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A children’s book illustrator finds a new canvas for her whimsy – ostrich eggs

It’s no yolk: Prizewinning artist Hilla Havkin plays a shell game with her egg drawings — now on exhibit at the Israel Museum’s Illustration Library

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Illustration artist Hilla Havkin's illustrated ostrich eggs at the Israel Museum Illustration Library through June 2022 (Courtesy Ella Zimmer)
Illustration artist Hilla Havkin's illustrated ostrich eggs at the Israel Museum Illustration Library through June 2022 (Courtesy Ella Zimmer)

Prizewinning children’s book illustrator Hilla Havkin is known for her whimsical art featured in some 180 books.

Her canvas, however, isn’t limited to paper; Havkin also illustrates empty ostrich eggs, among other unexpected items.

“I draw on all kinds of things,” said Havkin. “Everything I see fills my imagination.”

Havkin’s magical collection of ostrich egg illustrations is currently being exhibited in “Which Came First, the Story or the Egg?” at the Israel Museum’s Illustration Library.

The exhibit fits the library’s agenda of promoting the art of illustration, said curator Orna Granot.

“What does it mean to tell a story through art and pictures?” said Granot.  “Art and words collide and combine and work together in a different way and the illustrator can control the combination, can make them work against each other, creating something avant garde.”

Illustration artist Hilla Havkin’s illustrated ostrich eggs at the Israel Museum Illustration Library through June 2022 (Courtesy Ella Zimmer)

Havkin is well-known for her quirky, charming animal — and human — illustrations, which she has drawn for a long list of writers, including David Grossman, Hanoch Levin, Nurit Zarchi, Daniella Carmi, Datia Ben-Dor and Shlomit Cohen-Asif.

The eggs, however, are a personal project, begun by Havkin while she was visiting a cousin at Kibbutz Be’eri, who had drawn on an empty ostrich egg from the community’s abandoned ostrich farm.

“It was pretty ugly, so I took it home,” said Havkin.

She washed off her cousin’s unsophisticated work and created a clean surface, a process she now performs with each blank ostrich egg. Then she began drawing.

“It’s like an empty page and I see the drawing before I start working,” said Havkin. “It’s not connected to any of the books I’ve worked on. I start from something in my gut, my heart or my mind.”

Illustration artist Hilla Havkin’s illustrated ostrich eggs at the Israel Museum Illustration Library through June 2022 (Courtesy Ella Zimmer)

Havkin ended up buying up all the ostrich eggs left at the kibbutz, and worked on illustrating them in between book projects. Each egg takes her about a month.

Ostrich eggs are far more substantial than chicken eggs, pointed out Granot. Havkin, now in her 70s, welcomed the challenge as a way to keep her creativity moving.

Twenty-four of Havkin’s illustrated eggs are displayed in the exhibition, each with its own imaginary tale about kings and bats, giraffes and insects, kites and hot-air balloons — wherever Havkin’s imagination took her.

“When I imagine something, it brings about something else,” she said. “If I draw a tower, I think about what could happen in that tower.”

The painted ostrich eggs rotate slowly in glass vitrines placed throughout the two-room Illustration Library, revealing Havkin’s imaginative process.

There are also plenty of Havkin’s illustrated books available to read while hanging around in the library, which offers egg-shaped bean bags to perch on.

Illustration artist Hilla Havkin’s illustrated ostrich eggs at the Israel Museum Illustration Library through June 2022 (Courtesy Ella Zimmer)

The exhibit also includes original drawings from three books illustrated by Havkin, chosen by Granot to raise questions about illustrations and the role they play in the text-and-art dynamic of children’s storytelling.

“Illustration isn’t just second fiddle, there’s always more to it,” said Granot, who became intimately acquainted with every one of Havkin’s eggs and its story while curating the exhibit. “There’s something iconic about illustrators; they love stories and they’re sensitive as an audience. They’re also the first one to touch an author’s story and sculpt it into visual understanding.”

Back at home, Havkin has only about ten ostrich eggs left to use, but she’s discovered a new canvas of late — dried pita bread.

“I forgot a pita in the microwave and when I took it out, I said, ‘It looks like an old lady,'” she said, and began working on the wrinkled surface of the round bread.

More on that process in the future. For now, visitors can view Havkin’s illustrated eggs through June 2022 at the Illustration Library.

Check the Israel Museum Illustration Library site for visiting hours, which include 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and a free English story hour on Thursdays at 5 p.m.

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