Kopel Gurwin logo. his signature.

Kopel Gurwin's Biography

Brief

Kopel Gurwin (1923 – 1990) was an award-winning international wall-hanging artist, painter, and graphic artist who realized his talents in appliqué art which focused primarily on biblical themes. Rich colorfulness and the use of Hebrew lettering as decoration became the hallmarks of the incredible works he created. His works, made in Israel and shipped worldwide, adorn numerous synagogues, public buildings, hotels, and private collections.

Kopel was born in Vilna to a traditional Jewish family, studied at the Tarbut school, and belonged to the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. He spent the Second World War in the German army’s labor camps. In 1950 he immigrated to Israel, served in the Israel Defense Force, and studied painting and graphics at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

Throughout his years of work, Kopel won numerous awards for posters he designed, including for the Tel Aviv Jubilee, the 25th Zionist Congress, and four Independence Day posters. One of his drawings on the theme of Jerusalem, which won the Herman Shtruk Prize, was given to the Foreign Minister at the time Mrs. Golda Meir. Kopel had numerous solo exhibitions, including at the Jewish Museum in New York. In 1995 an impressive collection of his works was held at the Knesset in Jerusalem – in memoriam.

The Early Years, Holocaust and Aliya to Israel

Kopel and his siblings – Moshe (Meshke’), who was two and a half years his elder, and Hava (Havale’), who was four years younger, spoke Yiddish at home but studied Hebrew at their school, which was part of the “Tarbut” educational network. In his spare time, Kopel was active in the “Hashomer Hatzair” youth movement, where he was introduced to the Zionist movement and its values.

In the 1930s, as a teenager, Kopel helped his parents with the home finances by working in a suit workshop. This was where he first encountered the art of sewing. During this period, with the Russian takeover, the family enjoyed abundant food, and the children attended drama, art, and music clubs. These good years passed quickly, and with the outbreak of the Second World War and the German invasion of Vilna, the Jews were imprisoned in camps and ghettos where they were brutally persecuted.

oil painting of havale', Kopel's sister. by Kopel Gurwin
Oil Painting of Havale' (Kopel's sister) by Kopel Gurwin

The Holocaust and its horrors did not bypass Kopel’s family. In December 1941, 14-year-old Havale’ was entrusted into the care of a Polish family who would hide her from the Germans. However, they immediately gave her up, and she wasn’t seen again. Kopel and Meshke’, who were young and strong, were separated from their parents and put to work in coal mines and peat. One day, when they returned from work, they found the house empty.

Kopel’s parents were taken to the Stutthof concentration camp, where they died of typhus within a month of each other. His father was 57 and his mother 52 at their deaths. Before the brothers could come to terms with the tragedy, the Germans arrested them at the ghetto entrance. Kopel managed to escape without Meshke’ who was among those to be sent to Estonia for extermination. Kopel immediately contacted his drama teacher, Nina Gerstein, an enterprising woman, who was able to arrange Meshke’s release. After that, the brothers stuck together.

After this, they hid in an attic until they were discovered, fled, and moved to Riga, where they were caught a second time and sent to the Stutthof concentration camp. The two were put to work cleaning and maintaining trains. Leftover food they would occasionally find in the carriages helped them survive. At the end of this period, they were forced onto one of the death marches, during which many of their friends who collapsed on the journey were shot dead around them. Only through luck did they manage to survive.

Towards the end of the war, the Swedish government opened its doors and granted asylum to ill survivors for rehabilitation as part of Operation “Folke Bernadotte.” Kopel, who suffered from tuberculosis and an acute foot infection, was among the candidates for rehabilitation and insisted that his healthy brother join him. In July 1946, Kopel and Meshke’ sailed from Lubeck in Germany to Lhlsinborg in Sweden.

Kopel was hospitalized in a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers and was lucky to receive medical care, nutritious food, and, most importantly, kind treatment. With the improvement in his health, he began to contribute, with his artistic talents, to the cultural and social life of the sanatorium.

Once he recovered and recuperated, Kopel worked in a printing house and later was appointed director of the local branch of the “Halutz” movement. Within his position, he assisted survivors in counseling and issuing immigration visas for Israel. He also illustrated and published the newspaper “Hatnuah”, which provided information about the goings on in Israel and worldwide to the hundreds of Jews living in Sweden.

In 1950 Kopel made aliyah to Israel together with Meshke’. Their first stop was the “Shaar Haaliya” camp, and from there, they arrived at a refugee absorption camp in Acre. Israel was in a state of austerity and economic recession, but since they could speak Hebrew, the brothers easily found work. Kopel worked for the Survey of Israel and traveled around the country, marking lands as part of his work. In 1951 he enlisted in the Communication Corps and served as a military draftsman. There he won his first prize for designing the front cover of the Communication Corps bulletin. Kopel asked to enlist in permanent service at the end of his compulsory service. Still, medical tests showed that his tuberculosis had returned, and he was hospitalized at Tel Hashomer Hospital. During his hospital stay, he reacquainted himself with the art of sewing from his youth, and he began to make spectacularly beautiful dolls out of colorful fabrics brought to him by his old friend, Dr. Bobby Kam.

