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Jewish Women Artists Talk About Their Work (Part One)

Words Within


A National Juried Exhibition of


The Jewish Women Artist’s Network


February 12 – March 28, 2007


Columbia/Barnard University


Kraft Center for Jewish Life


606 West 115th Street, New York


 


 


         On Sunday, February 18, I attended an opening at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life (also known as the Columbia/Barnard Hillel) for the exhibit Words Within. At the opening, Vivian Mann and Maya Katz spoke about the exhibit, which is organized by the Jewish Women Artist’s Network, juried by Laura Kruger, and co-chaired by Fay Grajower and Simone Soltan. My friend Miriam Weiler, a student at Barnard, was instrumental in pulling the exhibit together and promoting it on the Columbia/Barnard side.

 

         Over the next column or two, I will gather together a smorgasbord of voices of the 61 Jewish women artists who are creating exciting new works that grapple with Jewish issues and texts, both contemporary and ancient. The exhibit is traveling next to the Robin-Frankel Gallery at the Boston University Hillel from April 12 until June 30, 2007.

 

 


The Theory


 


         In the opening to the catalog, Fay Grajower and Simone Soltan explain that to People of the Book, “words have long played an important role.” They found the submissions they received “organically evolved into identifiable categories”: interpreting Jewish text; memory and history; Judaism and women; Jewish tradition, nature and spirituality; Judaism and identity; Judaism and present day challenges; and family and life cycle.

 

         Laura Kruger, curator at the Hebrew Union College Museum, expanded the discussion to not only the condition of Jewish women artists, but of Jewish art in general. “From the very inception of Judaism and the embrace of monotheism, Hebrew tradition has limited production of many images in art,” she wrote, citing the prohibition in the Ten Commandments to make graven images. But however much idols were restricted, Kruger found a balancing act in the Torah’s encouragement of Jews to engage in hiddur mitzvah, which she called “the positive act of enhancing prayer by beautifying ritual and ceremonial objects for the visual glorification of G-d.”

 

         Within this beautification, Jews engaged in a variety of art works that used calligraphy, micrography, stained glass, weaving, and paper cuts of Hebrew words and phrases, which “became the sustaining cultural identifier of the Jewish people.” To Kruger, the artists of Words Within embrace the “basic theme of Judaism, extolling texts and words and their interpretations.”

 

From Hegel To Carob Trees


 


         In their comments at the opening, Drs. Mann and Katz outlined a more academic template for viewing and contextualizing the works. Mann cited 18th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who claimed there was no such thing as Jewish art. What Hegel would have thought of contemporary Jewish artists’ work, like that of Words Within, is up for discussion, but Mann said she found it “very fulfilling to look at pieces with great textual components,” which held women’s voices as the “main ingredient.” Mann cited the example of the prophetess Devorah, who composed her own Jewish texts (the Song of Devorah). “There are many instances where women spoke by their deeds.”

 

 


Maya Katz (left) speaks, as Vivian Mann looks on at the exhibit opening.

Photo by Menachem Wecker

 

         Mann also found memory to be a large part of the exhibit, though she said she finds the “new” Judaica, in general, to lag behind in creativity.

 

         Katz’s remarks focused on specific texts. Unlike Mann, she found that “women did not have an active role in the writing of traditional Jewish texts.” The important discussion, then, is “the role of women in elucidating and interpreting male written texts.” As an example, Katz addressed the Talmudic story from Bava Metzia where Rabbi Eliezer tries in vain to rally nature to support his position in a debate with the rabbis. He instructed a carob tree, a stream and the very walls of the study hall to miraculously testify to his position, and they all did. Each time, the rabbis assured him that the Torah was not in the heavens, but quite grounded in the world and in “nuts-and-bolts” processes like majority rules. Even a heavenly Bat Kol (literally daughter voice) could not protect Rabbi Eliezer’s argument, which led G-d to “smile” and say, “My children have defeated me.”

 

         In the story of Rabbi Eliezer, Katz found the Talmud to be less “impressed with the original authorial voice” than with “the interpretive dialectic instead.” Extending that lesson to the exhibit, she added, “Words don’t compete with images; they generate the images, they exist for the images and they co-exist with the images.”

 

Turning Back The Biblical Clock


 


         Fay Grajower’s “reset the clock” is a mixed media collage with ink on layered paper, with an accompanying poem. The palette is mostly yellow, purple and black, with some blue, white and red. Floral patterning occupies two of the paper’s corners, and with the exception of a watch face in the lower right corner, the work evokes a cubist still life. The poem is worth quoting in full, because it is almost a painting itself:


 


reset the clock


there is no chronology


to the


Torah


 


yet traditionally


we learn


sequentially


relate stories


in some order


a beginning and an end


seder – order


time


flies right by


when did something happen?


time – order


 


if we could only


reset the clock

 



Fay Grajower’s “reset the clock.”


 


         In an interview, Grajower, who calls herself “an artist who is female and Jewish” but chooses not to “market” or label herself specifically, explained that her inspiration for the piece derives from the “Talmudic idiomatic expression, ayn mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah [there is no earlier or later in the Torah].” The commentator Rashi invokes this phrase, in part, to explain the question: which came first, the Golden Calf or the revelation at Sinai.

 

         Grajower says the piece also is influenced by her “upbringing, learning and life style,” though she is careful to speak about her own work and not Jewish art in general. “Just as my artwork is influenced by my heritage, so is my participation in the Jewish community at large influenced by my perceptions as an artist and my involvement in the greater world community influenced by my being Jewish and an artist.”

 

Sibling Rivalry: Jacob And Esau


 


         In response to my question whether she identifies herself as a Jewish artist, a Jewish woman artist or a woman artist, Yona Verwer assured me she identified as all three, as well as “a Dutch-American artist and a New York artist.”

 

         I met Verwer at the Makor Gallery at the 92nd Street Y, where we were both artists-in-residence two years ago. At Makor, she showed works about amulets, which she called “The Kabbala of Bling.” Verwer has also painted a series of abstract works on the Urim vTumim and, as an artist-in-residence at the SAR school in Riverdale, she is painting a large-scale installation based on the seven days of Creation.

 

        

 


Yona Verwer’s “Sibling Rivalry: Jacob And Esau

 

 

      Verwer’s painting, “Sibling Rivalry,” shows Jacob and Esau glaring at each other. One (presumably Esau) is covered in earth tones: reds, browns and yellows (he was after all, a “red man” and a man of the field), while the tent dweller (Jacob) is lit with cold blues. To Verwer, Jacob and Esau fought (and their descendents follow suit), despite “the brother’s similarities,” which she commemorates with grid work in the background of the painting that joins the figures together.        

 

      “Whether it’s the Jewish or non-Jewish art world – it’s still pretty much a boys’ club,” Verwer said in response to my questions about the challenges of painting as a Jewish woman. But she is not discouraged and in “Sibling Rivalry” managed to create the kind of Jewish art she says she likes best: one that “grabs you by the throat; that bounces off the walls.”

 

         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.

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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