Israeli artist Assaf Zur embarked on his artistic career in his fifties, after over thirty years of service as a bomb disposal technician with the police. Fine Art Shippers had the opportunity to sit down with him to explore how art made its way into his life, how it transformed his self-perception, and in which ways the roles of an artist and a bomb disposal technician are similar.
Artist Talk: Assaf Zur on Parallels Between Art and Bomb Disposal
How did you start as an artist? When did it happen?
Assaf Zur: My journey is somewhat unconventional. I just wrapped up 34 years of service in the police. My career began as a bomb disposal technician. Over time, I rose through the ranks and became the head of the division, where I was responsible for overseeing all the bomb technicians in Israel.
I’ve had a passion for painting since my childhood. However, I only began to take it seriously about five years ago. The pressures at work were immense, and I found a release in creating art. Due to my demanding job that required me to be on call 24/7/365 and present at work from 5:30 in the morning until 11 at night, I had no time to paint during the weekdays. So I dedicated my weekends to this passion of mine. Though I’ve never had any formal training in painting, I believe I’ve been gifted with the ability to visualize images and feel colors. They’re like second nature to me. I don’t aim to find them, they come to me. For instance, I see the subtle beauty in the way a shadow falls on a face, or how a plane’s shadow morphs as it passes over the mountains. I believe these should become paintings, these unique sights and moments that I see.
And let me clarify, my art doesn’t stem from the trauma, suffering, or misery of the world or my own life. I create art from the beauty that I see around us, the moments that we are often too busy to appreciate.
Before we move on to your art, could you tell us more about your job as a bomb disposal professional? It must have been tough both physically and mentally.
One thing most people don’t understand about the job of a bomb disposal technician is that it is deeply rooted in humanity. We put ourselves at risk for everyone regardless of whether they were Jews, Arabs, or Palestinians. In this regard, this profession isn’t too far removed from my art. Being an artist, especially the kind of artist I am, requires a deep love for people. Now that I’ve finished my service and retired, my pension allows me to work without worrying about financial constraints. I can focus on creating my art.
Are you a full-time artist now? How much time do you dedicate to painting?
I’ve turned one of the rooms at home into a workspace; it became available when my eldest daughter moved out to live with her boyfriend. These days, I spend between six to ten hours a day painting.
But my work is somewhat limited by an old injury. About twenty years ago, I was involved in defusing a bomb in the Gaza Strip. It exploded, killing two of my colleagues. I was injured and lost the ability to use my dominant right hand. After several operations and nerve treatments, my doctor suggested I shift most tasks to my left hand, except for writing. It was a stroke of luck because I discovered a new way to hold the paintbrush. Despite dropping it hundreds of times while painting, I always pick it up and continue.
I’ve observed that your paintings are incredibly detailed, featuring elements like carpets and various ornaments. Why do you love incorporating such minute details into your work?
I believe it’s the details that shape our perspectives. The world is all about details and nuances, nothing is black and white. When painting, I try to bring them to life without leaning too much into hyperrealism, which I find a bit cold. I strive to imbue my art with my own soul and heart.
Many of your paintings feature people. Are they real people or memories?
The people in my paintings are usually my family. I work from photos I take with my iPhone, which I find more convenient than having live sitters. I first visualize the image, guide my subjects on how to pose, and then capture multiple shots from various angles. I use these images to create a sketch, which then becomes the basis for the painting on the canvas.
Though I refer to the photos for shapes, I take creative liberty with the colors. Most of my paintings are combinations of different photos. For instance, a painting featuring two children on a carpet feature several photos of the children, my own toy train, and the carpet from my living room. I try to create a relatable story through such elements, capturing the emotions I want to convey.
Apart from canvas, you paint on linen, wood, and metal. What makes these materials so attractive to you?
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to creating things with my hands. I find beauty in various materials such as metal and wood. I believe that anything can become a piece of art if you perceive it as such.
I prefer linen over canvas because of its soft texture. It allows me to layer my paint more easily. Recently, I’ve started painting on wood, and I find the natural textures fascinating, as they complement my artwork. I devote as much attention to the background as I do to the main subjects of my paintings. With wood, it seems like the material does some of that work for me.
Overall, I enjoy exploring the contrast between the materials and the subjects. For example, on one occasion, I painted a delicate fluffy bird on a metal shovel. I really loved how the depiction enlivened the rough metal surface.
You recently had your first solo show. How did it feel?
It was astonishing to come in each morning and see my work displayed. I had never seen them hung up before; I would just paint them and set them aside because I was creating for myself, not for the public. The first time the public saw my work, the reaction was incredibly heartening and gave me great motivation to continue.
Another exciting discovery was the opportunity to talk about art. knew how to paint, but I had no idea how to discuss it. I’m accustomed to military speech, which is usually brief and authoritative. During the exhibition, I would come to the gallery every day to chat with visitors, explain my work, and take part in interviews. You wouldn’t believe how uncommon this situation was for me. But I found true joy in it.
Interview by Inna Logunova
Photo courtesy of Assaf Zur