Career

With his discharge from the army at 29, Kopel fulfilled a childhood dream of studying drawing and graphics at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Among his teachers were Carl Schechter, Jacob Steinhardt, Isidor Ascheim, Rudy Dayan, Jakob Eisensher, Jacob Lev, Shlomo Vitkin, Yossi Stern, Jacob Pins, Emmanuel Grau, Ludwig Schwerin, Avraham Ronen, and Moshe Cohen.

His life experiences, maturity, talent, and serious attitude to his studies aroused much fondness among his classmates. Kopel excelled in his studies and combined Hebrew-Jewish motifs with Israeli-Mediterranean clarity in his works. He had the utmost respect for Hebrew texts, which were essential to his career. In his free time, he made a living through calligraphy, copying bible verses onto decorated parchments, and writing personalized certificates of appreciation to order.

Kopel Gurwin's Bezalel student card
Kopel Gurwin's Bezalel Student Card
a drawing of a Jerusalem lane by Kopel Gurwin

At the end of his first year at the Academy, Kopel won the Reuben and Sarah Lif Excellence Award in written studies. He also won additional prizes during his studies: In 1956, he won first prize from the Lethem Foundation in California for poster design. Later the same year, Kopel won the Herman Shtruk prize for his drawing on the theme of Jerusalem; this prize was distributed annually by the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design to a competition winner in the field of useful graphics. That year the management of the school distributed the drawings to public figures. Kopel’s drawing went to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the time, Mrs. Golda Meir, who sent him a personal letter of thanks.

In 1957 Kopel won an additional first prize from the Lethem Foundation and second place from the printing company Ortzel for a drawing for a Jewish New Year greeting card.

old thank you letter from Golda Meir to Kopel Gurwin

After completing his studies, Kopel moved to Tel Aviv and was hired by Shmuel Grundman’s graphics and design studio. Grundman immediately recognized Kopel’s talent and diligence and took him to Europe to design and supervise the construction of Israeli exhibition pavilions.

Within the framework of his job, Kopel designed window displays for the El Al and KLM airlines; these unique displays were replaced every few months and attracted much attention. At the same time, Kopel searched for a new creative medium. In a special interview with the journalist Michael Ohad, he said:

 “In my spare time I try to paint, but here I get into deep trouble. My entire being rebels against the ugly avant-garde which dominates our era… I don’t hate the abstract, there is impressively beautiful abstract. But the paintings that emphasize the neurotic and ugly with a desire to destroy all aesthetics annoy me. This conflict between my personal view and the so-called order of the day, paralyses me… I am looking for a medium to express myself in and I think I have found what I am looking for in felt appliqué. I don’t plan on cutting fabrics and sewing felt appliqué wall hangings my whole life, but it is possible that this medium will help me find a new path also in my painting.”

Poster Design

Kopel participated in many poster design competitions. When asked why he was fond of these competitions, he said:

 “The poster is the jewel in the work of the graphic artist, and in competitions, you are free to do whatever you wish and are not subject to the customer’s instructions.”

In 1958 he won first prize in a competition to design a Tel Aviv jubilee poster. Two years later, he won three other awards: First and third prize in the annual Israel Independence Day poster competition, celebrating 12 years of the State of Israel, and first prize for a poster to mark the 25th Zionist Congress. In 1964 he again entered the Independence Day poster competition, which that year was on the theme of aliyah, and won first and second prizes.

Four years later, he again entered the competition on the theme of 20 years of Israel’s independence and won first prize. The following was written in the newspapers of that year (1968):

“In the contest to select the Independence Day poster for 1968 which took place yesterday in Tel Aviv, first prize went to the embroidered poster of Kopel Gurwin. The Holy Ark curtain-like poster with two lions and a menorah at its centre will be published in the coming weeks and distributed throughout Israel and the world”

This poster appeared on the cover of Jewish Art and Civilization, by Geoffrey Wigoder and the record Voices of 20 Years, 1948-1968, by Yossi Godard.

In April 1971, after winning first place in the Independence Day poster competition for the fourth time, Kopel told the journalist Adam Baruch from the Haaretz newspaper:

“The Independence Day posters are the Grand Prix of Israeli graphics. The theme of the poster is beautiful Israel, that’s why I put a boy lying down in rich greenery, cultivated and not naturalistic, smiling and holding a flag in his hand. The translation of the happiness to the graphic medium is done through the use of strong colors”.

