Byline: Ann Kleinberg
Date: Friday, October 8, 1999
Publication: CityLights Page: 06
Caption: Sali Ariel Today
HOW does a nice Jewish girl born in Fort Smith, Arkansas and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma end up living in Israel, working as an accomplished artist? And exactly what makes a woman who hung around with the likes of Bob Dylan, Abie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin redefine her unconventional life along more traditional lines and set up home and studio in Tel Aviv with her well-known cartoonist husband Yaakov Kirschen?
It's a long story and if you get Sali Ariel herself to tell it to you, you're in for a treat.
Sali's paternal grandparents made the pilgrimage from Russia to the United States, thinking that the streets in Tulsa were paved with gold.
'They got off the boat in New York and my grandfather decided that the city was no place for a nice Jewish family, so he got on a train with his young bride and headed west. The train stopped in Omaha, Nebraska. It looked good to him so they got off. He brought over all eight of his brothers and sisters, eventually setting up a giant hamula (clan) in Tulsa.'
Sali's father must have wanted some distance because he moved with her mother to Arkansas, and there produced Sali. Then back again to Tulsa. That's the geographical part of the history, and the easy part. The rest gets a bit complicated.
ART has been a strong element in Sali's life since early childhood. Her mother was an artist and Sali recalls pouring over her Walter Foster art book How to Draw Nudes from the age of six. With the help of a concerned aunt, a private art tutor was hired to develop little Sali's talents. 'That tutor's name was Katherine Phelps and besides being a great art teacher she had a claim to fame as the dubbed voice of Shirley Temple in France. And I'm still in touch with her,' Sali offers with a smile.
College years were spent at Washington University in St. Louis, thanks to an art scholarship. And then came a certain man in her life and her first venture into Zionism. 'I met him right before the Six Day War. He said he was going to Israel and would send for me. When he did, I took all $500 of my savings, jumped on an Icelandic Airways flight, flew to Paris and met him. After traveling around we got married and drove to Israel in a little VW bug that we bought for $100.'
Life took her to a kibbutz for several years and then the pair ended up back in New York City. Sali studied art at Cooper Union College and the Art Students League and began to amass an impressive collection of acquaintances and friends.
'Dylan used to come over to our apartment a lot. He would bring his art sketches and ask me what I thought.'
Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol were also part of the extended crowd. But Sali felt out of place. 'These people thought of traditional art as passe. I was in a bind artwise because my heart wanted to use paint on canvas and charcoal on paper, but that wasn't considered important at the time.'
She supported herself by working a 9-5 job at Grove Press, running the complaints departments of their 'dirty books section.' Sali laughs and covers her eyes (who wouldn't), as she explains, 'I'm not kidding. They produced expensive, hard cover, leather bound volumes that contained soft and not so soft-core pornography. But the pictures had intellectual captions so it gave the impression of being artistic.'
When she got calls from desperate housewives who begged for books because their husbands said they were sexually ignorant, she obliged by sending them some choice volumes, without charge. It wasn't long before that job ended.
THEN Sali returned to Israel, first to study in a Jerusalem yeshiva, then working at a newly organized stables (where her Oklahoma roots paid off well) and eventually joining a five-family moshav in Neve Ilan - 'no electricity or telephones, but we did have running water'.
The new direction in Sali's life included a divorce and getting back into painting seriously. 'But since we had no electricity and the only time I had to paint was in the evening, my lighting source was kerosene lamps.' Kerosene lamps are not the best method of illumination it seems, and the result was, she explains, 'all my work seemed to have lots of silver, black and white in it. I couldn't do much with color under those conditions.'
Enter Yaakov Kirschen, first as a dear friend and then more, and after 10 years of living together they married. Yaakov is the creator of the humorous 'Dry Bones' character which has been running in the Jerusalem Post since 1973, and is now syndicated world-wide.
Life with Yaakov certainly wasn't boring. There were stints working as a video director for the Information Department of the Jewish Agency, organizing a computer game company and then an animation and graphic company with Yaakov, while all the time keeping up with her painting and her process of self-discovery.
SALI is no egotistical, pompous artist who thinks that her work is godly. On the contrary, she is self-effacing, somewhat naive and very sweet. During a recent meeting, while she was showing some of her work, a waitress wandered by and absolutely gushed over a few drawings. Sali eagerly accepted the compliments as if they were offered by an internationally known curator.
Her art has always provided Sali with a method of inventing and re-inventing herself. Through identity crises, frequent relocations, marriages and divorce, and the constant up and down of life as an artist, she has weathered it all. And with a lot of talent.
Sali seems almost apologetic about her work. Many of the current pieces are very large scale, drawn on brown wrapping paper and displaying nude figures. 'It's not that I purposely want to expose naked bodies but I want the work to be timeless, with no fashion statements or constraints. I keep trying to work on a small scale. We moved into a new apartment last year and my studio is tiny. I figured that would help but it didn't. My arm is better at drawing than my hand and it just keeps flying across the page.'
Along the road to self-discovery Sali seems to have come to peace with her art. 'Intellectually I believed in abstract, installation and minimalist art, and I read all the art theory books. The message seemed to be that figurative art is not ok; it's merely decorative. But at some level, I feel that I'm a baroque painter, and I've decided not to fight it anymore. If I can work out in art what speaks to me personally, as an average woman in her 50s looking for answers to life's questions, then it should speak to others as well.'
RECENTLY, she has focused on painting women, although she has also won awards for other subjects, especially her horse series.
'Men often paint nude women as sex objects. When I paint the female body, it's more an attempt to work out who we are as women. I see it as painting the person from the inside out. It's almost by accident that the figures are not clothed.'
Sali says that her work gains a lot of attention from women, in particular those who are doing their own thing, who have established positions in the world. 'I don't know why, but they seem particularly drawn to the images of strong women. Perhaps the image of woman as a tree, strong and spirited is what so many of us aspire to be.'
SALI'S upcoming show will be held at the Painters & Sculptors Association, 9 Alharizi St, Tel Aviv, from Oct. 24 through Nov. 12. Hours are 10am-5pm.
Private appointments may also be made with Sali to view her work at her studio.
She can be reached at:
Tel: (972) 5 521-2642.
FAX: (972) 9 955-3726.