It is hard to imagine what kind of job you are qualified for with a resume that includes making videos with Bob Dylan, running the complaints department of a high class pornographic book club and training horses. Luckily for Sali Ariel, who admits to having done all of the above during her "checkered past," her current full-time occupation as a painter requires no formal qualifications at all. Though she has been painting on and off for more than 40 years, it is only in the last three that her latest muse has come to the fore: Tel Aviv.
The city is often bypassed by artists, who prefer the light and beauty of Jerusalem and Israel's more revered sights, but Ariel's paintings show Tel Aviv to have a magic all its own. The 56-year-old artist, who was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, moved to Tel Aviv with her husband, `Dry Bones' cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, in 1992, when heavy snow damaged their home in the Greek Colony of Jerusalem. Though her work for much of that decade explored themes of women's empowerment and identity, some three years ago Ariel took a small notebook to HaYarkon Park, the leafiest corner of the city, and began to sketch trees. She recalls that she quickly found herself adding the buildings in the background.
"I'd never been interested in buildings before," says Ariel, who is a very well-known face on the Anglo and diplomatic social scene of Herzliya Pituah. "Maybe it was because then we were living in a roof-top apartment in Bavli [one of the greener neighborhoods of Tel Aviv], and my studio was there too. Tel Aviv seemed so light-filled."
Ariel began taking her mini-sketchbook out on walks around the city. In her drawings - and the paintings which would follow - she picked up on distinctive motifs of Tel Aviv's cityscape, such as the red-and-white and blue-and-white painted curbs, the stylized arrows marked on the roads, the pyramid-like hedges that adorn the entrances to residential buildings and the white shutters which enclose many balconies. "Once I started to see those things, I started to see the city very differently as I walked around," says Ariel. "The more I paint, the more I see things differently, which is probably my favorite part of painting."
The shape of a lamppost or a railing can be very distinctive to a city, she adds, pointing to one of her paintings of a street corner in Ramat Gan, with a curved railing, the likes of which she says would never be found in straight-railed, downtown Tel Aviv. "It's bizarre that such minor things make it look like a specific neighborhood," she says.
At first, Ariel left cars out of her sketches, but she soon realized they were an integral part of Tel Aviv, so now "lumpy, cartoon-like" vehicles appear in many of her paintings, often tightly parked with two wheels up on the pavement. "I'm not trying to document exact models of cars, just as I'm not trying to do architectural renderings of buildings," she explains, "Instead, I just want the atmosphere of how being in that spot feels; I'm trying to get my emotional reaction to standing in that spot."
Her paintings, many of them taken from sketches of buildings on and around Rothschild Boulevard, include street scenes, neighborhood cafes and traffic light junctions, sometimes with cranes or skyscrapers in the background; but all do indeed carry a distinctive feeling of Tel Aviv. She says her goal is to capture the city as it is today, with "high-rises and lots of construction, very old and dilapidated buildings, alongside beautiful, renovated Bauhaus buildings and much more greenery than anybody thinks."
Ariel believes it is not a coincidence that her Tel Aviv phase began shortly after the second Intifada broke out in September 2000. "It made me start thinking, without being pessimistic, that things aren't going to stay the same. Suddenly I felt like it was a wonderful chance to catch a period of Tel Aviv and Israel that is probably fleeting."
When Ariel is not painting, she devotes much of her time to her voluntary activities with the International Women's Club, where she served last year as president. It keeps her in daily contact with the female side of Israel's diplomatic corps, several members of whom have bought her work. Ariel reports that one of her Tel Aviv street scenes is currently hanging in Saudi Arabia in the bedroom of the residence of former British ambassador to Israel, Sherard Cowper-Coles. This week, Sheila Kurtzer, wife of American ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, bought one of Ariel's paintings of their residence in Herzliya Pituach, from a series which Ariel was originally commissioned to paint as a goodbye present to former American ambassador Martin Indyk.
Ariel is clearly boosted by the recognition she receives in these circles, as she flatly admits that her work has never been much appreciated within the Israeli art scene, where she was sometimes treated like a "rich, society lady out for a fling." Though her earlier work has been exhibited in Tel Aviv galleries, including solo shows at the Horace Richter Gallery and the Painters and Sculptors Association, Ariel's Tel Aviv scenes have only been shown in home sales, a setting which she rejected until recently.
Now, having "got over feeling embarrassed that it is not a museum or a gallery," Ariel says she has become a true proponent of home sales. "It doesn't belittle [the work] and make it into decoration, but it allows people to see it in a more realistic setting," she states, apparently still in the process of convincing herself.
But she is definitely persuaded that home sales are a far better vehicle for selling her work than gallery exhibitions. "And I need to earn a living," she says. Ariel also hopes to show her work in some high-class furniture shops in the Sharon area in the near future.
Failing to fit in with the local art scene is not a new experience for Ariel. She first studied art at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, when "1967 was happening," but dropped out when she and her soon-to-be first husband came to Israel following the Six Day War. After some bumpy experiences in Israel, the couple moved to New York, where Ariel studied art at Cooper Union and hung out regularly with Bob Dylan and occasionally with Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and The Grateful Dead.
"I liked painting on canvas, which seemed retro and not what I should have been doing," she recalls. She gave up making Cinema Verite-style films with Bob Dylan and left her job running the complaints department of a high-class pornographic book club, when the couple finally immigrated to Israel in 1972, settling in Jerusalem. After splitting from her first husband, Ariel lived on a “moshav” with no electricity at Sha'ar Hagai and worked as a horse trainer, using skills she had learned while growing up on a farm in Tulsa.
Now Ariel and husband Yaakov Kirschen are firmly ensconced in their new home in Herzliya Pituah, which this week was still looking like a gallery, following a home show of Ariel's work over Hanukkah. "I still find it an emotionally draining experience to exhibit at all," she says, "but at least this way it's a good excuse to have people over."