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American artist visits Israel, wielding a paint brush for peace


Max Frieder has used art projects to reach troubled teens across the world, and his current project takes place right here in Israel.



By  | Jan.15, 2013 | 4:36 PM
‘I’m Jewish, so the idea of tikkun olam is really important to me,’ Frieder says. Photo by Ilan Assayag
Max Frieder

ASHDOD – An eighth-grader taps Max Frieder on the shoulder and asks him in broken English what he thinks of the sketch he’s drawn.

“Dude, this is fantastic,” responds the visiting artist. “Now go hang it up.”

The boy heads over to the other side of the rather decrepit-looking schoolyard where he tapes his sketch onto a concrete wall alongside roughly a dozen others.

Within a few minutes, the boy’s classmates have seated themselves beside him on the gravel. They are all waiting for their instructions for the day.

“This is a very important day for us,” Frieder tells the group, enunciating every word to make sure they understand his English. “This is the point in the process where we come up with an idea for our mural – an idea for making a single composition out of all these sketches.”

Ironi Vav High School in the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod is the fourth stop on Frieder’s Israel tour. The 23-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, whose stamina could rival that of the Energizer Bunny, touched down here several weeks ago after stints working with children around the United States, New Zealand and Costa Rica on similar community-based public arts projects. His next stop is Colombia.

His stay in Israel is being financed by the Youth Renewal Fund, an American-based non-profit that provides educational enrichment opportunities for disadvantaged children in Israel. They are also backing the mural-making projects he’s organized in four local schools: two in Tirat Hacarmel, one in Ramle, and this one, in the southern port city of Ashdod.

Once the Ashdod project is completed, Frieder will begin working on six additional projects in Israel in cooperation with other foundations and organizations, including one aimed at Arab children in East Jerusalem and another for mentally and physically disabled teens who will be partnered with Jewish and Arab teen peers. The theme of all 10 projects is “Painting the Future.”

The finished works will be presented as a gift to their respective communities, where they will be displayed in public spaces. Photographs and videos of all 10 projects will be made available to the public in a special exhibit scheduled to open in Tel Aviv at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, in March.

Frieder, dressed in colorful paint-stained black jeans and a flannel shirt, pushes his long mop of dirty-blond hair out of his face as he begins the brainstorming session in the Ashdod schoolyard. “I want to hear which drawings were your favorites,” he says to opens the conversation, his bright blue eyes flashing. “But I also want to tell you which was mine. The one I really loved is the one of the nuclear explosion that has beautiful flowers and trees coming out of the mushroom cloud. For me, that has special significance because I’d never heard of Ashdod until a few months ago when I heard on the news about rockets landing here. So those were explosions with bad things coming out of them, but here we’ve got explosions with beautiful things coming out of them.”

After the students choose their favorite sketches – a boy surfing on a huge wave with an olive branch hanging on his shoulder and a man playing guitar on the moon – Frieder jumps up — the gravel yard to offer another idea. Muddling his facts slightly and mixing up the port of Ashdod with the further-north port of Jaffa, he says, “How about Jonah and the whale? I heard he was right near hear in Ashdod. Is that true?”

Despite the geographical mishap, the students nod, transfixed. The artist whips out a drawing pad and begins a rough sketch. “Here, at the center, we’ll have the explosion, a mushroom cloud with all these beautiful things you guys love coming out of it. Then on one side we’ll have Jonah with the whale on a big wave, and on the other side the surfer under the moon.”

The students follow Frieder across the schoolyard. They reach the fence where the canvas, 30-feet by 10-feet and already smudged with a layer of colorful finger paints, is hoisted. Frieder passes pastel crayons to the students and tells them to draw just the outlines for the images. He also gives them a warning. “I don’t want any happy faces, hearts or peace signs. I’m treating you like you’re artists, and I want you to act like artists.” After a short pause, he adds: “Oh yeah, and no stick figures.”

Frieder grew up in Colorado, but his base today is Brooklyn, N.Y., where he recently served as a visiting professional artist at the Children’s Museum of Arts. Promoting community-based art in Israel, he says, holds special significance for him.

“I’m Jewish, so the idea of tikkun olam [“repairing the world”] is really important to me,” he says. “This is the first place I’ve worked where there’s been substantial conflict. In Ramle, I had a mixed group of Jewish and Arab kids, but once they were all working together, it was amazing because all the differences were gone.”

Frieder plans to return to Israel in August, when he will team up with his friend Rami Meiri, a well-known Israeli mural artist, on a special project: a mile-long mural at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, painted over the course of three weeks by, he hopes, 15,000-20,000 Israelis. Call it a collaborative mega-creation.

“It’ll definitely be the biggest mural ever painted in Israel, and according to the Google search I’ve done, probably the biggest one ever in the world,” says Frieder.

According to the grand plan, the mile-long mural will eventually be cut up into pieces and shipped out to Jewish museums around the world, which will in turn, have their Jewish communities create their own murals and ship them back to Israel.

Once he has this mega-project under his belt, Frieder says he’d like to go back to school and finish his dissertation. He also has something two-wheeled in mind.

“I love biking so what I was thinking of doing is over the course of five or six years, biking through 30 countries in Asia and Africa, starting in Vietnam and ending in Ghana, painting murals along the way with children in each country.”

Curious to see how his students here in Ashdod are progressing, Frieder checks back in on them after a short break and notices that someone has drawn a bicycle inside the mushroom cloud. “Wow, a big bicycle,” he exclaims. “I’m loving this, guys.”