Connecting Students to Israel with Terragraphs

by Laurie Bellet

For the past few years, teachers have asked me most frequently for art lessons that will connect their students to Eretz Yisrael. At Oakland Hebrew Day School, the desire for a strong relationship between our students and Israel appears prominently in our mission statement and teachers throughout the grades and subjects areas weave Israel learning into the curriculum. In the Art Studio, student works, related to Israel, are passionate and heartfelt.

When school commences in August, students and parents excitedly bring me a precious souvenir from their summer Israel travels…bottles, boxes and bags, filled with sand collected from all around the country. The incoming 8th grade students see this with delight because they know that they will use the sand in their first art work of the year, a piece inspired by Israeli artist Theo Tobiasse.

Born in Palestine in 1927, Theo moved with his family to Paris. A kindly apartment landlord concealed the family in an attic and it was in this attic that Theo began to draw. Following the war he became a commercial artist before returning to Israel to devote himself full time to his art. Tobiasse is best known for developing a technique that he called a “terragraph.” Tobiasse traveled throughout Israel collecting sand to mix into his paints. His work is richly textured, highly expressionist, with subjects drawn from Tanakh and from his own personal narrative. In many works Tobiasse has embedded a secret message that can only be revealed by destroying the painting.

When students create terragraphs, they literally touch the land of Israel – the grayish rocky soil, the fine red dust and the gritty greenish sand. To do work inspired by Tobiasse, it helps to brainstorm themes first – Tanakh and personal experience. You can display images by Theo Tobiasse on a computer screen or in the book Tobiasse by Chaim Potok. It is important to remind the students that they will be neither working with detail nor realistic representation. Students should render a rough sketch for your approval.

My students do this work on wood panels but canvas boards work well also. (The paint is too heavy for any kind of paper). The best paint for this experience is Crayola Portfolio Acrylic because it is very thick. You will need craft sticks and plastic spoons and knives for mixing and applying the paints. Have plenty of smocks on hand.

After you approve a preliminary sketch, the student artist draws the scene on the board and writes a secret message. Although middle school students may greet this part of the exercise with cynicism, I have found that after settling down to do it, they all guard their messages and have an intensified relationship with their work.

When they are ready to apply color, students mix the paint with sand and paint it on using fingers, craft sticks, or plastic knives. During the work time, I notice that my students discuss where in Israel the sand was collected and they marvel at the variations. The student artists should cover the large areas of their design first and not concern themselves with detail. Reassure your students throughout that they are not creating realistically and do continue to display Tobiasse examples. When the paintings are complete and dry, students should, like Tobiasse, add lines and details gently with black oil pastel.  Giving the piece a title causes the student artist to reflect more deeply on the work.

Next issue: more art experiences to connect your students with Eretz Yisrael.