Israeli immigrant's joyful art products designed to be worn, used

Artist has been creating long before move to Cedar Rapids

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The works of Cedar Rapids-based Yoffi Art rarely wind up on a shelf or museum pedestal.

That's fine with artist and owner Giora Neta.

Neta, 66, aims to bring art and joy into daily life. The Hebrew word yoffi translates into English as "beautiful," but it is often used in Neta's native Israel as an instant response to joyful discovery.

Neta's artwork incorporate ordinary, daily objects such as eyeglass frames, ink pens, gym shoes and coffee tables. He adorns the solid objects in brightly painted beads and the fabric objects in bright, painted designs.

"Art, in my view — whether it's music or photography or something else — enriches life," said Neta, a former kibbutznik and Israeli army officer. Kibbutzes are collective farms or settlements in Israel owned by their members.

The inspiration for Yoffi Art came unexpectedly when Neta and wife, Toni, became legal guardians for a woman named Marilyn.

They met Marilyn while volunteering at a state facility in Chicago, where they lived before moving to Cedar Rapids in 1994. Toni is a psychotherapist, and the couple have long been advocates for people with mental disabilities.

Marilyn was often stared at in public due to her facial expressions, mannerisms and difficulty expressing herself. The Netas knew that she was troubled by the unwanted attention and tried to protect her.

"I tried to think of a way that might divert people's attention to something else about her and came up with making her colorful hand-painted gloves, shoes, jeans, jackets and sunglasses," Giora said.

"To my surprise, people would then stop us and not be staring at Marilyn, but wanted to know where she got these lovely things."

The reactions so pleased Giora that he began making gifts for Toni's co-workers as well as gloves for  residents of the nursing home in Israel where his mother spent her last days.

Giora began selling his art on a more regular basis in the mid-1990s, and continued after Marilyn died in 2005 of pancreatic cancer.

The experience with Marilyn translated into other art opportunities for Giora. He recalls meeting a friend whose age complaints included the need to use a cane, which seemed to reinforce her fears that she'd become old and boring.

So Giora borrowed the cane and returned it designed with ornate beadwork. The frequent compliments delighted Giora's friend, and reversed her attitudes about carrying a cane.

He's since added decorative canes to his list of products.

Yoffi Art products range in price from $10 to $50 for small objects such as gym shoes, pens and sunglasses to $800 to $2,500 for larger works such as coffee tables, side tables and benches.

While intricate patterns of bright colors and a sense of whimsy pervade Yoffi Art, the surfaces are designed to be interesting from all sides and reflect changing patterns of light under different natural and artificial light conditions.

Although much of the art starts as "found" objects, Giora also has tapped the Senior Carpenter Shop at Cottage Grove Place, a senior living facility near his home, to make wood table frames.

"I design what I want, and then work with them about the dimensions," he said.

While the carpenter shop is creating the table, Neta designs the glass beads and other ornamentation in a process that can take as much as two weeks. The application of the beads can take a month or more, and Giora sometimes works until he is literally seeing double.

He's used as many as 300,000 beads on a single work.

"Most importantly, for me art comes from inside, and I have to feel the inspiration and mood to carry out my idea," he said.

Yoffi Art has been featured in the Iowa City Art Fair, the Downtown Farmers Market in Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon Art in the Park. Giora has supplied work for table centerpieces in fundraising events, exposing his designs to business people who became buyers.

The art business in many ways serves as a counterpart to the struggles of Giora's family, which have at times been grim.

The family first immigrated from Russia to Israel after their wealth was seized during the Bolshevik Revolution. Family members had been imprisoned in Russia as Zionists.

Giora's father, Misha, and mother, Sonia, were the first members of their family to immigrate to Israel. The rest of their family, other than Misha's sister, perished in World War II.

In Israel, Giora's father was one of the leaders of the Kibbutz Movement and was in charge of security for all Kibbutzim and farm communities, or Moshavim. He was also one of the first members of Israel's Haganah Division, which later because the Mossad, Israel's intelligence and counterterrorist agency.

While the family lived an austere existence, art remained important. His father and mother both created art, some of which adorned the wall outside the family home.

Giora created his first piece after he finished his service in the Israeli army. He decided to decorate around his house, and built colorful creations from scrap farm equipment.

Giora met Toni while they were both attending Roosevelt University in Chicago. He went on to a career in the automotive industry before the coupled moved to Cedar Rapids in 1994 to be near Toni's father.

The struggles of his family and the Jewish people are always in the back of Giora's mind.

"A human being that doesn't accept and learn from the past, as an artist they have no future and cannot grow," Giora said.

Giora's ambitions include a public sculpture that observers could interact with, like Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" in Chicago's Millenium Park, one of his favorites.

First, however, Giora would like to perform his bead magic on a vintage subcompact car, then drive it to Chicago.

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