Artist Hanoch Piven uses everyday objects to depict Ellen DeGeneres. Artist Hanoch Piven uses everyday objects to depict Ellen DeGeneres. Artist Hanoch Piven uses everyday objects to depict Ellen DeGeneres. (Photo: Courtesy Hanoch Piven)

Meet the world-famous artist who doesn't know how to draw

Hanoch Piven's collages have graced the pages of Time magazine and Rolling Stone.

Hanoch Piven is playing with his food.

Over lunch at Hatfield's, a restaurant on the campus of West Virginia University, Piven is poking at his lunch. The innards of his chicken wrap – the rice, the vegetables, assorted toppings – are slowly making their way around the plate. This is par for the course for Piven. Indeed, he has spent the past two decades playing with bananas, macaroni, lemons and spaghetti.

He does this because Hanoch Piven is known worldwide as the artist who doesn't know how to draw. Instead, he tinkers in a different medium: Everyday objects. Where most of us see the mundane, he sees beauty.

His work has appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone, Newsweek and The London Times. He's worked on advertising campaigns and has appeared on TV. His portraits of famous politicians, entertainers and luminaries are instantly recognizable.

A portrait of Albert Einstein by artist Hanoch Piven, who uses everyday objects in his art.A portrait of Albert Einstein by artist Hanoch Piven, who uses everyday objects in his art. (Photo: Courtesy of Hanoch Piven)

At 5'4", Piven cuts a diminutive frame. With a closely cropped beard and a yellow cap, he looks more like a shy fisherman than a world-renowned artist. You have to lean in close to hear him.

In the late 1980s, the Israeli-born Piven moved to New York City to attend The School of Visual Arts. "I kind of sucked," he admits. "I really wasn't any good."

But hitting a brick wall – attending art school and not knowing how to draw – served more as inspiration than hurdle. "Failing in traditional drawing has been the biggest source of creativity for me," he admits. "Happy accidents are, in a way, the greatest gift to any creative person."

He soon discovered another way to express his ideas. One day, while staring at a trash can in his studio, he noticed something. He saw Homer Simpson.

Homer SimpsonA trash can makes up the iconic face of Homer Simpson in one of Hanoch Piven's portraits. (Photo: Courtesy Hanoch Piven)

He eventually found his niche – collages using everyday ephemera – and started to make a name for himself. He now splits his time between a studio in Tel Aviv and his home in Barcelona, where he lives with his wife and two kids.

Piven is in West Virginia for the week leading a group of talks and art classes at the university. One lecture is simply called "25 Years of Playing with Bananas."

In addition to his stop in West Virginia, he will also be visiting Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and San Francisco, where he will be a speaker at a social innovation summit. Before that, he was in Bangkok leading a workshop and he's now working on a new season of his educational TV series in Israel. Somewhere, amid all this back-and-forth travel, he will eventually end up in New York City for meetings about a new book he's working on.

When not traveling, Piven leads art therapy classes for cancer patients and for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He's even created an app, called Faces iMake, that allows users to create Piven-style portraits of their own. He grabs my phone to show me how it works, snapping a photo of me and quickly getting to work on the details. He plops a virtual pear down where my nose used to be, and turns my eyes into vinyl records.

Yoav Kaddar, a friend of Piven's from their college years, says Piven's enthusiasm is contagious. "He loves joking around, even when it's a serious conversation," says Kaddar. "It's a way to relax those around him. I think that is how his work is, too, and maybe this is true of every illustrator – that they have a humor side to the seriousness of their work."

Hanoch Piven is known worldwide for his unique artwork.Hanoch Piven is known worldwide for his unique artwork. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

At a workshop the next night, an assortment of old buttons, computer parts, string, keys and more line a large table. Piven delightfully refers to the spread as a "buffet of objects." With the paraphernalia serving as stimuli, Piven brings out the inner child in the room full of adults.

"Things don't have to be the way they always were," he explains to those in attendance. "We need to be playful to encounter our own voices because within a playful environment, we don't pay a high price for our mistakes. Once you give them permission to play, they just take it." He pauses, before adding, "Most of us are afraid of playing."

The famous French poet Paul Valéry is credited with the saying: "To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” Piven tries to live his life by this mantra. He stares out at an ocean of miscellany – buttons, paper scraps, a trash can that looks a little like Homer Simpson – and sees something so much more.

"Creation," he says, "is an optimistic activity."

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