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Interview with Zev Labinger, Cover Artist for Phoebe 51.1

Timothy Johnson

I believe you should judge a book by its cover. Of course, we often apply that idiom figuratively to people, and in that case, I don’t recommend it. In the literal case, though, a book’s cover is indicative of the publisher’s investment in the interior. Beneath all of the design and layout work, there are the words, and for the literary arts, those are the foundation. However, phoebe is not only a journal for the literary arts but also for the visual arts, and we take great pride in the care and attentiveness we give to the journal’s visual experience. Our design and layout is indicative of how much we consider every issue of phoebe a complete package of artwork.

If you want to read more about how we think 51.1’s cover is a representation of the issue, read our issue announcement. This post is all about the cover’s artist, Zev Labinger, the person behind the art.

The cover wrap of phoebe 51.1 is a painting by Labinger titled “Nocturne and Fox.” One element that speaks to us about Labinger’s work is an innate property of crossing borders and blurred lines, something touchable and familiar yet also amorphous and elusive. When I spoke with Labinger via Zoom, I wondered about his lived experience and how it aligned with his artistic style. Having grown up in California with a father who was a rabbi and in the military, Labinger said he never felt quite like he belonged. “Living in Israel for 30 years, I feel more American than I probably ever have,” he said. “It’s ironic, because here, I’m an American.”

I think what drew us to Labinger’s work is that it is relatable at its core. He certainly experiments and innovates with form and medium, but each piece we considered featured an accessible focal point or identifying feature that anchored us. Whether it is the face of a woman in an otherwise surreal image, basic shapes hidden in wildlife, or lights on a landscape horizon, his artwork showcases an impressive breadth of stylistic experimentation. In fact, beyond what we’re publishing here, Labinger was previously featured in our 49.2 issue with a work of iconography.

When I spoke with Labinger earlier this month, it felt to me like meeting an old friend for the first time. His warmth, kindness, and humility were immediately apparent even over a Zoom connection that spanned an ocean and a continent. My hope is the following transcript conveys more about him as a person and artist as well as more about his art.

Timothy Johnson: You grew up in the United States and then you moved to Israel where you’ve lived for 30 years. I’m always fascinated by people who move from one part of the world to another part of the world, because I imagine it grants an artist a broader view of humanity. How do you think living in the United States and moving to Israel influenced or even defined you as an artist?

Zev Labinger: It’s definitely a big part of who I am. I have two daughters, and I recently was talking with one of them and I realized I’m an immigrant father. My parents were both born in the States, but their parents were immigrants. I was thinking about how I viewed them. They always had that old-world kind of feel, and then I realized, only two generations later I’m the immigrant. I think there is no part of my life that hasn’t been touched by this move. 

One thing that comes up for me now is, even though I’ve learned Hebrew and I speak it well and everything, writing and reading in Hebrew is still difficult. My wife is a writer. I read her work, and I can comment on it, but I always tell her that I don’t really feel it like I would if I was reading English. There’s something very universal about the visual arts. There is no language that I have to worry about dealing with because I’ve been a visual artist all my life. So it’s not that I chose that by coming here, but I wonder if it’s something that’s maintained and maybe pushed it, and I wonder, in certain ways, maybe if I was living in the States, I might have started writing more.

I grew up in California in a fairly rural area, and I always felt that I was quite different. I grew up in a Jewish family. My father was a rabbi, and he was in the Air Force, so we were a military family, but I also was the son of a rabbi. Most the kids and people I knew had no idea even what that was.

My name is Hebrew as well as my sister Gila’s, and we both kind of felt that we were not completely American in some crazy way. And then coming here, living in Israel for 30 years, I feel more American probably than I ever have in an ironic way, because here I’m an American. People hear my accent, they interpret my attitude and my beliefs, and they pin it all on the same thing, so coming here, in some ways, has actually intensified this identity of the American, which is kind of ironic.

For many years, my main work was in ecology and birds, but art has always been there. There’s something very international and universal about ecology and birds.

So, even though, yes, I had to work in the language and everything, there is something that I think I always felt very grounded and always felt that in some way, yes, I’m American or I’m Israeli or wherever I am, but I feel in many ways more connected to nature, being outdoors, and birds.

TJ: It’s interesting you bring up translation because, in literary art, there has been a recent push for recognizing translation as the art form that it is. There’s something about language and the way you connect to it, and because of that, translators are doing very important artistic work.

ZL: My wife translates, and her English is excellent, but I really realized it’s an art form because translating word-for-word often doesn’t work. There’s a writer who said that translating is like kissing your lover through a napkin. You get the kiss, but you’re not touching the real thing.

(Editor’s note: We couldn’t find the definitive origin of this. Welsh poet R.S. Thomas once wrote to another Welsh poet, Menna Elfyn, that “A poem in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief.” However, Hayim Nahman Bialik is credited as writing, “He who reads the Bible in translation is like a man who kisses his bride through a veil.” In any case, we like the sentiment.)

