In her early 20’s, Yael Livneh was a shepherd.
It was tough, physical work, walking a herd of 80 goats into the desert mountains, cleaning after them, chasing stray goats.
Goats need a leader, and back then, she didn’t know how to be one for them. She had to chase them around as they followed an assertive goat, thinking Yael was part of the pack.
On one of these days, she managed to find a quiet moment. The goats were grazing peacefully and she was sitting leaned against a tree, playing her flute and painting with watercolors. The desert sun shone from above, and the silence was endless. She fell asleep.
When she woke up, the herd was gone. They followed their unofficial leader back home, munching on the farm’s olive trees on their way. Frustrated, she consulted with a colleague. “You have to be a center”, he told her. “Once you find your center, you’ve got them”.
I finish my drink and order another one. It’s a warm night, and we sit at a crowded bar and drink wine. Even though we speak a lot, I never really ask her about her work.
“So, how does one become a potter?”, I ask.
Being a curious, creative person, Yael describes her attention span as a butterfly. “I walk in a path, the path I create for myself, and I see a flower, or a nice beetle, or a stream of water. I stop to look and stray away from my path. I forget where I’m going to”. However, the ground is a recurring theme in her life, as she is always in a search for stability, a home, earth.
The conflict between wanting to be in many places at once and wanting to find a land of her own is visible in all of her works.
Yael studied visual arts at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. She had to make a sculpture for one of the classes and needed to use a furnace, so she went to the ceramics faculty. Being in the faculty and looking at students’ works, things from the past began to connect.
Drawing classes in high school, when the class practiced figurative sketching using sculptures the teacher made as a model. That day when he told her she draws like a sculptor. A pottery studio she saw once, and a workshop she’s been to. Even being the best in class in chemistry and physics in school.
After that, she moved to the ceramics department.
Pottery requires a lot of drudgeries, with the cleaning of tools and the workspace, preparation, recycling of materials, glazings, using a furnace. But working the raw material on the potter’s wheel is pure joy.
Even though it gives more color and sturdiness to the piece, Yael doesn’t work much with glazings. She uses bare porcelain, which is the purest form of clay. Her work is white and clean, and the objects she makes have a pure, smooth feeling.
While making sets of plates and pots for a restaurant, she mixes pigment with the raw material to avoid glazing and create her unique style. The sanding of the tools gives them a matte look and a soft touch.
She write about her work:
I’m searching for peace. Circular centering of simplicity unites blend of colors into white. In my work on the wheel, I use the power of turning to shape minimalist, plain, organic forms that are built at the moment. The changes apply to me are embodied in the differences between object and object. It intrigues me to explore the tension and balance of the incessant movement, embedded in the matter, completes itself through our eyes in the ended piece, contrary to the fragility and rigidity in which.
I perceive the space as an integral part of the making and the relationship between it and the object as illuminating concealed perspectives. Time and place design every old concept as new while I learn and grow from each move. In any step of the path I chose, I resume my way from the start.
Yael works with rings. Whole rings, cut rings, dismantled rings, convoluted rings. It’s the most basic, intuitive shape, that holds within both the round walls and the space within them.
This shape contains amongst itself many conflicts. It has defined limits, but it’s endless. It’s both two-dimensional and three-dimensional. It is a solid object, yet it holds the memory of a movement and the moment of its creation. The way Yael compositions her pieces maintain a feeling of tension, movability, the vulnerability of the material, but also a sense of stillness and stability.
To create a ring you need to find a center, and you need to set the borders.
Every pottery work begins with the act of centering, as the raw material has to be placed right in the center of the potter’s wheel. This action requires a deep focus, almost meditative.
Once the center is found, the circular movement and the rising of the material begins. Then, she creates a socket in the middle, that goes all the way to the bottom so it makes a hole.
It’s a healing process, a process of roundness, focus, centering.
Yael tells me about a bit of advice she recently got from a mentor. “Get to the end of the path, finish a sentence with a period. Find one or two days every week to wander around”.
She demonstrates the creative processing of a material using an ashtray on our table. The conversation is being interrupted occasionally by neighboring tables and servers but goes back to the same point.
She goes back to that time of her life when she herded the goats, and tells me about nights of sitting by the fireplace and drinking fresh goat milk with honey and Micromeria flower. She jokingly says people have this fantasy of being a shepherd. They have an image of the shepherd, in peaceful scenery, standing tall in the center of the herd as the goats graze around.
But finding this sort of center requires a lot of hard work, a lot of drudgeries, a lot of focus.
As she tells me that, I can’t help but picture her out there in the desert surrounded by a circle of grazing goats as she plays her flute, in the center of the universe.