. One of her sculptures entitled "Bird" is an upside down palm branch mounted like a spindly bird with feathers.

Gross began working with ceramics, but in 1996, she developed allergies to the dust and glazes. Inspired by her sister Jeanne Steig (married to children's book illustrator William Steig) who was living in Boston and making little house gods, she started "fooling around" with doll like things, but soon she wanted to work bigger. She moved out to a studio, the first step in growing up as an artist and taking herself seriously.

Her first large-scale piece began with a pair of floodlights that her husband said she should throw away. But they looked like breasts to her, so she kept them. An old cake tin became a pair of hips with old nylons holding them together. A bag of netting for potatoes made a halter top. Because Madonna was the first to wear her underwear on the outside, she named the sculpture after her. This spontaneous emerging of art is typical of how her creative process works. She doesn't have a plan, but the idea develops as she begins to work with her hands.

"The original idea is often gone when I'm finished," she says.

She and her husband, Bill Gross, moved to Israel right after the Six-Day War when everyone was "walking tall." They both had Zionist backgrounds (they met at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as teens). Both felt Israel would be a utopian way of bringing up their three children.

Her formal art education was at Kalisher art school in Tel Aviv from 1972-1983, but art was always a part of her life. Her mother was an art major and encouraged her four daughters to create.

"They didn't tell us to go out and play; they gave us crayons," she says.

Savoring old things also has a direct connection to her childhood. Her father, Maurice Spertus, was an industrialist, and artist, but his hobby was collecting art on Jewish subjects. He donated his textiles and papercuts to the Jewish Museum in Chicago where it is now housed in the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.

Lisa Gross' exhibit was recently on display at the Hankin Gallery of Design in Tel Aviv/Holon. For more information, visit th vbe Web site www.lisworks.com.