TJ: You studied ecology in the U.S. and in Israel, where you earned your master’s degree. However, all that time, you also were studying art. Can you talk about those tandem interests and how you balance them?

ZL: There’s a connection between the art and the science, which I feel has been this kind of struggling and grappling all my life.

I think a lot about this because, especially in my art, I think a lot about what keeps pushing me to do that art. I’ve always been coming back to birds. Birds seem to be the thing that pushed me from a very early age. I was 11 years old when I got interested in birds. I joined a bird club, and I just went into it deeply from the very beginning, and it started as I still think about it, as science and art. I wanted to learn all the species and how they behave and how to identify them, but I also started to draw them. Because I was always drawing and sketching something I liked, but I immediately started wanting to draw birds. I was fascinated by them, but it’s also the way I learned about them scientifically. Before naturalists and scientists had cameras, they drew what they were studying. I really believe that it’s also through drawing that you actually comprehend the three dimensionality of the subject. So it was all there from the very beginning, and I was fascinated by the art part of it as well as by the science part of it.

It became difficult in high school because it was impossible to take art classes along with science classes. A lot of the labs were these two- and three-hour blocks, so it was kind of one of the other. What also influenced me was the feeling of needing to do something practical, but I always managed to take some art classes and always was drawing. That’s how I went through university, too. I took some art classes, but every time I wanted to take a real studio class, it always interrupted my lab classes. It was difficult to balance that.

After I was done with school, I started taking more classes in different places and learning with specific artists, especially here in Israel, and I spent a lot of time in different artists’ studios, taking lessons from them. Somehow, I dragged those two things along, and then for a long period in the middle, I was frustrated with both sides. I was in the science part of it and I didn’t have enough creativity and I felt like I still couldn’t just be an artist for a lot of practical reasons. It’s always been this kind of struggle, and I think maybe that’s also something you see in the art.

TJ: In addition to studying ecology and art, you’re also a musician. I’m particularly interested in the way musicality connects with literature. Have you discovered any connections between your love of music and art?

ZL: I’ve tried over the years to paint different subjects around music, and it’s never quite worked for me. I actually was in a band for quite a few years, and I painted all of us. All of the different members, and so I have those, and I’ve painted people playing and I’ve tried here and there to paint the feelings that I have when I listen to music, but it just doesn’t quite work. But I’m sure they affect each other. I’m sure the energy that I feel with the music, especially in improvisation, the passion is in the same place, I think that comes out, but I haven’t really connected them.

TJ: It almost seems to me like music for you is a completely separate way for you to express yourself artistically. Do you find that maybe, if you’re frustrated with your painting or something else, you go pick up a guitar and that makes you feel better?

ZL: Yes, definitely. There’s something different about it. The art for me is a lot of work. It’s hard work. Usually I tend to paint in the mornings up until late afternoon, but a lot of times it is hard for me to paint in the evening now. It takes a lot of mental energy, and picking up the guitar and just playing is just something easy. It flows, and I don’t have to think about it, and I’m not working. It’s a different release in a way. I don’t have any big fantasies or plans for the music. It is really just there for me, whereas the art I’m really trying to push and really trying to get some recognition. I think there’s something just very pure about the music.

TJ: I want to ask about the Artists for Nature Foundation. You’re the Israeli representative for the organization. Can you tell us more about it and what you do?

ZL: It was started in 1990 because the founder, Ysbrand Brouwers, loves nature and wildlife art, and he had a lot of friends who were artists, so he started to organize these groups to go to places and raise awareness about nature and wildlife conservation. I found out about it in 2007 or 2008, so I contacted the organization to do a project in Israel. Basically, I raised money to bring artists to the area and provide a place for them to stay and food. The first project was at the Hula Wetlands. We had two different events where we had 36 artists from around the world, including some Israeli and Palestinian artists. Palestinian-Jewish relations is a whole other area that that I’m involved with and has always been important to me. We did field trips and art workshops with kids, so it’s really fantastic, and we had quite a few exhibits that moved around Israel and also in Europe. We did a second project at the Dead Sea, which included Jordanians also.

(Editor’s Note: Zev and his wife, Edna Gorney, wrote a book titled Drawing Inspiration from the Hula Valley. It was published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, it is currently out of print. However, used copies are available.)

TJ: We’re publishing three of your pieces, including the cover. They are different in style and medium. The first I want to talk about is “Winged Woman.” When our art team discussed this piece, we almost forgot about the wings of the woman, because the face is so beautifully rendered in such loving detail. For pieces such as this, where you blend the real and surreal, are you pulling from real life, or are you pulling from your imagination? If both, how do they connect?

