Nirit Levav Packer has designed wedding dresses, crafted jewelry, and sculpted urns. But welding is the art language she speaks most fluently.
“Welding is like [working with] tape for me,” said Levav Packer, who, outside the studio, lines her eyes with dark blue pencil and wears slip dresses and sandals, letting her thick, brown hair curl around her shoulders. “I don’t care about the mask and the heat; it’s natural for me.”
This artist, with an abundance of skill sets, is now ensconced in her own gallery, a 400-square-meter former Ottoman horse stable in Jaffa unveiled in August, that has space to house two of her major welded collections, along with jewelry designs and other artworks created over the last decade.
In Levav Packer’s “Unchained” series, dogs of all sizes, from Afghans to pinschers, are welded mostly from bicycle chains and other parts.
Another major collection is her “From Within” series, representing the stages of pregnancy, from fertility to birth, and the complexities of motherhood in the 21st century.
The pregnant women are inanimate, made from chains, gears, twigs, and springs and valves, but there is strength in their compositions and life-size proportions.
“I’m done with pregnancies,” said Levav Packer, 55, who has four adult sons with her husband and business partner Uri. “Yet there’s something in pregnancy that is a unique moment for women only, there’s no equality in it, only women experience it. I can weld and lift heavy things, like a man, but I can be pregnant, and men can’t, and I wanted to show that duality.”
Before the focus on pregnancy came a collection of women in dresses with dogs at their sides.
The dozen or so dresses she used were ones that couldn’t be worn, and hadn’t been measured or fitted — a welcome challenge for this former wedding dress designer. “There were no more limits, I realized I could just do this,” she said.
She was always a gatherer of materials: old bicycle chains, unusual rocks, used light bulbs, broken watches, all stockpiled in her Herzliya home studio. She studied silversmithing, and also played around with clay, creating large urns and bowls that she would embed with all kinds of found objects.
“I began making all kind of things, around all kinds of subjects,” she said.
At the time, she had a successful wedding dress design business, but had tired of it.
“I was so tired of it, all that white, only what the customer wanted,” said Levav Packer, a Parsons School of Design graduate.
As she slowly closed down the business, Levav Packer began creating wall art with images that flew off the canvases, enormous birds made with clothespins that looked like they were about to take flight; images of men or women made with sand, or garbanzo beans.
“I didn’t understand at first that I wanted to sculpt,” she said. “I was sculpting on a screen, and it was extending from both sides of the screen, and it was only then that I understood that it was a sculpture.”
She never lacked for ideas. Yet following a first solo exhibit of her work in 2007, Levav Packer understood that her sculptures lacked direction.
“No one understood me — all these birds and women and men and dogs,” she said. “I decided to focus on one material and one subject.”
She had created one dog, a Rottweiler made from bicycle chains, that was purchased by a collector in Amsterdam. She loved the way the bicycle chains hung down, forming hanks or coils of thick, silky fur.
“The chains are just very unique,” she said. “I hadn’t understood it before working with them. I always find so many new things to do with them, all kinds of techniques. It’s like a pencil, you can do what you want with it.”
So she made more dogs, and the collection found a natural audience. Tel Aviv, after all, is a city that loves its bicycles and its dogs.
Her work has reached beyond Israel as well.
Levav Packer was commissioned by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” to create a sculpture of a Yorkie pup for its headquarters in Orlando, Florida. She also created a flying bird made completely out of bicycle parts for Israel’s Midburn festival, the alternative event that is a sibling of the annual Burning Man festival in the US.
All along, Levav Packer has continued to collect abandoned materials — used light bulbs from her former dress shop, valves from a car garage, abandoned laundry clips — and welded them with abandon in her studio.
“It’s a shame to throw anything out, because I always see it as material; you never know what you can do with it,” she said.
She credits her skills to her father, a stage decorator who was also always working with different materials and whose studio was like a second home for her as a child.
After the collection of pregnant women was shown in Jaffa last year, she and her husband, Uri Packer, who runs the business with her, had to decide whether to find galleries to show the works in Europe or to open their own space in Tel Aviv. When they found the abandoned, Ottoman-era location near the Jaffa flea market, they felt it was a providential sign that it was time to open the Nirit Levav Packer Art Gallery.
The large, open space houses all of her works from the very start of her sculpting career, as well as the occasional tables and stools that Levav Packer welds from found objects.
There are smaller pieces for sale as well: welded hearts, dog faces, Hanukkah menorahs, and candlesticks, as well as a case of Levav Packer’s oversized twisted rings, earrings, and necklaces.
“I can have it all here, in this one space,” she said. “It all interests me, so I like having it all together.”
Nirit Levav Packer Art Gallery, 9 Beit Eshel, Jaffa.