Artist-teacher reflects on life and work from seat of wheelchair

Known for collages and installations that juxtapose her subjects with unexpected backgrounds, Yael Robin, who has Parkinson’s disease, is exhibiting works at the Israel Museum

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

Photojournalist Debbie Hill (top) and artist Yael Robin, partners in life (Courtesy Debbie Hill)
Photojournalist Debbie Hill (top) and artist Yael Robin, partners in life (Courtesy Debbie Hill)

Yael Robin believes in the power of art.

It says as much on her bio page on the Israel Museum’s website, and this lifelong art teacher has lived that adage since age 14, when she was sketching in her Jerusalem bedroom to deal with the travails of teenage life.

Now 63 and grappling with Parkinson’s disease, Robin continues to photograph her subjects and create art from those images.

A selection of Robin’s artwork is being shown in a private gallery attached to the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing, where the Jerusalem institution’s art teachers show their works to students and friends. (Visitors to the museum can ask to see the exhibit through mid-March.)

Robin taught art in the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing for 20 years to Arab and Jewish students, older folks and wounded IDF veterans.

Her own artwork often begins with photographs she took capturing Israeli society, which she then cuts up and manipulates into collages that reconfigure the subject.

From artist and art teacher Yael Robin’s collection ‘Land’s End,’ currently exhibited privately at the Israel Museum classroom wing, March 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The exhibit that opened in December begins with Land’s End, her collection of collages about the endless tug-of-war over Israel and its land.

Some of the collages include photos from a day spent years ago with religious settlers visiting an army base on Independence Day, showing small children clambering over army tanks and trying out machine guns, set against the background of Ramallah’s rooftops or with Israeli flags waving in the background.

Others include Israeli buses after a bombing or bulldozers butting up against a police cruiser.

Another group of photos are from the 2011 social justice tent protests in Tel Aviv,, when entire families camped out for weeks to demonstrate against the economic gaps in Israeli society.

From artist and art teacher Yael Robin’s collection currently being exhibited at the Israel Museum classroom wing, March 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

One portrait has pride of place: a Lilliputian figure of a woman, her pocketbook clutched in her arms as she sits atop a mountain of sunflower seed shells, a ladder resting against the pile in case she wants to climb down.

Robin often created installations, collages of her photographs mixed with materials to create miniature landscapes laid out on the floors of galleries and museums.

It’s clear to see where Robin’s work has been affected by her life partnership with Debbie Hill, an American-born photojournalist who has long worked for international news outlets.

Robin would sometimes accompany Hill to her work assignments but while Hill was capturing the situation taking place, Robin’s work only began with her photos.

“It’s like two different, totally different viewings of it,” said Hill.

Photojournalist Debbie Hill (top) and artist Yael Robin, partners in life, especially as Robin, a lifelong art teacher, deals with Parkinson’s Disease. (Courtesy: Debbie Hill)

“When I started cutting them with scissors, she was shocked,” said Robin.

Robin’s photos would include the garbage in the background or other elements that didn’t get included in Hill’s images of the same scene.

“I would say, ‘Oh, all that dirt, that’s going to mess up the photo,’ whereas she threw the trash in because it was real,” said Hill. “She saw it as something important that had to be in there.”

Besides her work at the museum, Robin was an art teacher at the Leyada Secondary School in Jerusalem, and she taught a weekly Thursday night class for teens at risk at Zion Square, creating artworks with anyone who showed up.

Hill said the pair would walk through the streets of the city — they live in the downtown Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot — and bump into Robin’s students, Palestinian kids she taught at the museum, at-risk teens who hung out in Zion Square, and students from Leyada.

Teaching art has always been as important as creating her own artwork, said Robin, who studied art at Beit Berl College as well as in the Netherlands and London and has had dozens of exhibits in Israel, including at the Israel Museum itself.

“You want people to see themselves as creative, that’s the main thing,” she said. “You take a step back to view your reality and you view your reality by drawing. And then you have it forever.”

Robin said that when she’s in artist mode, she’s a student herself.

While her abilities are more limited now that she is often seated in a wheelchair or walking with the help of a cane, with a left hand that shakes and doesn’t always do her bidding, Robin is still creating, taking photos and drawing her impressions based on those images.

Artist and art teacher Yael Robin reflects on decades spent on her work, especially as she struggles now with Parkinson’s disease, March 2023. (Courtesy: Debbie Hill)

She spends more time at home, with fewer opportunities to see what’s happening around her, and says she deeply misses the ability to capture the moments and issues that are important to her.

She also struggles with memory and her mobility.

“I also see things from a different level,” she said. “I’m sitting most of the time. And I’m looking up to my work.”

Asked if there are any benefits to the disease that has taken so much from her, Robin isn’t ready to answer.

“I want to say I don’t know yet,” she said.

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