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Jewish Women Artists Talk About Their Work (Part Five)

          For the past four weeks, this column has attended to the exhibit “Words Within” of works by members of the Jewish Women Artist’s Network at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel (through March 28). In part five, three more artists discuss their work as Jewish women artists.



Permission To Use Hebrew Letters


         When Marilyn Banner showed “some rather radical and ‘unpalatable’ work” in D.C. (she lives in Maryland), she shocked her viewers and had to “clean up [her] act.” She remembers people responding with an “underlying anti-Semitism, as if the work had been done by a ‘dirty Jewish woman artist’.”


         But with her work currently on exhibit in three different “Jewish” venues, Banner not only identifies as a Jew, a female and an artist, but at the moment, she is feeling “very much like a Jewish woman artist.”


         Over the past two decades, Banner never gave much thought to Jewish culture or heritage, she told The Jewish Press. “I cut Hebrew letters out of steel because I responded so strongly to them,” she said, “not reading or understanding them, and having no Jewish education.” She created a piece, “The Presence of Spirit,” sensing “the sacredness of the letters and their healing qualities.” She worked with the concept of skin, without considering the Holocaust and skin lampshades, and she made “Soul Ladders” from a “Shamanic point of view, without thinking of Jacob’s ladder at all!” The only Jewish works she created were the works she made based on a trip to Terezin titled “Still With Us,” “Angels and Messengers” and “Song of Songs,” and another called “Presence of Spirit.”


         Another body of work, “Ladders of Light,” carried “a strong sense of being female, with an insistence on being able to be openly female,” using lace, chiffon and ribbon, and an idea of “play” she returned to in a series “Honoring the Ancestors.” The series was based upon Banner’s upbringing in a “Jewish neighborhood of six family apartments in St. Louis in the late 40’s and early 50’s.”


         As a graduate student at Queens College, a panel of men expelled Banner “for being less than ‘serious’ − using mixed media before it was popular (sewing canvas onto canvas),” she says. “I was told that I should therefore ‘go have babies and teach grade school’.” And as recently as a few weeks ago, she experienced anti-Semitism toward her Musica Viva card with Hebrew letters, which “shocked many people, including some of our board members and musicians, who did not want to handle the cards and did not want the usual extra number to share with friends.”


         But after passing out the same cards at the exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore (where I met Marilyn, as I am also showing a painting in the exhibit), she found the audience much more receptive, “pleased and affirmed, not frightened and shocked.”


         She describes “owning [her] femaleness” as empowering to create more personal work, with “feminine” materials, and a “sensuous” approach. “I am not trying to be a male artist. I don’t want to see like Cezanne or paint like Picasso,” she insists. “Owning my Jewishness has given me the ‘permission’ to use Hebrew letters, Jewish symbols and to be proud of my Eastern European heritage.”



Lips of Crimson Silk by Marilyn Banner. Encaustic, 2004



         Song of Songs influences her piece in “Words Within,” titled “Lips of Crimson Silk” and, indeed, it quotes from the text, translated by Marcia Falk:


Yes, I am black! And radiant –

O city women watching me –

As black as Kedar’s goat-hair tents

Or Solomon’s fine tapestries.

Your teeth –

A flock of sheep

Rising from the stream

In twos, each with its twin

Your lips –

Like woven threads

Of crimson silk.


         Indeed, to viewers who are not familiar with the technique of “encaustic,” the work looks like a bright, colorful painting, perhaps with a hint of Matisse’s style (although surely Banner would insist she is not trying to paint like a man!). But the work is not only a piece about love, it is quite an intense labor of love, using a technique that involves layers of hot wax, into which Banner scratches and scrapes and otherwise manipulates the surface. The technique quite literally involves the “form following the textual content.”


Healing the World


         Rona Lesser of Houston, Texas, draws from Kabbalah in her work, especially, “Sacred Fragments,” her submission to “Words Within.” The piece is based upon the notion tikkun olam, literally repairing the world. Although she notes that this concept of fixing is universal rather than Jewish, her statement in the catalog describes the concept of shevirat ha-kelim (“the shattering of the vessels”), whereby G‑d stored divine sparks inside “vessels” which allowed for the “retraction” of the divine so as to create space for a physical universe. “It is up to us, G‑d’s creations and partners, to heal the world through our actions and gather those sparks together until the vessel, or the universe, is whole again,” Lesser writes. The painting includes Hebrew words signifying the sorts of good acts and traits that can re-gather the sparks, including: emet (truth), chessed (kindness), rachamim (mercy), kedushah (holiness) and a number of others.



Sacred Fragments by Rona Lesser. Watercolor, 2004



         The image also shows two hands, which appear to gather the words as they pop out of a bursting shape (evoking Adolph Gottlieb’s paintings), perhaps the breaking vessels. A tree (the Tree of Life?) stands barrenly below, but if the hands represent the divine and the human partnering in creation, the tree is sure to blossom soon.


         In an interview, Lesser said she did not consider herself a Jewish artist, since many of her pieces do not employ Jewish themes. But “Judaism is an important part of my life and influences how I respond to the world around me,” she said. “When I paint something from nature I definitely think of G‑d’s creations.”


The Pull of Judaism


         “Everything I do reflects me, being a Jewish woman artist,” says New York-based Francia, “me, in the world and my responses to where I am − in this case, years of traveling and my responses to places.”


         Her artist book in “Words Within,” titled “Travelogue: Color and Light” responds to travel, particularly in Switzerland and Italy, where she spent many summers in the Jura Mountains of French Switzerland as co-director of a jazz and art program. Not surprisingly, she found the small Jewish community there “quite a contrast to living New York City with such a large Jewish population.”



Travelogue: Color and Light by Francia. Artist book, 2005


         Francia started the Jewish Women Artist Network at a 1991 annual conference of the Women’s Caucus for Art/College Art Association in Washington, D.C. She also organized the first Jewish panel, “Judaism and How It Is Reflected In Your Art and Life,” hoping to give a platform to the voices of Jewish Women in the WCA.


         “I identify both as a Jewish woman artist and a woman artist,” she says, “because Judaism is a very important part of my life − who I am and my vision of the world, how I live my life and, of course, I am always proudly a woman.”


         Her series, “Personal Visions: Art and History Meet,” is a vision of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. The series culminated with a “six-foot Kaddish installation adorned by maroon velvet, draped on a table − with six memorial candles placed on the table . . .” Her book “Travelogue” draws upon the architecture, design, landscapes, clocks, old instruments, medieval villages and maps, and old synagogues from her travels. “I believe the pull of Judaism is so strong that it is always there in your life either blatantly or subtly,” she says.


       Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit which opened March 25.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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