My Jerusalem Studio is a Bomb Shelter

The entrance to my former bomb shelter

My Jerusalem Studio is a Bomb Shelter

Published in "Terminal", 1998

My Jerusalem studio is a bomb shelter. It protects me against the sharp critique of my mother. She was trained as an artist herself and she told me I should become a municipal clerk after she saw my first painting, a kind of strongly coloured map. I did become a government clerk, but only on a temporary basis. In the evening and night I studied art. With fear I told my mother later about my intention to destroy my own works and exhibit their leftovers in glass jars. She answered with demonic laughter, that still now, in exile in Jerusalem, makes me shudder. She does not manage, however, to break the 480 glass jars with my destroyed drawings, that now support the working table in my studio.

To strengthen the meaning of the shelter I might recall a nightmare, which haunted me repeatedly as a little child: Out on the street suddenly a signal announced a monster in the air. It would swallow anyone who did not get inside immediately and closed all doors and windows firmly. Terrified I tried to find refuge home. With fear I remember the times the cloudy monster swallowed me and destroyed me in a whirlpool. In the last version of that dream I managed to escape inside somewhere, but then the monster came in, disguised as a pleasant young sort of politician, and told me nicely that I forgot a small window on the roof floor. I did not wait to be slaughtered and woke up.

To reach my shelter I have to travel with different buses, one of which is only for males, and to get off in a neighbourhood where all men wear black costumes with black hats. Then I open the heavy front door and descend to my working table. The screaming children, who climb on the ventilation shaft, or the parking cars, exhausting their fumes inwards, hardly disturb me. It seems unlikely that any monster or demon, or even my mother's voice, will visit me there.

Still, however, at my table, I fear and avoid painting, as well as writing or, say, creating: I have a problem as an artist. I will do anything to prevent myself from making art, even though I love it, as long as there is no close deadline. Instead I indulge in clerk activities like cataloguing my own drawings or counting how many kilometers I rode by train between Holland, Russia and Spain in 1991. To prevent myself from total ruin I erased all games from my computer.

To force myself start working in my studio, I take a pencil and move it around and around over a sheet of paper, until it tears apart. I repeat that ritual until my fear dissolves and slowly the thoughts and emotions, which it kept imprisoned, set free. Only then I am able to stand at that glass-jar table, making sketches and studies, using compasses and ruler, pencil, brush and watercolour. With those tools I try to materialize ideas that are not necessarily born on that glass jar table; I carry them out there. Birth can take place anywhere: in the kitchen, on the toilet, at a meeting, in a dream, on the roof, at a dinner. Too many ideas find an early death, killed by the inner censor that sounds like my mother's critique. Few I manage to materialize into paintings or installations.

When I plan an exhibition, I first inspect the rooms where the exhibition will take place and let all the vague and less vague ideas play over their walls and floors. Decisions I can take anywhere, but the preparations I do in the studio, trying to imagine what the result will look like. The studio gives me the security to develop plans, which in immature stages might be called stupid by certain people. I am very jealous of people who do not care a bit about other people's opinion.

It seems an interesting coincidence that I work in a shelter in a country where shelters and security rooms play an important role in daily life. I noticed that many Israelis show an even more defensive behaviour than I do, and I wonder if they really built shelters as protection against war, or whether they do their utmost to provoke war in order to create a need for shelters. Israel is the only country I know, where people in recent times closed themselves off from the rest of the world with a newly developed language, written with exclusive characters that daze my eyes and limit my ability to read and to take part in culture. But although verbal communication is difficult, I do invite anyone who reads this to visit my studio, in spite of the fear I mentioned above. Females however better avoid taking bus number 5!

Henk Puts