Art rooted in nature
“Eat Hummus, Be Happy” and “The artist who lost her bum” are just two of the statements that describe Leora Rosner. Surrounded by an audience of plants in her cosy Amsterdam home we talked with her about the very rich life she leads — a life that’s been quite multicultural and sometimes confusing. From Israel to Amsterdam, she’s lived in several places and had her share of adventures. And these days her focus has turned to trees, in which she sees so much beauty and strength that she’s turned it into both art and action. She is a strong tree herself, and we were curious to get to the roots of what made her the photographer, artist, philosopher and mother that she is today.
Where does your story start?
I was born in Manhattan, New York. In the late fifties my dad started working for a photographic company selling in Texas and Oklahoma, so we moved to Texas. My mom never forgave him for that because she had a love affair with New York. They were both journalists and in that time it still meant something to be that because you were able to change laws and influence politics with what you wrote. I have two older sisters, an older brother and my twin sister. The double header came unexpectedly. (laughing) My dad at a point got a job in the very first Neiman Marcus in downtown Dallas. He had a camera store there and we lived in Texas for 11 years, and when my father died my mother made a decision for us to move, and before we knew what was happening we were immigrating to Israel. We had just turned 15.
So you continued high school in Israel?
Yes, I moved around to a few different of schools there and landed at the High School of Art. In my first half-year we were doing a watercolour and the director of the school, a very conservative man, came in the room and stood behind me while I was working. I started sweating like crazy because I knew he could be brutally ruthless in his commentary. I was thinking, Oh no. Here comes the guillotine. But instead he leaned over and said, “If you continue this way you’ll be as good, if not better, than the English aquarellists.” He turned and walked away. Everybody was dead silent in the room because it seemed like the first time any of us had heard a compliment pass his lips. That was a very cool moment in my life as a young artist. I continued there and by the end of the year had a nice collection of realistic drawings. Unfortunately, I ended up leaving before I could graduate because my surrealistic work was not in line with the school’s expectations.
Were you able to find a way to continue creating the type of art that you wanted to make?
Well I wanted to go to the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem since it’s considered the best Art Academy in Israel. And I got in! There I got into photography but also into various pickles, let’s just say that! (laughing) One time we were asked to make a sculpture that would fit in the front garden of the Academy. But in my eyes the front garden looked horrible, half of the plants were dead and there were weeds and trash everywhere. They really didn’t seem to care about it. So I made a huge pile of garbage because that’s what I thought it looked like. They were not too pleased with me. Another time we were asked to make something that people would be repelled by and would not want to interact with, touch, or use. So I found a nice chair frame, the kind with a rounded back, only missing a seat. And I made a seat for it in the shape of my bum. I sat fully in a tub of plaster, pulling even the ‘short and curlies’ out! Then I painted it with fiber glass. The teacher said at a point: “Let’s get this in a museum right now!” My chair made out of a bum turned off a lot of people. And one day the bum went missing. The chair was still there, but the bum was gone. I was running around the studio shouting: “Has anyone seen my ass anywhere? It is bright yellow!” (laughing again) I regret that I don’t have it anymore.
At what point did photography cross your path?
I couldn’t specialise in photography until the third year, which is what I was waiting for. After seeing my drawings, people had told me that I should be doing photography. I thought perhaps they were right and once I started I realized, Well that is easier! When I left school I started working for United Press International. It was there that I learned I didn’t want to be a photojournalist. Not long after that I met a Dutch man, which is how I ended up here in the Netherlands. We later divorced, but I lived together with him right around the corner from where I live today. I continued doing photography when I came here, and for the past 30+ years I’ve been with my husband Ed who is a bass player and furniture maker. He’s from Canada, his parents are British and he grew up in Singapore. Just to keep my life internationally diverse.
After relocating, how did you continue to grow your skillset as a photographer?
When I first moved here I took pictures in the red light district. It was fascinating to me. My first husband called me crazy and thought it was dangerous, but I didn’t see it like that. I enjoyed taking pictures of everything going on there. After that I became fascinated by anatomy and I started taking pictures for the Netherlands Bodybuilder Federation. I loved watching every muscle, it felt like a live biology class. It helped me a lot for the next chapter in my photography journey, shooting ballet. Somebody got me connected with the Scapino ballet, a smaller dance company under director Amando Navarro and sometime later I started working for the NDT (Netherlands Dance Theater) and I loved it. There I learned to shoot in terrible light conditions, which gave me an advantage and brought me a lot of work. However, when my daughter was born I decided to stop with photography completely. It had become financially difficult to survive with the shoots I was doing, and the chemicals were eating me alive. I knew that digital photography was coming and I waited for that to break through. I remember the first digital cameras, and their flaws, very well. The shutter lag was especially painful! Today it’s another story, digital photography is amazing. The level of detail even entry-level cameras can capture is astonishing.
You currently take a lot of detailed photographs of trees. What camera are you working with?
A Sony camera with a Zeiss lens. Fantastic camera and tack sharp, everything I need is in the box. It’s also compact which is very important to me. It’s a great camera, the detail of its 20-megapixels blows me away. The only thing it’s missing is macro, which I do want to shoot more of.
What drove you to make trees a central focus of the work you do now?