The second prize was given for a poster depicting a sabra plant painted with rainbow colors and an Israeli flag fluttering over it. Following this competition, he said:

 “Now I will sit at home and give talented young artists the opportunity to win”.

Style, Technique and Work process

isaiah prophecy by Kopel Gurwin
Isaiah Prophecy

Kopel discovered the fibrous felt from which he made most of his wall hangings while at Grundman’s. At the 1964 Oriental Fair exhibition, he used felt stuck on wooden panels for the first time, and the experiment was well received. Kopel’s first felt appliqué wall hanging was intended for the American Cultural Centre in Jerusalem, and its theme was the American Deceleration of Independence. The wall hanging, which measured 2.85 X 1.85 meters, was stuck on a wooden panel. The colorfulness and flexibility of the felt stimulated Kopel to experiment further in producing wall hangings. He ordered rolls of felt from France and began to work on preparing wall hangings based on the bible stories he liked so much.

Using his childhood knowledge, he hand-sewed small and remarkably equal stitches with black embroidery thread to frame and highlight every detail in the work. The first attempt at appliqué was successful, and he continued to work on additional attempts. Each wall hanging had three elements: the central motif/story, the decoration (ornamentation), and the Hebrew text, which usually framed the work. The Hebrew letters were designed in a square font, contrary to the accepted biblical calligraphy.

A friend of Kopel, the interior designer, Alufa Koljer-Elem, introduced him to Ruth Dayan, the manager of the design shop Maskit and initiator of the establishment of the Maskit 6 gallery. Dayan admired Kopel’s wall hangings and asked to display them in a solo exhibition. Since he only had three small artworks, a future date was set. To prepare for the exhibition, Kopel reduced the scope of his career as a graphic designer and spent the remainder of his time working tirelessly on producing additional felt appliqués in different sizes. After a year and a half of hard work, on the 10th of September 1967, he opened his first solo exhibition at the Maskit 6 gallery. Twelve felt appliqué wall hangings were displayed in the show, the colorful character and the combination between the biblical themes and the art of the execution were perfect, and all sold on the opening night.

In light of the exhibition at Maskit 6, Meira Gera, the director of artistic activity at the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, organized an additional exhibition of his works at the foundation’s exhibition hall in New York. The exhibition sparked immense press interest, especially around Kopel being a successful Israeli artist. The pieces were also displayed at the New York Jewish Museum for a few months. From there, the exhibition traveled throughout the United States.

the binding of isaac by Kopel Gurwin
The Binding of Isaac

In an interview with the journalist Michael Ohad, Kopel said:

“After having found a subject that touches my heart, I prepare a sketch, not in color but with a pencil. At first I don’t sleep for two weeks, but as soon as an idea pops into my head it appears in all its detail. It is as if my brain photographs the finished work. I choose the appropriate colors. I don’t prepare a small model, but enlarge the sketch and immediately cut the fabric and sew. At the end of the process I add the text which explains the image.”

Good Tidings sketch by Kopel Gurwin
Good Tidings Sketch
good tidings by Kopel Gurwin
Good Tidings

Following the exhibition at the Delson-Richter gallery in Old Jaffa, which was later also exhibited at the Jerusalem Theatre, the journalist Nissim Mevorah wrote:

“The black color connecting the felt to the upholstery fabric (through hand stitching) highlights the contours. The aforementioned process repeats itself several times since every wall hanging is composed of at least three layers. Color attracts color, until the completion of the work. Thanks to this technique, his work goes beyond purely technical art and borders on artistic action. The colorfulness inherent in the felt is luscious and rich. This is the reason Gurwin selected this material for his works. He has a highly developed sense of color, and thanks to this his works look as though they are being engulfed by red and blue flames.

The biblical characters filling Gurwin’s wall hangings are inspired by the Jewish artistic folklore of Eastern Europe. Around the biblical verse which adorns the characters like a crown, appear oriental decorative motifs based on the rhythm of repetitive forms. By contrast, even contemporary graphic styles, among them the works of great artists such as Paul Klee, are among the influences on these wall hangings. At times of heavenly mercy Gurwin prepared works based on psalms of thanksgiving. His romantic moods resulted in wall hangings dedicated to the Song of Songs. Alongside this, Kopel regretted that “wall hangings have not yet been properly naturalized in Israel, and many have difficulty classifying them between art and craft.”

In an interview with the journalist Adam Baruch he said:

“Maybe a lack of an appropriate education or specialized museums. I am influenced by the biblical sources, while my concept is naïve legend. The fantastic ornamental richness found in ritual objects, pomegranates, the Torah, scroll and Haggadah decorations, stand before my eyes and appear in my work in various forms. The creation of a new wall hanging makes me excited, the excitement peaks in the play with colors.”