ZL: Well, actually “Winged Woman” is my mother in law. So I’m very connected to her. At the time, I was sketching her a lot. She is going to be 95 and, unfortunately, quite far along in dementia, but as far as drawing her, it’s actually quite a nice situation. She doesn’t talk much and there’s not a whole lot to do so, a lot of times when we’re sitting, I’m sketching. But this painting actually is from a drawing I did of her when she was still well. It’s partially also based on a photograph. She was actually sitting in a chair, we went out on a picnic with the family. And she’s on a chair, and I photographed her from below so, when I painted it, there’s no chair there. She’s floating. She’s a very, very intense woman, and that was something that I really wanted to bring out. It’s really one of my favorites.

But it was a period that I started to put wings on all sorts of people, and almost all of them are people that I know personally, including myself. For a long time, I felt like it had nothing to do with angels, and it wasn’t a religious thing. It was something to do with a kind of a metamorphosis. But recently I’m getting back into it and wanting to work in this area more, and I realized you can’t really put wings on people and say it’s not connected to angels, some kind of connection to the after world. Especially when you see an older woman. It’s obvious that death is in that picture and heaven and I don’t know what, so I’m looking at it myself, trying to figure out exactly what it is, but for me to put wings on somebody, it’s also as an ornithologist. 

I gave her griffon vulture wings, which is a bird that that lives in this part of the world, but it’s like the size of a condor. It’s a very big bird. So the kind of wings is important. I did one of my sister and gave her raven wings. I don’t just stick some white fluffy wings on somebody, but the species is really important to me.

TJ: When we were discussing your submissions, I think the least controversial—the one everyone immediately agreed was one we wanted to publish—was “Crane Preen.” There’s something magically wistful yet real about it. How do you think you achieved that effect?

ZL: I sketch cranes a lot. Every winter here we have a wintering population of like 40,000 Eurasian cranes. I studied them, and I participated in several research projects where radio transmitters were put on them. I spent a lot of time in hides to catch them, and I spent hours and hours waiting and waiting, watching them, and sketching them. I have lots of different paintings of birds preening and think it’s something really beautiful. Their heads are behind their backs and digging into their feathers and they’re all fluffed up and moving. For this painting, the one thing artistically that I really wanted was that it’s standing on one leg and that’s in the center of the painting, so it has balance, if you look at compositionally. I also think there’s something interesting in the star shape composition. The bird resembles a star. That was one of the things that really caught me and then wanting to capture the light and the softness of the light, which maybe lends that quality you’re asking about.

TJ: The final piece is “Nocturne and Fox.” We chose it for the cover for many reasons, but one of my favorite aspects of that piece is, despite the title, for me it’s not necessarily strictly speaking about the night or the fox but the lights on the horizon. So, I’m curious. For you, how did that piece begin? Was it a painting of a fox and a landscape or a cityscape, and while you were painting it, did what that painting was about change for you? Has it changed for you since?

ZL: It’s really interesting for me to see art through other people’s eyes. For me, it’s very connected to Covid-19, because over the summer, it gets hot in Israel. For some reason this summer I started to just take a lot of walks at night. We live in a small village and, in several directions, I immediately go down into these open valleys. Between the hills and in the valleys is a lot of agriculture, wheat fields. And then, in the distance, there’s the next town, and I started to photograph the different scenes. I started to become very fascinated with seeing the lights in the distance, but everything else is dark, so that’s what I started to come back and paint. I tried doing a little bit out in the field, but when I put the light on, it ruins the scene and makes it difficult to see and so I was just kind of going out, doing these walks, contemplating going back and painting.

The first few were just landscapes, but almost every time I went out, I would see wildlife like the fox. It was quite tame, and the first one I saw stopped, and I stopped and walked out and walked across and then went back and did some sketches, and this was the kind of a sketch that I thought would lead to a bigger painting. But once it was finished, I didn’t continue to a larger painting. I’ve done bigger paintings of other things, but this one I kind of just left it as is. I felt it had a certain atmosphere about it.

So it actually started more as a landscape and I think the main thing was really the night scene but also a fascination with the lights.

Zev Labinger

is a visual artist, musician and ecologist originally from the USA and living in Israel for the past 30 years. He became obsessed with nature and birds at age 11 and he has been studying and painting them ever since. Zev received his B.Sc. at the University of California, Davis and M.Sc. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel. Fascinated by how things work, especially how things work together, his art spans from traditional nature art to dealing with the intersection between nature and society. He is the Israeli representative for the international organization ‘Artists for Nature Foundation’ and has exhibited in the USA, Europe and Israel. His works can be found in private collections, museums, books and field guides, and online at facebook and his website.

Timothy Johnson

is editor-in-chief for phoebe and an MFA candidate at George Mason University’s creative writing program. His writing has been published by Gamut, Crystal Lake Publishing, Deracine Magazine, and Inked in Gray Press. He lives and writes from outside Washington, D.C. Tweet at him @tim_the_writer. He will be delighted.

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