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What can a banana teach us about creativity?

Famous caricaturist Hanoch Piven tells THEO PANAYIDES if you are always looking for the right answer you might miss all of the others


You look like an old Israeli singer, says Hanoch Piven, getting up to greet me in the lobby of the Classic Hotel in Nicosia. It’s not something you hear every day, and in fact, having Googled the singer in question – a venerable fellow named Ehud Banai – I think it’s more a case of wearing a similar hat than having a similar face; still, it’s easy to see why he might say it. When you’re a famous illustrator and caricaturist, like Hanoch, I presume you run every face through a checklist of other faces, as a kind of professional instinct. It’s like a tailor mentally calculating waist size when introduced to a new person.

Hanoch is famous, all right; his work has appeared in most of the world’s big magazines, starting back in pre-internet days when magazines ruled the world. Nor did it take him long to become famous. “The day after I finished school I got a commission from Newsweek magazine, to do a cover,” he tells me. The school in question was the School of Visual Arts in New York, the time was 1992 when he was 29 years old (he’s now 52), and the open-sesame was a combination of being prodigiously talented and knowing the right people (the daughter of one of his teachers was an art director in the Newsweek cover department). “In the first months [after graduation] I got a call from Rolling Stone, from Newsweek, from the New Yorker, from Entertainment Weekly, from New York magazine. In the next year I did work for TIME. I mean, I had the big magazines immediately.”

profile2-Barack Obama
Barack Obama

All these prestigious outlets were asking for caricatures – but not just any caricatures. Hanoch’s particular niche is “playing with objects,” as he puts it, crafting portraits out of a collage of everyday materials. Back in the 90s, he ‘drew’ Bill Clinton with a face of soft pink marshmallows; two decades and two US Presidents later, he assembled Barack Obama for Esquire’s February 2009 cover using chewing gum for his teeth, tiny US flags for his eyes and an Aladdin’s lamp (presumably a reference to the endless promise he represented) for his nose. His Bob Dylan had a harmonica for a mouth and a pointy light-bulb for a nose; the outrageous young Madonna of the early 90s was nothing but a black bra and a pair of handcuffs, arranged to suggest her eyes and mouth. Ross Perot had chattering dentures for eyes; Barbara Bush, like Clinton, had marshmallows for her teeth and pearl necklace. “My marshmallow period,” notes Hanoch wryly.

It’s a joke, but a joke with a slight edge – because artistic ‘periods’ are the hallmark of serious artists, and Hanoch is at pains to point out that he doesn’t view himself that way. “I come from the tradition of caricature and illustration,” he says, sipping water in the lobby of the Classic. His main inspiration as a kid was Mad magazine. “I don’t come from ‘wanting to be an artist’, I’m like ksh-ksh-ksh-ksh” – he mimes himself putting together an illustration at top speed, trying to meet some impossible deadline. “I don’t do it like that,” he concedes, “but this is the picture I have in my head of my original profession”.

Note the word ‘original’ – because things have changed, and in fact our time in the Classic Hotel is fast running out. In a few minutes he’ll be getting up and I’ll be accompanying him across old Nicosia to the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, for a rather unusual workshop on ‘Playful Creativity’ – one of two events he’s hosting here, the other being a lecture called ‘What can a banana teach us about creativity?’. As those titles indicate, Hanoch Piven’s focus has shifted in recent years, from magazine illustrations to a more educational emphasis on how his particular style can be used to inspire creativity in non-artists. “People told me that,” he explains. “Educators, art therapists, consultants told me: ‘What you’re doing, it can be applied’.” Just as ‘playing with objects’ came to him by accident – he was drawing Saddam Hussein and decided to make the dictator’s moustache out of matches left lying around the house by Hanoch’s heavy-smoking girlfriend – so the hope is that being surrounded by random, everyday materials can stimulate people who wouldn’t know what to draw if faced with a blank sheet of paper.

I don’t ask what made him change direction, but a few explanations come to mind. One is simply that, as he says, experts pointed out the pedagogical benefits of instructing others in his experience. Another, I suspect, is that work has decreased as stories have shifted online, making magazine covers superfluous (though he mentions at least one new commission by a well-known publication) – and another reason may also be Hanoch himself, a man who’s never been entirely comfortable as part of a group. “I feel like I’m always a foreigner, wherever I am”.

He was born in Uruguay and only moved to Israel at the age of 11, part of the returning Jewish diaspora. He suffered the fate of every newcomer, that distinctive feeling of being “a bit on the sides,” not quite in the mainstream of society. As a teen, he longed to belong – like every teen – but didn’t have much to offer except an ability to draw “funny pictures”, which at least was something. “Because, you know, I was a short guy. I wasn’t popular – I was a foreigner, I was short…” Hanoch shrugs ruefully. “It’s not a surprise that many comedians are short, it’s not a surprise. Because they need to be loud – they need to find a voice, to be heard! I always like the last scene of Shrek, [where] they’re all dancing and singing and you see the Donkey in the back – and he cannot see, so he keeps jumping, so he can see something. And this is a good definition of my life back then. That you try to jump to be seen, you know?”

