Sibley's West Profiles: Henry El Kaim, Stained-Glass Artist

Don’t let the floppy gray hair, the easy back-and-forth, the modest descriptions of his own art fool you --- Henry El Kaim’s story is as deep as the Grand Canyon and with as many layers as a sunset provides.

You can find Henry at Artists at Work, a craft gallery on Campbell Avenue in Tucson. Among the Navajo pottery, Mexican Talavera pieces and some metal wall art, you will find his stained-glass pieces.

Hundreds of his designs – desert scenes, geckos, hummingbirds, kokopellis and more – hang in his windows and from the ceiling. (And now at Sibley’s West!)

He creates each one, cutting the glass and molding the frame and building a keepsake. They’re beautiful.

And now for the rest of the story …

Henry has only functioning thumbs and one pinky.

He was wounded at the age of 19 in 1967 in Israel, his home after leaving Casablanca as a refugee. When he awoke after his surgery, he was even more committed to his passion – art.

The onetime member of the Israeli national wrestling team and a singer/songwriter with a band, The Volcanoes, set forth on what he calls a “spiritual, artistic journey.”

Living in the Old City of Jerusalem, he mingled with people of all races and backgrounds. His easygoing nature made him friends – Jews, Arabs, Jordanians, Syrians. As a refugee from Morocco, he understood their plight.

He painted, he crafted jewelry, he put together mosaics. He called himself a “peace artist.” (his brother is famous Israeli painter.)

By 1973 some in Jerusalem’s establishment weren’t thrilled, and let him know it. He decided to move to New York City, where his American-born wife’s parents lived.

For the next 25 years he made a name for himself in Queens with an array of silver, clay, beaded, wood, stone, silk and iron items.

One piece in particular won him notoriety. “Message from the Holy Land,” a hanging ceramic structure, was celebrated and reproduced on tens of thousands of posters. It was actually sponsored by a Palestinian art group for a 1988 celebration.

In 1999 he moved to Tucson and opened Artists at Work. His stained-glass items with Southwest themes caught his guests’ attention.

And that is where you can still find him.

“The beauty is in seeing everything – trees and weeds, flowers and bugs,” he was quoted in a profile. “A garden has all of these things, so too a life. Each piece has fundamental importance, each has a role.”