Wandering Jewish artist is home for now

Arbel Shemesh’s art studio in Berkeley could almost double as a kitchen.

First there’s the electric pasta maker, through which she feeds sheets of polymer modeling clay. Then there’s the turkey roaster oven, which Shemesh uses to bake finished jewelry. The two appliances are the most high-tech equipment in sight.

“It’s like the Industrial Revolution passed me by,” jokes the 56-year-old artist.

Arbel Shemesh with one of her whimsical wire masks

The studio also is overflowing with finished pieces — colorful clay earrings and pendants and whimsical wire masks. Shemesh will sell the jewelry at the KPFA Winter Crafts Fair at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond on Dec. 17 and 18.

Most of Shemesh’s work features detailed floral and leafy designs. The native of Israel suspects that Judaism’s deep connection to nature played a key role in the formation of her artistic identity. Her wearable art seems suited for a garden party or a picnic in a meadow.

Shemesh makes her intricate jewelry by layering thin rods of polymer clay into “canes,” or sushi-like rolls. She squeezes them into the desired shape — a butterfly wing or a jagged leaf — and cuts them into thin slices.

“You start with a block of clay and there’s really no limit,” she says.

Shemesh decorates her knitted copper wire masks with clay leaves and flowers cut from these canes. “There’s something about adorning people,” she says, “and giving them the ability to transform.”

The artist knows a thing or two about transformation herself. A former metalworker with a photography degree, Shemesh has lived in rural New Mexico, small-town Oregon and seaside Israel.

As an adolescent, she attended an alternative Bay Area high school program that, among other things, took students backpacking in Big Sur and on a walking trip from its San Francisco campus to Point Reyes. Once she lived in a school bus; another time, in a cabin. And as a young adult, she served in the Israel Defense Forces.

The Berkeley studio is a temporary, makeshift space in Shemesh’s mother’s house. In the fall, Shemesh and her husband (and their two Tibetan terriers) moved there from Zichron Ya’akov, 20 miles south of Haifa. Although she is back in the United States for the foreseeable future, the Israeli landscape remains a muse.

“It’s not done influencing me,” says Shemesh, who has had three stints in Israel: as a child, during her army service and earlier this year in a planned long-term move to the Holy Land that was cut short due to family issues.

She brought back with her to California shells from the Mediterranean Sea, and, in an homage to Israeli architecture, she plans to incorporate stones into her artwork.

Shemesh also credits the region with her interest in beading. As a teenager, she visited a friend who was working with a Bedouin tribe and was instantly drawn to some beading that was at once beautiful and functional; it was the beading that held down the women’s veils.

In Zichron Ya’akov, Shemesh’s art took on new life. Customers there noted that her bejeweled pendants resembled eyes when turned on their sides.

“The Middle East is big on eyes,” Shemesh says.

She began selling necklaces with the pendants re-oriented to fit the interpretation.

Shemesh has gotten a kick out of the different ways her art has resonated in each place she has lived. During a 12-year stint in Grants Pass, Oregon — where she worked for a bead store and taught on a jewelry-making public television program called “Beads, Baubles & Jewels” — Shemesh regularly sold her pieces at the Oregon Country Fair. She was baffled by the popularity of her jeweled pendants among young boys there. Eventually one mother explained that the pieces resembled a talisman in a popular young adult fantasy novel series.

For Shemesh, interacting with people is one of the deep pleasures of being an artist. She used to teach beading classes in Oakland, and has found that Bay Area customers “really relate to my work.”

Now that she’s back in the Bay Area, she looks forward to re-immersing herself in the local arts scene, starting with the upcoming, 200-booth crafts fair in Richmond (www.cranewaycraftsfair.com). Although she remembers her Oregon Country Fair days fondly, she is happy to be in a location where she will see plenty of Hanukkah gifts alongside the ubiquitous Christmas crafts.  

“Around here, the arts are so alive,” Shemesh says. “I’m a wandering Jew, but I’m ready to settle down.”

Natalie Orenstein

J. Correspondent