Was he happy, at least? “No, I wasn’t happy. I was frustrated.” His only real plan was to go to art school, but he was rejected; he studied Computing as a fallback choice, but there must’ve been a few gloomy years before he finally made it to New York in his mid-20s – though “what I developed was resilience,” he says firmly. “An ability to – to – to grind my teeth and keep going. You know? And this is a very good thing that I learned in Israel, and it’s definitely a very Israeli quality, I have to say. It’s something that growing up there gives you”.

It’s also a key to his creative process – because his art is “playful,” he admits, “and it’s not based on great technique… It’s based on great ideas, and sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t”. Two things help them come: first, creating a “playful space” with lots of objects that can trigger ideas – and second, having resilience. The trick, he asserts, is to keep going: “If you keep going, something will happen. If not A, then B. If not B, then C… Good ideas come because of bad ideas.”

It’s a line I recall later on, about an hour later at the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation as Hanoch introduces the workshop to a motley bunch of around 20 people. Behind us are tables, arranged in a semi-circle and piled high with … objects. There are paper clips, confetti, kernels of corn, plastic lizards, bottle tops, faded pairs of spectacles, old CDs, paper flowers, coloured bits of cardboard – all kinds of junk, only it isn’t junk, it’s potential ideas. “Collage is a metaphor for our life,” Hanoch is saying. “Our identity is composed of many things”. Seeing him in public reinforces the impression I formed at the Classic – a small, lively, rather gnome-like man with a mop of long hair and the mien of an enthusiastic teacher. Stand up while you’re working, he urges participants, it’ll give you energy. Try different things, he instructs them, keep going. Resilience again.

I recall another line, what he said earlier about not viewing himself as an artist – and it occurs to me that he’s had quite a fraught relationship with the world of Art, a subject he broached in a TEDx talk a couple of years ago (it’s available, along with much of his work, on his website, That art-school rejection must’ve hurt, then he fell into “periods of deep self-doubt” while in New York, before he discovered his voice; he mentions a Chekhov story about a couple of wannabe artists – and “I was aware of that in my 20s, that maybe I’m just fantasising, maybe I’m a wannabe”. Even after he’d become successful, he may well have felt like a foreigner again – a foreigner in the world of artists and consummate draughtsmen, being just a guy who slapped slices of bologna sausage and bottles of booze together to create a likeness of Boris Yeltsin. That, I suspect, is why he relishes these workshops, and the whole educational aspect – a way to establish his art as the people’s art, and a way for the short guy to be seen without having to jump.

Hanoch Piven probably comes across as more easy-going than he really is. ‘How much do you work?’ I ask, and he makes a gesture as if to say ‘How long is a piece of string?’. Everything is work; after all, he’s always on the lookout for ideas. He went to Sardinia last year on a family holiday (they live in Barcelona; his studio is in Israel), and did his best to disconnect – but only for a week, “two weeks is too much”. He does workshops and collage illustrations and also writes children’s books, with titles like My Dog Is As Smelly As Dirty Socks. When he isn’t working, or thinking about work, he likes to run, another way of building resilience. Then we have his politics, which are “Left-leaning” and apparently quite active: while in Cyprus, he’s also taking part in a week-long seminar organised by the ‘Seeds of Peace’ NGO – and he’s also done political cartoons for liberal Israeli paper Haaretz in the past, but now finds that “pointless”. He prefers education, he says, helping people to think for themselves.

One might say he’s Israeli but not quite of Israel, just as he creates Art without quite being an artist; “To be a foreigner,” as he puts it, “has certain advantages”. He laments the “politics of fear” keeping Netanyahu in power (there’s a “liberal population” in Israel, he says sadly, “who feel like they’ve lost the war”) – and his own particular artform is perhaps the opposite of that, a playfulness that goes hand in hand with fearlessness. The trick, after all, is that you have to be open to everything. You never know what you’re going to end up using – whether it’s going to be matches or marshmallows, light-bulbs or slices of sausage. Here’s the opposite of what I do, Hanoch tells the students at his workshop – and puts up a slide showing a page from an IKEA catalogue!

“If you are constantly looking for the right answer,” he points out earlier, in the lobby of the Classic Hotel, “then you are missing all the other answers”. I stay at the workshop for a while, watching random people – a bohemian-looking girl, a mother with two children – rummaging through piles of random stuff, looking for a combination that’ll speak to them. I recall something else Hanoch mentioned, about our life being itself a collage, a collection of random things, like the details and memories that comprise his own life: random fragments of Uruguay, Israel, New York, Sardinia, even the lobby of the Classic Hotel – and even, in a tiny way, my own face, twinned with the face of Ehud Banai.

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