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"There's a term called sabra in describing Israelis," says Yael Nov. "It's actually a fruit. In English, it would be like a prickly pear... It's this kind of spiky exterior, but the meat inside is incredibly sweet and soft. It's this idiom describing this exterior of strength and power and kind of grittiness, this kind of toughness and inside, once you get to know everyone, it's this incredible warmth and sweetness."
That dichotomy between hard and soft or, to use Nov's words, "resilience" and "vulnerability," is often at the heart of the 27-year-old artist's work. A native of Seattle, Nov's father is from Israel and she spent many childhood summers traveling there to visit family. In high school, she spent time in the country as part of a study abroad program. "I've always loved being in Israel," says Nov and that prompted her to spend her first year of college there, studying at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Those experiences helped shape her work. On a very basic level, Israel is where Nov, a photographer and sculptor, caught the art bug. While studying at Hebrew University, she took an art history class focusing on religious works. "I think what I really loved was all of the symbolism through materials in these kind of ritualistic objects," Nov says. "I think just the idea of having these objects so rooted in history and this sort of shared memory of an entire culture was really fascinating to me.
Back in the United States, Nov pursued an art history degree at University of Washington. That's where she began to explore the power of photography. Four years ago, she moved to Los Angeles for graduate studies at Art Center College of Design. There, she added sculpture to her practice.
On a deeper level, her work is influenced by both Israel itself and her Israeli-American heritage. "It's kind of hard for me to completely identify [as Israeli] since I grew up in the States," Nov says, "but just being around Israel and having it be part of my identity, always allowed it to be in my presence and informed my thinking about it."
She has also found inspiration in her family. Nov's father had polio when he was two years old and the physical reminders of his childhood illness have played a part in her work, specifically in the piece "Lapse (Polio. Kibbutz Merhavia. 1948)." "It's like this embodiment of both this kind of vulnerability and fragility from his illness, but also the simultaneous strength and resilience with that," she says.
As a graduate student at Art Center, Nov recalls a professor mentioning that, while young people in general might not feel a deep connection to the past, those who grow up in Jewish communities have strong ties to traditions. "I thought that point was really interesting and never really thought about it until he mentioned it that way," she says. "I think, having grown up in a Jewish community, I think the idea of this shared memory and shared history is something that is kind of an integral part of Jewish life now."
Regardless of the medium, Nov's work explores humanity with an emphasis on intimacy: One of her photographic series focuses on scars while another -- "The Home" -- on elders in assisted living. The human figure has also been central to some of her pieces, including projects where she worked with textiles. "This connection between textiles and the human body is a really interesting relationship," she says. "I think about clothing being close to the body or all the fabrics in a domestic space."
In 2014, Nov collaborated with artist Joana Stillwell on a temporary installation for Seattle's Art Interruptions event that drew on her interest in historical objects. Called "Fool's Fool's Gold," they filled cracks in the sidewalk with fake gold to pay homage to a Japanese technique called kintsugi, where cracked pottery is pieced back together using materials like gold lacquer as an adhesive. "It created this beautiful veining of gold, as opposed to hiding the imperfections or hiding the fragility of that object," Nov says. The two artists took inspiration from this ancient practice to comment on the "imperfect history" of a neighborhood that was in the midst of gentrifying.
More recently, Nov revisited her project, "The Home," in an exhibition of the same name at Gallery Clu in Los Angeles. "I spent three years with these residents, just visiting them and hearing their stories and slowly, slowly, slowly started bringing my camera along with me," she says. "Spending so much time with these people put things into perspective. Talking to someone who is 103 years old really makes your day-to-day inconveniences seem very silly."
Top image: Yael Nov, "Fool's Fool's Gold," 2014. Gold and silver acrylic, glue, found pebbles, found lava rocks. Collaborative installation with Joana Stillwell for Art Interruptions.