For most people, living 85 years would be an accomplishment in itself. But for Victor Ries, 85 years merely marks the time that he has spent as a working artist.
Ries will celebrate his 100th birthday this month. He has become hard of hearing, needs a cane or a walker to get around and says that his creative days are behind him — but his productivity belies his words. Ries continues to turn out beautiful works of art, as he has been doing since he was 15 years old.
A show of Ries’ work, entitled “A Life of Creativity: The Metalwork of Victor Ries,” opened this week at the Reutlinger Center for Jewish Living in Danville, where Ries has lived for the past year. The exhibit will be open to visitors until January 2008.
Ries was born in Berlin in 1907. His father owned a hat factory and expected Victor to follow his footsteps and take over the business. After two years, however, Victor had had more than enough. He took after his mother, a painter, and decided to become an artist.
“I was not very good in school,” Ries says, “but my sister’s friend had a brother who was a goldsmith and a jeweler and I used to watch him working and I was fascinated. Finally, when I was 16, I arranged an apprenticeship with Gubreuder Friedlander, one of the finest, best-known jewelers in Berlin, but my father was not at all supportive of the idea.”
Ries went back to school while serving his apprenticeship, spending a year at the School of Applied Arts and three years at the Academy of Fine and Applied Arts in Berlin, until he was kicked out in 1933 for being Jewish.
“I never experienced anti-Semitism before Hitler and the Nazis,” says Ries. “But I was a member of a Zionist group, so in 1933, I left Germany and went to Palestine. I found work there with various people, and I knew that eventually I wanted to open my own shop.”
Unlike most metal artists, who specialize either in large, elaborate pieces or smaller, finely crafted items like jewelry, Ries did it all. One of those who offered him work was renowned architect Eric Mendelsohn, the designer of the British-Palestine Bank, known today as Bank Leumi. The 21-foot panel Ries made for the bank in 1939 still stands, as does the city seal he created in 1941 for the city of Haifa.
Ries remained in Palestine until 1947, when he developed health problems and Mendelsohn urged him to go to America. He has lived and worked here ever since, teaching at the College of Marin, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.
He has designed large pieces for many local synagogues, churches and even Buddhist temples, and has created hundreds of pieces of jewelry and smaller ritual items such as mezuzahs, menorahs and chalices.
In addition to the Reutlinger exhibit, filmmaker William Chayes is currently raising funds to make a documentary on Ries’ life and career. Chayes is looking to make a 10-minute trailer to start — but with a century of Ries’ life to draw on, he’ll certainly need much more time than that.
“A Life of Creativity” is just the latest in a long string of showings of Victor Ries’ art, dating back at least to 1947. This particular exhibit is dedicated to Ries’ wife, Ruth, who died in December 2006. Many of the featured pieces were made for her.
Victor and Ruth Ries’ love story and life together were extraordinary in themselves. Both had been married before, and Ruth came to the marriage with her 7-year-old daughter, Noa, who has been one of the lights of Victor’s life ever since.
Victor and Ruth lived happily together for 47 years and Ruth — along with nature, a passion they both shared — was the inspiration for much of his work.
In May 2007, Ries found a new source of inspiration, when his great-granddaughter Bahia was born to Goapele Mohlabane, Noa’s daughter. Ries’ most recent projects were a spoon for Bahia, as well as a mezuzah which was recently installed at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville.
“A Life of Creativity: The Metalwork of Victor Reis”
will be on display through January 2008 at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, 4000 Camino Tassajara, Danville. For information, call (925) 648-2800.