Helen Bar Lev: A Painter and Poet who is a Voice of Israel.
by Doug Holder
Helen Bar Lev was born in New York City in 1942, but has lived in Jerusalem for over 33 years. She is a well regarded and established artist, and has a world- wide following for her watercolor landscape paintings, especially of Jerusalem. She has been exhibited in London, Paris, New York and Israel. In addition Bar Lev has been commissioned to provide illustrations for books, and many prominent collectors and museums have obtained her artwork. But Bar Lev is not only a visual artist, she is an accomplished poet. She authored and illustrated a book of poems “Animals are Nature’s Poetry,”, and has written about the Holocaust and the emotional pain she experienced hearing about it as a child. She is currently the editor-in-chief of the “Voices Israel Anthology,” and is working on a book project with her partner, the poet John Michael Simon. I talked with both Bar Lev and Simon at the Zaftig Deli in Brookline over bagels and lox.
Doug Holder: Why did you move to Israel from New York?
Helen Bar Lev: I belong there. Everything about it speaks to me. The air, the scenery, the beauty. I studied at Cooper Union in NYC, but I was fed up with the New York scene. This was the time of the POP Art movement. It wasn’t me. I gave up and I studied anthropology. I just couldn’t do that type of art. The minute my foot hit the ground in Israel I knew I was meant to be there.
DH: You have written poetry about the Holocaust. You were a very small child in New York City at the time of the Holocaust. How did it affect you?
HL: I had dreams about it. I remember I was 10 years old and I was looking through a pictorial encyclopedia of the Holocaust. After that I started having nightmares about it.
DH: Did your family tell you about it?
HL: It seeped in. In one of the poems I write about seeing a newspaper in 1945 or 6, when they discovered the mass graves. When I was in Israel in 1959 they were still announcing on the radio” If so and so is still alive will you please contact so and so.”
DH: You lived with the writer Edward Whittemore, who was known for his use of “Magic Realism.” Was his writing an influence on yours?
HL: No. I would describe my style as realistic.
DH: Where do you get your inspiration for your poetry?
HL: When I stand in the shower, when I am walking. I hear the words. This is different from my painting of landscapes. Landscapes are a visual thing. Poetry excited me so much… it just happened.
DH: John how is it having a partner who is a fellow poet?
John Michael Simon: We constantly interact. We collaborated on a number of books. The most recent is a book of children’s rhymes. We also collaborated on a book based on Helen’s exhibits at the Jerusalem Zoo. (“Animals Are Nature’s Poetry). She drew portraits of animals in the zoo. It’s descriptive about the animals, their habitat, and the dangers of extinction. I translated the book. It is in Hebrew and English.
I am often influenced by something that Helen has written. It is always unexpected. I don’t know where it is going to go.
HL: Sometimes we use the same words and ideas…universal things.
JMS: When we wake up in the morning, she says: Have you written anything?” And she won’t do anything till she reads the poem I have written. And then I ask her if she has written anything. And that’s how we start the day.
DH: Do you do readings around Israel?
HL: We belong to “Voices Israel”, an English language poetry group. There are three meetings a month in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusaleum. It is the group in Haifa that we go to. We do readings there. But readings are not a priority with us. Recently, at the “Artist House,” I exhibited poems with my paintings. This was the first time I did that. You know poems that relate to nature.
DH: When did you start writing Poetry?
HL: Only three years ago. When John and I met, we fell in love…it just happened…the both of us...the poetry.
DH: So your poetry came out of love?
JMS: Helen has always been fascinated by writing. But she was never a writer herself. She is more on the artist side. When we met I told he I was a writer. Helen was under the impression I wrote novels or stories. Actually my background is as a technical writer. She asked me if I wrote anything besides technical stuff. I said I have written a few poems. So I read them to her. She liked them. She told me I should do more because they were good. At that stage we both started writing.
DH: You won a Reuben Rose Award?
JMS: The English Poets’ organization: “Voices Israel” runs a competition. Rueben Rose was one of the founders of the group. We always invite someone from overseas to judge. Last year it was a professor of Literature. I won the first prize. Both Helen and I have been published in anthologies and internet publications.
DH: Helen. Is poetry a compliment to your art?
HL: Poetry has overtaken my art. It’s a bit distressing. I have been painting for over thirty years now. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I sketch but I have done that for awhile. The poetry just flows. It is amazing at this age and stage in my life. All of a sudden you become something different from what you were.
DH: Are you going to publish anymore books?
HL: We want to publish some more books. Specifically poems about Israel. We are hoping to interest a publisher. I would like my paintings to illustrate the book.
DH: How did you guys get involved with the “Voices Israel” anthology?
HL: We published poems on their website. We were invited by the editor to contribute. Eventually he stepped down. I have experience editing books so I volunteered. I offered my services.
The first meeting of "Voices Israel” was in 1971. They publish an anthology annually. So they have
35 years of poetry.
To find more about Helen Bar Lev go to http://www.helenbarlev.com/