Specializes in Menorahs : Objects of Ritual Are Inspiration for Artist

Times Staff Writer

When he was roaming the Rocky Mountains as a young man, tracking the animals he loved to watch, Robert E. Schmalz never imagined he would be earning his livelihood by creating ritual Jewish art in Southern California.

Yet the man who once wore buckskin fringes now wears prayer fringes and is turning out hand-crafted bronze and silver religious items in a backyard studio in Westminster.

For the last two years, Schmalz, 32, has been specializing in casting menorahs, the nine-branched candelabra used at Hanukkah--the eight-day Festival of Lights, which begins tonight at sundown. The signed and numbered menorahs, which sell for more than $500 each, are on sale in shops and gallerys from Los Angeles to San Diego, as well as in Orange County.

The sculptor grew up outside Kalispell, Mont., not far from Glacier National Park, in a log house the family built together. Most of the men in his family, Schmalz said, were avid hunters.

Schmalz said that he too liked to track the animals--deer, sheep, bears and mountain lions--but not to kill them. Since he was 10 years old, he preferred to carve them out of wood, "because I loved them so much."

In high school he studied sculpture privately with the late Ace Powell, a well-known Western artist who was a classmate's father.

"I was a real outdoorsman," Schmalz recalled Thursday as he trimmed a wax model of a menorah. His solitary absences, especially at mealtimes, led his mother to worry whether "a bear ate me."

Although not Jewish, Schmalz accepted a friend's invitation to go to Israel when the 1973 Yom Kippur War began. Hostilities were over by the time he arrived, and he found that "as a non-Hebrew-speaking American kid there wasn't much I could do."

Still, he decided to stay and, "I fell in love with the country." In the five years that followed he also met and fell in love with his wife, Batya, and supported himself in Jerusalem as a carpenter and construction worker.

Began Studying

Schmalz did not become especially religious in Israel, he said, but the experience "did spur me to begin studying" the religion, and he became fluent in Hebrew. Two of his favorite subjects were archeology and antiquities.

When he returned to the United States in 1978, Schmalz took up construction work and carpentry in Oregon but felt the old pull to recreate the animals he loved as a youth.

"I always wanted to be an artist," he said. "God had given me a talent with my hands. It came out of nowhere."

Moving to the Ozarks in Arkansas, he gave up wood carving and went to work for a wildlife artist who specialized in the process of carving animals in wax and then, from a ceramic mold created around the wax figure, casting the figures in bronze and silver after the wax was melted at a high heat.

Moved to Westminster

Schmalz, with his wife and three children, moved again in 1984, this time to Westminster, where he first took a job in a foundry to support his artwork and later as a maintenance supervisor at a Jewish day school. He took the latter job, he said, with the understanding that he would be devoting more and more of his time to his wildlife sculpture as he became more successful.

At one point, Schmalz said, he had become worried about the propriety of sculpting figures, since he had converted to Judaism and the school he worked for, the Hebrew Academy, was Orthodox. The Biblical proscription against creating idols or "graven images" has for centuries been the subject of extensive dispute among rabbis and between rabbis and Jewish artists.

"I didn't want to do anything that's against God's law," he said.

So Schmalz studied the subject and consulted with various rabbis. He reached the conclusion that there was no problem with recreating animals, especially in light of the Lion of Judah motif which has been so common over the centuries in Jewish ritual art.

Schmalz, who also creates figures of American Indians, was told that human figures might also be permitted if they were not taken from live models and if a visible imperfection was left on the face.

Original Menorah

An unforeseen development of the discussions on the propriety came when a rabbi from the day school came to Schmalz with a drawing of the Jewish sage Maimonides' conception of what the original seven-branched menorah looked like in the King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, complete with proportional measurements.

At the rabbi's commission, Schmalz agreed to try to recreate a smaller, nine-branched version for use during Hanukkah. It took him more than 150 hours to make the first wax model, designed to burn oil rather than candles, and to burn for more than 50 minutes, as prescribed by custom.

The "lost wax" process he used on the menorah, he said, is "essentially the same one used by the craftsmen who cast the holy articles for King Solomon," although the wax used by his predecessors was beeswax.

The result was so striking--the branches of the candelabrum were straight, rather than curved--that Schmalz decided to make several more. They were sold, and demand for the menorahs increased, along with requests to create silver wine cups, pointers for reading Torah scrolls and for bronze and silver mezuzahs-- containers for sections of Jewish law which are affixed to door posts of Jewish homes--using the same process.

Business Mushrooming

"It's starting to mushroom," he said, and this success with ritual art has cast Schmalz's animals aside, if only temporarily.

"I've found that the Judaica sells faster because it's practical--you can use it," he said. Another factor, he said, is that since the 1970s there has been a glut of wildlife and Western art on the market, not all of it of high quality.

Schmalz is so busy with religious art, he said, that he rarely has time to get back to the wilderness to watch the animals he still loves to sculpt.

"I go on memory," he said wistfully.

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