Abstract Alef-Bet, an Ancient Shroud to Awaken,

Transforming Anti-Semitism into Art,

And an Imagined Dialogue with Queen Esther


         For the past three 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 four, four more artists discuss their work as Jewish women artists.


Searching for a Place at the Table


         “Am I a Jewish artist? A woman artist? A Jewish woman artist? Of course! All of the above,” says Rose Ann Chasman of Chicago, Ill., “as a Jewish male artist would respond similarly. As an artist, one works with all of one’s being − gender, faith (or doubt), ethnicity, family, health, age, hurricanes! I bring all my life experiences to the table, and Judaism is an essential component, whether I do Hebrew calligraphy or an apparently abstract piece.”


        Chasman’s paper cut with calligraphy, “Alef-Bet of Renewal” appears in “Words Within.” The piece, which could easily be confused with a richly detailed doily, contains every letter of the Alef-Bet, arranged in a manner that lends the letters the appearance of an abstract pattern. In her statement in the catalogue, Chasman writes, “For us as Jews, text study is a religious act. My art comes from a dialogue with the classic sources − an ongoing lively conversation with my Source, my Spur, my Toughest Client − a dialogue by turns moving, infuriating, challenging and inspiring.”



Alef-Bet of Renewal, by Rose Ann Chasman. Papercut and calligraphy, 2000.


         Over email, Chasman reflected upon the unique challenges as a woman artist, and particularly a Jewish woman artist. “Is one granted ‘a place at the table’ as a Jewish artist?” she asks. “May a Jewish artist draw on the wealth of powerful religious imagery of a complex millennia-old tradition, or is Jewish content automatically dismissed as limited, parochial, trivial − lumped together with sequined challah covers? Must we shut ourselves off from the power of our Jewish sources in the interest of some supposed ‘universality‘?


         Similarly, Chasman notes, many automatically dismiss women’s work as limited, parochial, and trivial, expecting “tender images of mothers and children,” or “powerful emotional images of childbirth.” Some even avoid emotion, fearing it would appear as feminine weakness. “May she work in textiles, such as quilt patterns,” Chasman asks questioning media available to the woman artist, “or must she use more ‘masculine’ media to show she’s a serious artist? Must she fits someone else’s categories, or may she simply follow her personal vision?”


         As if the quest for an audience were not already difficult enough, Chasman’s work requires a knowledgeable public, unlike a viewer at “Words Within,” whom she overheard asking in response to a painting, “Who’s Shechina?”


An Ancient Shroud to Awaken


         Donna L. Caron of Dayton, Maine, is the only artist from “Words Within” who responded to interview requests from The Jewish Press who is not Jewish. But she says she was drawn to the exhibit’s “spiritual premise” and created a piece with a broad sense of faith and spirituality. “Although my piece is not specific to Jewish art,” she says, “I believe that it can evoke a similar response in all peoples. I see the pieces in the exhibit unified by a common vision.”


         True to her expressed concern with “an ideology that speaks to the entire human race,” Caron’s “Awakening,” described as “concrete impressed with vegetation”, conveys a figure with a head and torso, sans hands or arms. Caron describes the sculpture as “though wrapped in an ancient shroud,” which is “composed of natural materials” and “reflects our inherent ties to creation.” The shroud also described “an awareness of this essential discovery. We awaken to a new life.”


Awakening, by Donna L. Caron. Concrete impressed with vegetation, 2006.


         Caron has not used the word tallit, but she has certainly picked up on the aspect of the tzitzit that used to be dyed with techelet (which some believe has been rediscovered). Explanations abound for why the blue-green color (this of course is subject to dispute as well, as some say azure) is used on the tzitzit, but some attribute it to the color of the sky. The assumption is that the individual who wears the tzitzit and the viewers who see it will be reminded of the sky and perhaps even look upwards towards the heavens. Like Caron’s ancient shroud, which evokes nature, the tzitzit are a constant reminder of G-d’s role in creation. Indeed, Caron’s statement continues, “Transformed by this awakening, we are able to move beyond the physical and into the spiritual.”


Transforming Anti-Semitism into Jewish Art


         When she was in her late 20’s and early 30’s, “deep in the process of growing my identity,” Deborah Silverstein of Cambridge, Mass., presented herself as a singer and songwriter who was a feminist, which was “central to my experiences in all aspects of my life.”


         But over time, “my integration of gender, religious, cultural and political identity has simply become who I am rather than, in a sense, what I ‘wear,'” she says. “My task, as an artist, is to keep my creative door open, receptive and uncensored.”


         She composed her artist’s book, Sister’s Keeper, for a Holocaust memorial service. The piece is an old copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which Silverstein cut and pasted with torn silk. She embedded the words “sister’s keeper” to focus on women’s voices. “Now the words of Sister’s Keeper sing out from the darkness of Mein Kampf, and the strips of red-black silk spill off the edges of the pages like fire or blood,” she writes in the catalogue.


Sister’s Keeper, by Deborah Silverstein. Artist book, fabric, 2003.


         Over email, she adds, “Because the song and piece is so acutely political, I am always aware of myself as a Jew, and therefore, that I am overtly exposing myself to latent or overt anti-Semitism. I feel the vulnerability of difference and apartness. Although I have never encountered any hostility in response to this piece, I am always a little uneasy, prepared, observing, waiting, on-the-alert.”


Queen Esther, Meet Scheherazade


         Lynne Avadenka of Huntington Woods, Mich., began working with Jewish subjects when she was finishing graduate school. She received ketubot commissions to earn money, initially thinking she was making her “real art” in graduate school. “I realized that merging my interest in Judaic themes with the art-making tools and sensibilities I learned in grad school, was a powerful combination,” she says.


         “The choices I make as an artist are certainly shaped by the fact that I am Jewish and a woman,” she adds.


By A Thread, by Lynne Avadenka. Artist’s book, 2006.


         Her accordion style artist’s book, By A Thread, is an “imagined conversation between two extraordinary women, Queen Esther, the heroine of Purim, and Scheherazade, the Muslim woman who told stories for ‘a thousand and one nights.'” Although the comparison initially seems peculiar, Avadenka explains in the catalogue, “both spoke up when they could have remained silent and saved countless lives.”


        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 opening March 25.


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