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Mindy Weisel – When art imitates life

Photos by John Woo.

Some art shouts out: "I'm famous!" and we recognize it with a jolt of satisfaction – that's a Mondrian, or a Monet. Some paintings exclaim: "I'm expensive; possess me and feel rich" Collectors amass Picassos galore. And then there is the work that enters your eyes and snuggles in your heart and whispers, "I'm talking to YOU!" These rare creations call out to the soul; we need them nearby – hanging on bedroom walls - so they can comfort us and lift our mood. That's Mindy Weisel's magic – her pictures and glasswork and metal pieces smile straight at us and cut to the essence of our emotions. Yes, we nod, that's JUST how we feel; and we wish we could express ourselves exactly like that.

Weisel's wonderful swirling colors and beautiful bright canvasses do not spring from a life of unmitigated sunshine. Born in Bergen-Belsen in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the artist is achingly aware of human suffering and pain. "My parents, who were cousins, both survived Auschwitz," she explains. "They reunited straight after the Holocaust in Bergen-Belsen when it was turned into a Displaced Persons Center, and they married in 1946. I was one of the first babies born in Bergen-Belsen."

Weisel and her parents (who are related to Eli Wiesel), relocated to the United States when Mindy was four, but the witnessing of grief and her earliest years inform her life and art. The Holocaust brutally decimated her family: on her father's side, nine of eleven siblings survived; seven of her mother's eleven siblings were murdered. According to Weisel, after sadness like that the bar for living is placed very high. "A child of Holocaust survivors has to walk in a constant state of gratitude for just being alive. You can never complain of being hungry or tired or sad … what is the hunger or fatigue or sadness of an American kid compared to what her parents had to endure? We had food in the fridge, and a bed – what could possibly be wrong?" This feeling of needing to compensate for your parents' past, and the helplessness of never being able to do enough, can be an enormous strain on a child, not easily surmountable.

So when Weisel's art teacher told her to "paint what you know", the pain came spilling out. In an age before Holocaust museums in the States, and pre-Spielberg's Schindler's List, Weisel did a ground-breaking series of paintings featuring her father's concentration camp number: A3146. Often a thin line of red infuses her art – a reference to the rare blood type that saved her mother's life. "My mother had no number on her arm because she was not chosen to live," Mindy recalls. "But Mengele was interested in testing her blood each day. So every day they came to take a vial, and gave her a tiny bit of soup to keep her alive until the following blood test. For a year she thought that every day was her last." The cobalt blue that shimmers recurrently throughout the work references the first dress that Mindy's mom received from her surviving aunts when she reached America; from that day she only wore blue.

Mindy, who married at 18 and is the mother of three daughters, has had a glittering career. Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Corcoran College of Art in Washington DC and a visiting artist at Haifa University in the 80s, her artworks hang in art museums throughout the world, including Washington's Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem, and grace the cover of one of Primo Levy's books. And, despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, her creations are testimony to the survival of beauty – a mantra that she learnt from her dad. "My father says that if you live a life, things happen," says Weisel, "and it's what we do with our lives that counts." 

The Flower Shop by Mindy Weisel

In this spirit she has channeled her art into collaborating with IsraAID all over the globe, wherever there are people in need of support. "In Japan, for example, I met with survivors of the Tsunami and helped them work through their trauma through art," she explains. At the same time Weisel herself absorbed some of the Japanese style and culture which culminated in a series of etchings of cherry blossoms and collages to add to her eclectic collection.

In a life lived filling other lives with beauty, Weisel, (who is very beautiful herself), has experienced many, many 'things that happen'. Take, for example, the strange interlude that occurred in Washington DC during an interview, when the journalist suddenly admitted that her own father had been a Nazi during World War Two. Or the time when the artist was invited to Berlin for the opening of a show, and given a surprise trip to Bergen-Belsen, where she was shown her mother's original identification papers and her own birth certificate written in her mother's distinctive handwriting. The US State Department sponsored Weisel's trip to Germany and appointed her a cultural ambassador, giving rise to one of the most surreal conversations of her life. "Someone from the U S Embassy reviewed my itinerary and called me up to ask if I'd like to visit Dachau," she recalls. "She said 'Dachau is closed on Mondays, but the mayor would like to open it for you." I thought that was the most ironic, strange sentence I could ever imagine." Dachau is closed on Mondays, but the mayor would like to open it for you. It's a book waiting to be written.

And now, after over 60 years in the States, Mindy and Sheldon, her lawyer husband of almost 50 years, have come home to Israel where she continues to create her magic in a high-ceilinged studio in a century-old house flooded with Jerusalem light. One daughter already lives here with her Israeli husband, and they have one child and another on the way. "It's an ancient dream come true to be here at last," proclaims Weisel.

Not yet a year in the country, Weisel is now working on a new dream. "Come and MaP with me," is an exciting concept of helping others to find their creative voices through painting and writing – a workshop that Mindy will host together with an author in her Jerusalem studio. "Everyone has an authentic and valuable story to tell," says Mindy, "and we aim to give them the tools to do so."

Weisel's art is on show in Israel at Yad Vashem, the Israel Museum and at the American Ambassador's residence in Herzliya Pituach, or Google her at But be warned: you will want a piece of it to call your own. 



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Sunday, 16 June 2024

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