If you do crossword puzzles, then you would most likely know that ala is another word for ‘wing.’ The word comes from Latin. Today, I remember my friend Ala, a sculptor, and give deepest thanks to her memory.
At the time that I came to know her, I was a young mother and Ala would have been in her mid- to late 50s. Perhaps a little older; I had no idea how to tell people’s age. She passed by one day and asked if there was anything that I was getting rid of. Bits of wood, metal — anything. Then she made me come with her to show me what she was in the process of building. At the time, the word ‘recycling’ had not even come into everyday usage; let alone the idea of ‘repurposing.’ Using found objects into works of art was such a novelty. It was Ala and her eyes alone that could see the beauty in these discarded objects and her hands that would remake them into sculpture. Some of them were quite tall and stood like totem poles around her garden.
Ala was born in Germany. I understood she was the only one of her family to survive the Holocaust. She did not talk much about that part of her life. It was her father who had chosen her name. She had worked as a geneticist for years, until she decided to study art and sculpture during one sabbatical year. And that decided her path from then on. She showed me her finely crafted works in wood – mostly olive, others of wood with reddish striations — some were under cloth covers in a little gallery, some as part of the décor in the interior of her house. And she also showed me her store of huge blocks, a few whole tree trunks, curing slowly in the dark, cool shade of the garage.
I wondered how she, just my height and slight of build, could manage with those enormous pieces. I was imagining her working with chisels and a hammer. And she uncovered her industrial-grade tools – electric saws, sanders, other equipment that would not look out of place in a carpentry shop.
“Would you like to come and create something?” She asked when she saw how much I was moved. And we started by me making an armature out of wire. My first piece was a self-portrait in clay. I cannot remember how long it took for my first attempt to do something in 3-D. I found it very challenging to work in the round. I had to make sure to keep the clay moist and covered at the end of each session. After working for most of the afternoon, she would call it a day.
“Now we dance,” she said. And that was the most surprising and wondrous thing. She would put some music on, classical always, though I cannot recall any of them now. “This is how I relax at the end of every day. Working with wood or clay is hard physical work. The dancing and the music soothe the muscles. And then I can turn my mind to preparing supper for Simon who will be expecting something nice when he gets home.”
Once Ala came into my kitchen while I was preparing some avocado, dried apricots, sunflower seeds, and sesame paste. I put everything into the blender – the apricots had been soaking beforehand – to mash. To this mixture I added some cottage cheese. She was incredulous, “That’s for a toddler?” “Perfectly fine,” I replied. Avocado for fats and vitamins, the dried apricots and seeds for iron, and additional nutrition from the cottage cheese,” She was not convinced. “I shall have to ask Simon,” she said. Simon was a prominent pediatrician. She came back apologetic. “You’re absolutely correct,” she said. “Simon approved wholeheartedly.” And she invited us to dinner.
When my daughter was born, Ala gave me a beautifully hand-smocked baby dress with a tiny flower pattern — classic English craftsmanship and design and made of the softest and finest cotton. I wish I had kept that as a keepsake to remember Ala by. But in the spirit in which she had passed on a family heirloom to me, I passed it on to a neighbour whose child was born the following year. I hope that she treasured it as much as I did, and perchance passed it on, with Ala’s blessings and mine and hers too.
I am grateful to have known such an artist and admirable person, who befriended me when I was new and friendless. I can hear her voice, with a hint of detectable German in the English. I am sorry to have lost contact with Ala, and never had a chance to see her again before she passed on. I don’t even have a photo of her or her work, and hoped to find something on Google, but no joy there.
In another place and several years later, I was using an electric sander on a long, robust piece of wood I had intended for a bookshelf in my study. It was one that I had bought from the timbre mill in a nearby village. I was trying not to dislodge the bark, as I loved its texture and scent, and wanted it to show on the front part of the shelf. My neighbour across the road came over, hearing the noise and seeing me working. “I’ve never seen a woman using that kind of machine before,” he said, with great concern for my safety, but also in admiration. Eli was Hungarian and another who had survived the Holocaust by being brought to England in one of the rare child rescue operations.
I smiled at my gallant neighbour, very gentlemanly and polite in the Old World way, then possibly in his late 70s or early 80s. He also couldn’t resist passing his hand over the lovely wood. And I sent a silent message of thanks to Ala, who had showed me that a woman could use such machinery and also love music and enjoy dancing.
My dearest Ala, today I thank you now for the wonderful times in your studio and for being you. To your blessed memory, Lechaiim. I also offer you these cyclamen, photographed here in the Botanical Garden in Bonn. They remind me of a forest, not far from Jerusalem, where white and pink wild cyclamen grew in such profusion under the trees and between cleft boulders, that the children called it the Enchanted Forest.