Legacy

nightingale by Kopel Gurwin


The Nightingale of UNICEF

In 1978 Kopel’s appliqué “The Time for Singing has Arrived” was printed on a greeting card for UNICEF, the international emergency fund of the United Nations which deals with the protection and safeguarding of the rights of children worldwide. Kopel donated to UNICEF the rights to print the appliqué and in 1981, in light of the high demand for the beautiful card, it was decided to print it again.

For the Jewish New Year in 1998, the Israeli Philatelic Federation issued a series of festive stamps – three stamps based on Holy Ark Curtains (parochet) that Kopel created for three synagogues in Israel.

In 2008, an additional stamp was issued as part of the Independence Day posters series.

In an article about the project, Barbara Jaekel Miller, an editor at The Times, wrote:

the garden of eden by Kopel Gurwin

A Transatlantic Tapestry

In 1974 Kopel was approached by the women of the Beth Shalom Congregation (Sisterhood) in Kansas City, USA, with a request to design a wall hanging 5.40 X 2.70 meters in size. The intention was for a tapestry that the community women could be involved in its production. Kopel designed the work in all its detail and sent precise execution instructions for the wall hanging which was designed as a tapestry around the theme of the Garden of Eden. Following approval of the sketch, Kopel received 50 pieces of special canvas for tapestry embroidery, as well as a catalogue of wool thread with 200 shades. He connected the pieces into a large sheet, enlarged his sketch and prepared precise instructions for each embroiderer. He then dismantled the sheet into pieces and sent the pieces of fabric to the women congregants. 70 women took part in sewing the tapestry and completed together 2 million stitches over two years.

“Kopel’s genius is in his colors. To think that the huge tapestry was designed from a catalogue of wool threads without the artist being able to see the stages of construction. The final product is perfect, almost unimaginable.”

An additional unique appliqué, one of Kopel’s most oversized manufactured on special order, 4.0 X 2.0 meters, hangs in the Church of the Good Samaritan in Miami. The subject of the appliqué is the seven days of creation. All the days of creation were written in English; apart from the seventh day, Kopel ended with the word “Halleluiah” in Hebrew.

Private Life

At the end of the 1960s, Kopel first crossed paths with Hannah Brooks. Hannah, a Central School of Arts & Crafts graduate in London, worked in textiles design for industry and wove artistic clothes for top fashion designers. The two participated in several creative projects for hotels and public buildings. Their friendship intensified alongside their professional interest, and the couple wed in September 1974. At their wedding, Hannah stood at Kopel’s side in a festive dress decorated by him, uncharacteristically, with stitches in white embroidery thread.

In 1980 the couple decided to build their house in Bet – Yannay. The transition from the city to the country house with its windows overlooking the sea, whose colors and shape change daily, resulted in Kopel creating large abstract wall hangings that combined dramatic colors with graphic balance and stimulating effects of color and shape.

Kopel passed away on 18th April 1990 at the Hillel Yaffe Hospital while awaiting heart surgery. He was 67 at his death. He was survived by Hannah and their two children, Boaz and Shira. He was buried in the Bet – Yannay section of the Kfar Vitkin cemetery.

Notable Awards and Exhibitions

Awards

Year Prize Description
1971
First
Independence Day poster 1971, 23 years of the State of Israel
1969
Second
International Tel Aviv poster fair
1968
First
Independence Day poster 1968, 20 years of the State of Israel
1964
First & Second
Independence Day poster 1964, 16 years of the State of Israel
1960
First
Poster for the 25th Zionist Congress
1960
First & Third
Independence Day poster 1960, 12 years of the State of Israel
1958
First
Poster for the Tel Aviv jubilee
1957
Second
Prize from the printing company Ortzel for a Jewish New Year greeting card drawing
1957
First
Foundation in California for poster design
1957
First
Herman Shtruk award for a drawing on the subject of Jerusalem
1956
First
Prize from the Lethem Foundation in California for poster design
1954
First
Reuben and Sarah Lif award for distinction in calligraphy studies
1954
First
Front cover design for Communication Corps bulletin

Exhibitions

Year Location Gallery
1995
Jerusalem
The Israeli Knesset
1988
Miami
Temple Beth Shalom
1988
Los Angeles
University of Jewish Studies
1987
Chicago
Israel Congregation on the Northern Coast
1985
Jerusalem
Jerusalem Theatre
1984
New Jersey
Tenafly
1983
Old Jaffa
Horace Richter Gallery
1974
Jerusalem
Jerusalem Theatre
1974
Old Jaffa
Delson Richter Gallery
1972
Miami
University of Jewish Studies
1971
New York
Jewish Museum
1970
Canada
Norman Gallery
1970
Winnipeg, Canada
Sharei Tzedek Congregation
1970
Los Angeles
Gallery of the Year
1970
Scottsdale
Gallery of the Year
1969
Chicago
Gleeman Gallery
1969
Chicago
Israel Congregation of the Northern Coast
1967
Tel Aviv
Maskit 6
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