I got involved in environmental activism after seeing a documentary about the air quality in the United States. It had never been possible for the US government to measure air quality due to the amount of planes constantly in the air above the country. But immediately after 9/11 there were no planes for three days, so it was unique moment to do the tests. The results were shocking. The quality was bad, really bad. I didn’t sleep for three nights. I even racked my brain for ways to find a lot of money, pick up my daughter from school and travel the World in order to see everything before the whole planet went to hell in a handbasket. I wrote a letter to George W. Bush, the President of the United States at that time, and I also wrote to every government, senator and representative of the European Parliament. I received a few private answers saying that they were taking measures on local levels because not much was moving at the federal level. Even here in Europe. So I became involved in several activism groups and organised a big demonstration in 2009 leading up to a climate summit. After demonstrating, we felt the need to get our hands dirty. I had a dream of planting a forest but I wondered how I would ever make that happen. I realised I had to start locally. So we managed to work with different departments at city hall and we were able to get subsidised as well as get our own website under amsterdam.nl. Up until then, people had been planting trees all over the city in a very unorganized way. We got together and filled out all of the different paperwork needed to submit a request for planting in a single location. But we also realized this was only a local initiative. What about national? It was clear that we needed to start a foundation, which we did.
And it was this same passion for trees that you also manifested into your current photography initiative, Artistrees.
Yes, one day I was out with my camera walking next to trees. I looked at one particular tree and was surprised to see a face in it. Later I started thinking to myself, Trees are state-of-the-art according to scientists, but what about the art state of a tree? So in other words, some trees are artists or can be seen as pure art. So what do you call these? Artistrees? And that’s what I’ve been working on now. I got involved with a local organization located in Alphen and Rijn, Netherlands, and it led to an exhibition. The pictures will now be used in the towns’ new Tree Policy books. Each chapter will have a lead image, a lead Artistree. The city of Leiden is now interested in doing something similar so I’ll start there soon. Then on to The Hague, Utrecht and so on. And I would love to take it to the next country. I want to show the beauty and strength of trees to as many people as possible.
You’ve photographed and created art around many different topics and in a lot of different styles. It’s beautiful to see that this new chapter revolves around nature and showing its strength through trees.
Yes, it gets me in a crazy zone. I also love to listen to music when walking and looking at trees. When I was in Leiden some days ago I was walking along, listening to my music, and noticed what I call a “creature” taking form in the bark of the trunk of one particular tree. I couldn’t help but laugh at it. Out loud I was saying, “Thank you, that was awesomely cool, I’ll be back!”. Only then did I realise that I had an audience behind me staring and probably thinking, what a strange person?! I didn’t care. It’s a dialogue between me and the tree. They grace me with the creativity that they have. The colours they have, combined with the light shining on them, makes them such beautiful creatures. Trees are something much bigger than we are or than anything that we create as humans is. A saying I learned here in Holland is “There’s a lot between heaven and earth.” There is so much truth in that.
You’ve mentioned Leiden, The Hague, and Utrecht. But what about Amsterdam and trees?
I wanted to start with smaller cities because here it can sometimes be like talking to a wall. With so much happening in the city and so many things that need focus, projects like this one get a little bit pushed into a corner. I have to revisit a lot here in order to see who is who when it comes to trees in the city. Then I’ll approach city hall and bring Artisttrees to life here as well.
You’ve created a lot of art in a lot of different mediums, but photography is your biggest love. Why do you take pictures?(Laughing) Because I got tired of making images in my head!
What’s one of the most positive things that’s happened to you as a photographer?
There have been a couple of them. The first time I realised that I could be in an auditorium and shoot pictures of dancers without a motordrive — purely on instinct — was a great feeling. The dancers thought I’d been a dancer myself because I had such a perfect timing. Another fantastic moment was when I discovered the thing with trees. I thought to myself, Yes. This is it.
What is your HeadSpot, EyeSpot and MouthSpot*?
My HeadSpot is in the forest of Amsterdam or Vondelpark. The trees are amazingly beautiful. They make me feel so safe. For EyeSpot I love sitting on terraces and watching people walk and bike by. I also love to listen to the diversity of conversations happening around me, especially in a city like Amsterdam where there are tourists from all over the Planet. Ijssalon Tofani is perfect for that, I went there many times back in the days when I was looking for inspiration. And as MouthSpot I think of Italia Oggy. I’ve been there a lot, and in all of that time I’ve had only two meals that weren’t top. I really can’t count how many times it was damn delicious. Italian food at its best.
How would you describe Amsterdam in one word?
Today I would describe it as MULTICULTURAL, although that has not always been the case.
What is one song that is Amsterdam for you?
I don’t really have a song or songs that remind me of Amsterdam. What I do have is many songs take me back to a certain time and include a scene attached to that time. Like Janáček’s “On the Overgrown Path” takes me back to sitting on the floor in a studio of NDT and photographing the dancers rehearsing. Classical music running through my head takes me back to driving my old motorcycle. And Sting’s “Fields of Gold” reminds me of times holding my baby daughter while dancing around the living room here in Amsterdam, thick with love and pride for her.
X This conversation had place in the Summer of 2017
X Interview and photography by Johan Bockstaele
X Images captured with a Nikon Df
X Interview conducted in English and has been edited by the clever ZOTEYE minions
*a place in the city where the person being interviewed goes when he/she needs a place to get inspired, contemplate about life or think about what to eat that evening (HeadSpot), a place to look around and give the eyes a blast or a meditative session (EyeSpot) and a place where he/she keeps going time after time to eat and/or drink something because it is ri-di-cu-lous-ly yummie. (MouthSpot)