Khen Shish’s minimalistic studio is in contrast to her warm personality and large striking canvases. Open and unbarred, we quickly shared a report of old friends as we sipped tea and discussed her impressive career. I instantly forgot about my list of questions as Khen unprompted disclosed her intimate feelings about each of her paintings.
Positioning each large canvas, Shish began to explain the recurring motifs in her work. Her entire oeuvre is highly autobiographical both consciously and subconsciously. Khen explained that this aspect of her work is a result of her unique childhood in the northern Israeli town of Tzfat (aka Safed), which is known as a hub for Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah.
Observing one of her paintings and lost in her own reminiscent memories, Khen shared, “all the time we were without shoes, running in the forest”. This total freedom and connection to nature defined her most influential years. Looking at a large canvas covered in partially abstract birds, deer, owls and other forest creatures, Khen often mentions her mother, a woman she remembers fondly for her spiritual aura. When I asked her why she often depicts these animals, she explained, “I think it’s two things: first, I have a very mystic mother and second, I grew up in Tzfat, in the north in the mountains and we lived in nature, by the forest”.
This respect for mother earth and the natural world are evident in the majority of Khen’s works. However there are many references to classical art history as well and Khen cites prolific artists such as Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, and Paul Cezanne as major inspirations. As a young eager artist traveling abroad in her early twenties, Shish felt enlightened by the work of Rothko. Leaning in close and choosing her words carefully, she told me, “I saw an exhibition of Rothko’s work at The Tate and it really changed my life”.
The motifs in her work change as she moves through different stages of her life. For example the work she created during her pregnancy is heavy with maternal imagery. Now that she has come into maturity as an artist she has begun to combine all of these inspirational aspects on one canvas.
Khen’s work is also incredibly physical. Her tactile and highly involved works show evidence of places she has completely abandoned paintbrushes and worked the canvas with her fingertips to create a unique paint texture. During one visit to her studio as we stood and pondered a large dark green painting she nonchalantly picked up a can of gold paint and started marking the canvas without hesitation. Putting paint to canvas is a spiritual experience for her as an artist and she can always feel when a canvas can give more or when it is truly complete as a work of art.
When asked about what inspires her, Shish answered cryptically, “I see everything”. From the mystical to the natural and the personal, I feel lucky to have experienced some of Khen’s spiritual visions through her ethereal paintings.