‘Create Room For Trial And Error,’ An Interview With Artist Hanoch Piven
Israeli mixed-media artist Hanoch Piven can make even the most mundane things lively. Give him a teacup, sugar sachets, a cap, a saucer, a bottle cap and a pen, and his instinct is to create a face. And that’s exactly how the soft-spoken Piven, known for his portraits of some of the world’s most influential figures, started this interview. The famous artist’s illustrations have graced the covers of international magazines like Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and The London Times, and now, the table in the lobby of Hotel Astoria, where he sat for this interview.
Piven was in Mumbai last month for the city’s Kala Ghoda art festival, where he held children’s workshops on the possibilities of collage. Before he returned home, he spoke to Ritika Bhandari Parekh for The Swaddle about being the uncool kid in school, fostering kids’ creativity, and the importance of failure.
The Swaddle: What led you to illustrating?
Hanoch Piven: I always drew, as far as I can remember. And being the youngest in the family helped as I could observe everybody else. There was less pressure as I was the sweet and great kid. Being the youngest allows you to be in a privileged place of viewing others.
Also as an immigrant from South America, I felt like an outsider in Israel. And being an outsider gave me the possibility of observing. My way to grab attention was to make funny pictures. I used it as my tool, as I was not in a prominent position in high school. I was the short kid who wasn’t popular. So my only chance to make people react and notice me was to draw. I wished they would find me cool. (laughs)
That experience ingrained something in me. It made me develop a sense of humour and observation skills. And to be an illustrator or an artist, you need to be able to realize something and then shed light on it. The word ‘illustration’ comes from the Latin word illustrare, which means ‘light’. So, to illustrate really means to shed light on something.
I just wanted to communicate with pictures. So I struggled in a big way trying to find my language of doing it in art school. And in the process, I came up with a system of working with everyday objects, which was totally unexpected. The style just caught on and I continued.
TS: What was the most important thing your parents did for you to help foster your creativity as a child?
HP: My parents belonged to a different generation, and since they were busy with their own problems, they left me alone. And that was the most important thing they did for me. They didn’t feel the need to be on top of their kids. I have an elder brother who is a football coach today and a sister who is into interior designing.
So being alone wasn’t always good, but it made me independent and resourceful. I believe you can be resourceful only when you are lacking something. When you have everything given to you, you are not going to know how to solve problems. So the positive side is the freedom they gave me without micro-managing. They were also accepting when I chose to do something different.
TS: What can parents do to help foster creativity and imagination in their children?
HP: The first thing to understand is that creativity is not just needed for art classes, but for life. So we need to open a space where kids and adults will create. And the tricky part is how to open a space that nurtures creativity. In a world that is rapidly changing, where professions are changing, we need to find a way to invent ourselves. And that is where creativity and art is important.
I think art is a game, a parallel reality where each element plays its own role. And games prepare us for life. So in a way, when we are experiencing the creation of art we are preparing for life in general. For example, an artist has to try many things until the final piece. Creating art is full of failure. It is full of things that you don’t like, until you slowly understand how to make something better and eventually you end up liking it. It is a process you need to accept from not knowing to knowing, from chaos to order in your head, from confusion to clarity. A good creative space needs to allow that to happen. If you have too many rules, then it won’t be happening.
TS: Tell us more on this.
HP: In a good creative space, you explain the general rules but still leave room for manouvering. You cannot have extremely clear orders or instructions on how to do something. Say, when we assemble a chair following instructions, we are not being creative. So if the instructions are too tight, we won’t listen to our own voice. We will listen and follow the authority.
So parents need to accept that they do not know everything. They can tell the kids that we don’t know what the right thing to do is and it is okay to explore, to make mistakes and to not know.
TS: As a child, imagination comes more easily. How do you keep your imagination alive as an adult?
I think the problem is we know too much. We know too many things conceptually and cognitively. So when we encounter any situation, we have a rule on how to deal with it. We apply the rules to any new situation and that prevents us from realizing the potential of a different possibility.
A kid — by not knowing, not having a set of rules — can only look inside for his rules on how to approach a situation. Basically, he has a wider set of possibilities, by not having that much experience. Adults limit themselves to what they think are the right solutions.
TS: How do you overcome the rules?
HP: I think it is difficult to have a free mind. But you might want to trick yourself into a situation that you weren’t in before. Into a place where you wouldn’t have a clear idea of what is the right thing to do, a place that allows you to explore.
It all comes back to the phrase of French poet Paul Valery: “To see is to forget the name of what we are looking at.” I love that phrase. It summarizes that only when you don’t know something, you will really observe it. It is so easy to tag or label something; our brain wants us to follow a process of labels, instructions, so instead of looking at what is in front of you, you look into your memory, in your set of drawers.
So you can try and trick your brain. Once you trick the brain, if you manage to create a situation where there is no clear solution, clear definition of good, bad, no clear instruction of how to create a perfect thing — it allows you to hear yourself. These abstract concepts are important to apply while playing with children. It is only when we do something unexpected or take risks that we are able to create a playful environment.
TS: In your workshops, you encourage kids to work with everyday objects to create art. Why?
HP: So let’s say I put a white paper, pencil and I say, “Draw.” Then you shall start judging yourself on — is the proportion good? Or the perspective? Or is it symmetrical? If you erase too much it is going to be a mess. You are going to be judgmental, so the authoritative voice is comparing with the model. With mixed media, you have an N number of possibilities.
TS: Do you intend to send a message with your art?
HP: I don’t think in those terms. But the message is: “Do not lead automatic lives. Observe and find a way to live.” And you can discover that only if you are free from rigid instructions.
TS: What keeps you motivated?
HP: The need to feed my family. (laughs) The opportunity to meet new people. Any new project you create makes you optimistic by nature. When you create, you imagine the future. There is a sense of anticipation.
TS: Can you share what you’re currently working on?
HP: There are a couple of new children’s books in the pipeline. I also work for Seeds of Peace, an organization that helps people from conflicting countries. It started by engaging Palestinian and Israeli teenagers and extended to people from India and Pakistan. We are preparing a guideline for teachers with the help of educators from Seeds of Peace. They can use it to help kids explore their own identity, the identity of their community, explore the other community and create empathy as well. It intends to use my system of work to create dialogue, which is the strength of my mixed-media art.
TS: If you could share one message with India’s young, budding artists, what would it be?
HP: Find a way to silence down the big, authoritative voice. Disconnect yourselves from judgmental situations. Create room for trial and error. And do not glue until the very end, as kids usually tend to like what they create immediately. But very rarely you will arrive at the best solution in the beginning. I glue my creations in the end because I may not like what I create in the start. Also, I can try many possibilities.
Learn more about Hanoch Piven’s work at pivenworld.com.