While traveling through Israel looking for models for his latest art project, Nelson sculptor Dennis Kleine was told about a tiny village called Neve Shalom, approximately halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the Israel side of the border.
The cooperative community was founded in 1984 by Israeli Jews and Palestian-Israeli Arabs in an attempt to prove that they could live peacefully side-by-side. Its name comes from Isaiah 32:18 and translates to “oasis of peace”.
As most are well aware, peace is currently a scarcity in the conflicted region, and Kleine was intrigued about what he might find there. So along with Dutch sculptor Marielle Heessels, he travelled there to see it firsthand.
“We met some very special people there,” said Kleine, who was looking for participants for his Peace Symbol Project. As it turned out, he realized that the village was a perfect example of the type of co-existence his art project is meant to encourage.
Using both Palestinian and Israeli hand models, the Kootenay School of Arts teacher envisions a bronze sculpture that will feature human figures and a circle of interlinked hands 12-feet in diameter.
To accomplish this, he had to travel to the Middle East and convince perfect strangers to stick their hands in a bag of alginate. He ultimately ended up with 20, including the hand of his taxi driver Ayoube. Their names will ultimately be inscribed on the base of the structure.
“The people were so friendly. They were very, very receptive and supportive,” said Kleine.
Kleine is collaborating with Israeli sculptor Gadi Fraiman and Heessels, but more people are getting involved all the time.
Kleine said he’s been inundated with suggestions and feedback, and he figures the concept will continue to evolve.
“I started it on my own, but this project has an energy of its own,” said Kleine, who has since been convinced to incorporate more hands around the base. These hands will represent support and love from people worldwide, including Nelson.
Now that Kleine has returned to the Kootenay, he will team up with Kevin Galloway of Across the Board creations to produce the recreations of the hands using a 3D printer.
“This is where the computer world comes in. It’s really revolutionized things,” said Kleine.
Though generally feedback for the project has been overwhelmingly positive, Kleine noted that many of the Palestinians were skeptical of peace talk.
“There’s been so much conflict for so long,” said Kleine. “They’re a little bit cynical about peace. To them, it’s a joke. It’s just talk. It’s only ever been talk.”
Kleine said he was unfamiliar with the conflict when he first started, but he’s had a quick introduction to the politics of the area. He began work on the sculpture long before the recent violence erupted in Gaza, but said the conflict shows reconciliation is a more important message than ever.
“Both sides need to be talking,” he said.
While visiting a refugee camp in Bethlehem, located on the West Bank, Kleine visited a school where a Canadian man was teaching English to Palestinians. He found some models, then decided to come back on another day to see his new friend’s land. As it happened, that day a number of outsiders entered his friend’s land backed up by Israeli army.
“I didn’t know anything about this. But this is land they’d owned outright, been in the family for generations and these Israelis showed up on their land, planting trees. The army shows, but it’s backing up the Israeli people. I don’t get it,” he said.
He was shocked to learn of the lack of UN presence, and said he was shown homes that had been abandoned as people fled the area.
“All of this is meant to bring attention to the fact, that something, who knows what, needs to be done,” he said.
For more information, look up Peace Symbol Project on Facebook or visit peacesymbolproject.moonfruit.com.