It’s a curious location for a landscape artist — an empty stretch of field next to the checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem, where a bucolic field of flowering olive trees, long grasses and three grazing horses look out onto the gray security barrier surrounding the ancient Christian city.
Yet for 30-year-old Abraham Storer, the artist in question, it’s almost an obvious choice for placing his easel and paints. As a visiting Fulbright scholar in Israel for nine months, he has been examining his response to the Israeli landscape as a place of the spiritual and profane. And this particular stretch of Israeli territory outside the walls of Bethlehem captures it all, the contrasting elements of nature and religion, politics and culture.
“This site right here is moving,” he said, gesturing at the trees, the barrier and the rooftops beyond. “It’s where Christ was born, and I found it spiritually frustrating the first time I came here because it’s a special place, but at the same time, there’s all this division and it’s a little ironic. I feel like living in Jerusalem has been different as well. You first experience Israel as this religious place, but then you have to navigate in a new culture.”
Storer had been to Israel once before, having visited a friend who was studying in rabbinical school. He’s also more than familiar with the Jewish community, having earned his undergraduate degree at the heavily Jewishly-populated Brandeis University, and had been living and working in New York for the last few years. Yet it was his identity as an observant Christian that made him want to spent his Fulbright months in Israel, as he felt that its landscapes offered the “best access to the spiritual and religious history of this place.”
“As a Christian, the stories of this place played a big part of my imagination as a child,” said Storer. “This landscape made the Bible come alive, and I saw that that landscape was conflicted; it’s a place that can be disturbing at times, and is a site that mixes the sacred and the profane.”
From the start of his time in Israel, Storer explored Israel, hiking parts of the national Israel Trail up north, visiting Christian sites in the Galilee, painting the desert hills around the Dead Sea, and exploring the Jewish and Christian sides of Jerusalem. He did a lot of hiking, drawing and photography at first, getting a better sense of the landscape, how it functions, “the weird things that are in it,” he added.
“The landscape functions as a symbol, something that leads someone toward transcendence as a reflection of God,” said Storer. “Nature describes the handiwork of God, and it’s used as a metaphor in the Bible as a symbol or source of spiritual knowledge.”
Storer wanted to paint the different geographies and landscapes of Israel, its significant sites, creating a body of paintings during his time here. He has found that some regions, for example the barren desert, have made his work more abstract, quieter and cleaner.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “I’ve been more attracted to the spiritual nature of things here rather than the noisy political [objects] and it’s almost a response to try and get away from all the tensions here. It’s been kind of confusing and tumultuous to live here and I feel that my paintings are a kind of retreat, to get a sense of peace from this place.”
As he prepares to head back to the US with the works he’s created during his time here, Storer plans on continuing to develop the body of work he’s begun, while regaining some of the “messiness” that used to be part of his work.
“I’ve been doing smaller pieces. It’s almost like note-taking, vignettes as opposed to a full novel,” he said, dabbing at his third canvas of the Bethlehem field. “When I go home, I’ll continue to work with this stuff for a while, to work it all out.”