BY MENUCHA CHANA LEVIN
Creative, gracious, original, colorful, inspiring … in these ways Sheva Chaya Shaiman is similar to the unique works of art she produces. An expressive watercolor artist and glassblower, Sheva Chaya lives in the artist colony of the Old City in Tzfas. Growing up in Denver, Colorado, near the breathtaking Rocky Mountains, inspired her to pursue her art talent. She went on to study visual art and art history with a concentration in painting.
On her first visit to Eretz Yisrael she was impressed to see how people really cared about each other. She joined a program for young women at Aish HaTorah and started learning about the mitzvos. After becoming a baalas teshuvah, she decided to settle in Eretz Yisrael in 1999.
While living in the Old City of Yerushalayim, she studied Hebrew and was fascinated by the shapes of its letters, which she would incorporate into her artwork.
Soon afterward she met her basherter and they were married. After living in Bat Ayin and Yerushalayim, Sheva Chaya and her family spent an inspirational Rosh Hashanah in Tzfas. Immediately they felt a special connection to the ancient mystical town, with its red-roofed houses, thick stone walls, graceful archways and iron railings painted sky blue. Living there were Jews from across the spectrum, “beautiful neshamos,” as she describes them.
“After that first Rosh Hashanah, we decided to come regularly for Shabbos once a month for a year and in the end decided to move to Tzfas permanently,” she says.
Sheva Chaya, thriving in the scenic surroundings, drew inspiration from the spiritual and physical space to create her art in her Tzfat Glass Gallery. Beginning to explore the wonders of glassblowing, her new home kindled her creativity. Becoming a pioneer glassblower, the first one in Tzfas, she is still a rarity in the world. She regards glassblowing as a dynamic art form appropriate for the town associated with air, one of the four elements.
However, glassblowing takes effort, intense interest and persistence, says Sheva Chaya.
“You have to be dedicated to follow through to become proficient,” she adds.
She has started an apprentice program for others interested in learning this unique craft.
Her inspiration derived from Jewish sources, Sheva Chaya makes Judaica items such as handblown glass pomegranates, Chanukah menorahs, Kiddush cups, mezuzah covers, Shabbos candlesticks, ner tamid covers, as well as custom work and jewelry. Many of her paintings seem similar to the clear clean lines and shapes of glass. Her glass work, as well as her paintings, reflect the mystical atmosphere of Tzfas by often incorporating shades of blue.
A small piece, such as a glass pomegranate, can be made in only 20 minutes, and she has taught herself to work quickly. But a large complicated piece, such as a Chanukah menorah, can take months, including the planning stage, since each section needs to be made individually and then assembled.
As a proud Jewish mother, Sheva Chaya was delighted when her daughter asked to learn glassblowing as an afikoman gift and created a necklace with her name on it.
Sheva Chaya also created a unique wedding-glass project. “The wedding glass is an idea connected to the passuk in Yirmiyahu (18:4),” she explains, “that compares the Jewish people to ‘chomer b’yad hayotzer.’” The Zohar interprets chomer as glass, a material which even when broken can be remade into something whole and beautiful.
“A tour guide friend of mine and I were talking about this idea when I realized I could make a glass to be broken, and then some of the broken pieces could be reintegrated into a new piece as long as I used the fire to remelt the pieces.
“So I make a thin, handblown glass Kiddush cup for weddings and ship it to couples anywhere in the world. After the cup is broken under the chuppah, the pieces are returned to my gallery to be reassembled into a beautiful keepsake for the chassan and kallah. I melt the glass pieces into a new handblown gift of choice; it can be a new Kiddush cup, a mezuzah case, a pomegranate, a salt dish or two matching glass goblets with stems. This wedding glass gift is always cherished as unique and memorable. Naturally, the packaging is important,” she points out. “But the pieces arrive safely.”
As a strong believer in hashgachah pratis and siyatta diShmaya, Sheva Chaya’s dream was to invite to Tzfas the renowned Venetian Jewish glassblower Maestro Gianni Toso,* whose family’s glassblowing tradition dates back seven centuries. She hoped he would “share his mastery of the art with art lovers, glassblowers and anyone interested (or lucky enough) to see the highest level of the art in action. When I first met the maestro, even though I saw him work for only a few minutes of one day, my understanding and love of the material evolved beyond measure.
“The maestro told me he would never come to Israel, that he had originally wanted to settle in Israel but was traumatized by trying. Somehow, that didn’t faze me. I told myself the next time I get a chance to visit the maestro, I’d better take it. When the opportunity arose to travel to the States, I really wanted to spend Shabbos with him and his family, beyond seeing his mastery of the art. We discussed a plethora of ideas and shared stories over the few days I was there.
“The experience of being in the maestro’s studio and seeing his perseverance as an artist, his ongoing thirst for ‘beyond expression’ is really beyond description. And I learned above all that the mastery of an art is never over, that there are always new frontiers to explore and conquer.”
Then the idea for a glass festival in Tzfas arose, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With much siyatta diShmaya and hashgachah pratis, in February 2016, Maestro Gianni Toso and a leading American glassblower came to share their work in Sheva Chaya’s studio, thus fulfilling her dream.
Now that her children are older and in school, Sheva Chaya has more time to spend on her artwork, blowing glass and painting regularly, depending on the demand and inspiration of the moment.
The long, chilly winter in Tzfas is devoted to painting and exploring new techniques. Her themes include the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish people, tefillah and motherhood. Inspired by Rebbe Nachman’s teaching of ‘Azamra,’ she finds the good in all things, which is reflected in her bright, colorful paintings.
During the warm, hazy summer days, she works at glassblowing and gives demonstrations. Hundreds of tourists who flock to the town of Tzfas, especially during the Klezmer Music Festival, also find their way to Sheva Chaya’s lovely art studio adjoining her home. The tranquil courtyard is filled with plants and flowers interspersed with pieces of her stunning artwork.
Inside, visitors watch a fascinating glassblowing demonstration, view her colorful paintings and glass creations, listen to her inspirational stories, and take home a memorable gift of their visit. Her spacious gallery welcomes individuals and groups of up to 50 people for presentations on Jewish women’s expression, the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael and chassidic teachings.
Sheva Chaya’s visitors from many places include family groups, bar and bas mitzvah celebrants, seminaries and schools. There are plenty of wonderful sights in this special town, but many of her visitors feel that the Tzfat Glass Gallery is one of the highlights of their visit.