Living Map of Israel

Laurie Bellet

Laurie BelletThere is a map of Israel (or is it a mural?) hanging in the hallway across from the Art Studio at Oakland Hebrew Day School. No ordinary map, this piece is active with the combined experiences and emotions of our entire school community. The inspiration for the map came to me at the NAEA (Art Educators) conference. I was passing the Twisteez Wire exhibit, when I stopped to marvel at a 3-dimensional mural of New York, crafted with Twisteez and all manner of odds and ends. As I was avidly photographing this piece, I quickly realized that it was much more complex than I originally thought and, much more exciting. Then to my great delight, the Twisteez representative (Twisteez is a Rabinowitz family business.) explained that his sister is the artist who created the piece and that she lives in my area!

Working on the Living Map
Upon returning to school after the conference, I wrote to artist Abbie Rabinowitz, explained my passion for her New York mural, and thanks to my Covenant Foundation grant, I was able to invite her to Oakland Hebrew Day School to work with my students to create a similar mural, based on the map of Israel. She accepted!

To begin the adventure, I followed Abbie’s instructions to cover foam board with Smart Fab (a new, lightweight and very workable product), outlined a 6 ft. tall map and fixed it onto a bulletin board (also covered with Smart Fab). The idea was to add to the map as the artistic elements were completed. Armed with a list of landmarks and important details we began with the 4th grade students. It quickly became evident that the kids were going to take over our original plans with their own experiences and viewpoints. Abbie and I were ecstatic. The children’s enthusiasm demanded a higher level of focus from us and, after the 1st hour, or so, of work, both Abbie and I shared some concerns that perhaps we had indeed undertaken too big a venture for 2 days’ work. We need never have worried!

To begin each class, I introduced Abbie and showed photos of her New York mural. (On day 2, we began our classes in the hallway at the partially completed map.) Abbie then took over.  She recounted the story of her Zayda, Morris Harris, who designed the flag of Israel, and demonstrated how to use the Twisteez to make figures. Discussions of what we would need to adequately represent the experience of life in Israel absorbed the students and they immersed themselves in wire, beads, buttons, cardboard and fabric to bring their visions to life.

Living Map Sample 1OHDS is a K through 8th grade school. Every grade came to work on the map. Most students were invested in crafting people figures. The youngest children also made fruits, vegetables and breads for the market and one Kindergarten artist was particularly concerned that the kid figures have “blankies” with them in the bomb shelters! Food was a significant part of many children’s Israel experience and is now colorfully represented in the form of produce, ice cream, pizza and chocolate on our map. Artists in grades 5 through 8 were determined to show Tel Aviv beach watersports. They fashioned wind surfers, skiers, parasails. Across the country, Dead Sea floaters read the newspaper and river rafters float down the Jordan. (The students in 8th grade, days away from leaving for their graduation trip to Israel, insisted that I photograph the entire group and place their photos in the raft on the map.) In grade 7 we had some dedicated camel crafters and a number of students who created the artists for Tzvat . We did not give any thought to relative size and the too big or too small elements give even more charm to the overall piece. Many sculptures extend well over the borders and students made a large Kotel, complete with spaces for messages and placed it off to the side. An equally large bride figure stands above Tzvat where L’kha Dodi was written.

Living Map Sample imageIn addition to coming to Art for their 40 minutes of class time, many students also joined us during their recess times. Several boys in grade 2 forfeited their outside play in order to fold IDF jet fighters out of lightweight aluminum tooling foil. Students who returned to the process taught students who were new to the experience. I explained to everyone that, sometimes an artist might begin a sculptural form for the map and someone else might add to it or complete it. We do a lot of collaborative installation pieces at OHDS so students are not uncomfortable with this kind of “tag team” work. Some of my more sophisticated artists asked for, and received, permission from other teachers to be excused from classes in order to continue their art work. These artists rendered the more complex elements – a passenger boat in Haifa harbor, the Carmel forest fire and fire fighters, a Bedouin and tent, an aqueduct. The fortress at Masada was a product of a brother and sister (4th grade and 6th grade) team. Every element that was important to a student became a priority for Abbie and me. A student in 8th grade assumed responsibility for attaching the pieces to the map with T-pins and hanging the air force from the ceiling. Excitement resonated throughout the school. Faculty members and administration visited our process frequently. I documented the experience on our Facebook page (Art at OHDS) and a 7th grade student served as videographer.

By the conclusion of the 2nd day, our map was quite full but as yet unfinished. Our administrative team scheduled time to work on the map as an integral piece of our monthly faculty meeting.  Where would we fit more pieces? Again, Abbie and I need not have worried. Upon examining the map, teachers readily identified what they felt was missing – a hometown, flocks of sheep, a favorite waterfall and the chocolate factory. With everything attached by the T-pins, this map is a flexible entity and each element can be moved around.

Evaluation is a critical component of any major curricular venture and this piece was no exception. It was clear from the outset that the art making was charming but, more significantly, children were bringing personal history and learning to the process. Teachers imagined using this kind of venture to reinforce units in TaNaKH, holidays and history.

They shared their knowledge and experiences with one another and the quality of the collaborative learning was extraordinary. When the map was complete, Abbie and I adjusted the placement of some of the elements to balance off certain areas. As we surveyed the completed piece, a mother passed by with her 2 sons. “Look” she exclaimed to her children, “see that boat. That is how Saba and Savta traveled. They are like the people you see waving their hands out the windows!” And, she narrated her parents’ immigration story to her children. Suddenly, we were joined by a kindergarten artist who pulled his mother to see the map. “See that?” he called, “that’s my camel in the desert. Look Eema!”

Just when Abbie and I were satisfied with the map and its components, an Israeli teacher ran back. “Wait!” she cried. “The flowers recently blossomed south of Yerushalayim. Let’s add them.” We went back to the trays of not yet incorporated wire sculptures; found just the right red flowers, and added them. It had become so clear…this map (or is it a mural?) never needs to be declared finished. It is a living tribute. It is a monument that is ever changing and constantly growing, just like the artists who created it and those who will continue to create it in the future.