Art recalls how Isaac Stern elevated beauty over fear

The death of Isaac Stern last week seemed to have particular resonance, coming as it did in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. It seems to me that had he been in better health, he would have rushed to play for the waiting families and relief workers.

The violinist understood the importance of symbolic gesture and knew the solace that music can bring.


In 1991, Stern played before a Jerusalem audience whose members wore gas masks. He had traveled there during the Persian Gulf War to express his solidarity with Israel. When air raid sirens began wailing, he and the Israel Philharmonic were performing a Mozart concerto. The orchestra members rushed off the stage, but the violinist stayed to play a Bach saraband for solo violin.

That act -- making fine music during an air raid -- no doubt meant much to the audience members. But it also had far-reaching reverberations, one of which can be seen at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum.


A sculpture of Stern is on display in the museum's permanent gallery. Made of matchsticks, it was created by the late Baltimore artist Gerald Hawkes, and was inspired by the violinist's 1991 performance.

"Gerald walked into my office and he was trembling. He had just read in People magazine an account of how Isaac Stern played during the SCUD missile attacks," says Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum's founding director.

"He said, 'This is the greatest act of the century.' And I asked, 'Why?' "

And he answered: "Because people finally prioritized beauty over fear."

Hawkes, who died in 1998, created art from the spindly bodies of wooden matches. He depicted the violinist as a nearly life-size stick figure, its body outlined by limbs and torso made of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of matchsticks. A matchstick violin case dangles from one arm. Instead of eyes and ears, the face is indicated by a triangle, which to Hawkes symbolized spirituality. On the back of the sculpture's head, a clock is set to the time that the Jerusalem concert began and, inside its chest, a heart made of matches and colored red with food dye dangles on a cord. It is incomplete; the artist had planned to add feet and hands.

Hawkes' work, though made of common materials, has a totemic beauty. He often said: "People are like matchsticks: We all have ability to give light or not."

In their vastly disparate ways, both artists proved that true.