Last week, this column began discussing the exhibit, “Words Within,” works by members of the Jewish Women Artist’s Network at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel (through March 28). Particular attention was paid to Laura Kruger’s introduction in the catalog, Vivian Mann’s and Maya Katz’s introductions at the opening, and the works of Fay Grajower and Yona Verwer. In part two, I devote this column to four other artists from the show, and their comments on the challenges and rewards of working as a Jewish woman artist.
Midrash Pottery And Shabbat Chess
For the past 25 years, Irene Helitzer, of Sea Cliff, NY, has created “MidrashPottery,” or Jewish ceremonial pottery, that “celebrates our traditions and define the ways Jews live their lives today.” Helitzer’s chosen media is particularly difficult, due to tough competition from inexpensive imports of mass produced Chinese and Philippines-made Judaica objects that she feels “are hurting the American Judaica artist.”
“My work is an expression of living my life as a committed Jew and the pieces are intended to encourage the owners to use them,” she says. All of her work contains note cards explaining the ceremonies surrounding the piece.
Her submission to “Words Within” is a Chess set, titled, “Shabbat Opposing the Work Week” (Stone, 2005). The piece casts the Shabbat Bride as the queen, the Torah as the king, Angels of Peace as bishops, candles as knights, the rooks symbolize peace at home, and the pawns are challah, wine, pillows, a tzedakah box, a cholent pot, fish, roast chicken and the Siddur.
The opposing side incorporates the working man and woman, boy and girl with backpacks, SUVs, ATM machines and pawns as “symbols of the work week,” along with credit cards, telephones, fast food, exercise equipment, computers, television, traffic signs and shopping carts. The board is a calendar design, with Shabbat in the center, orbited by the workdays. Helitzer sees the “Shabbat line up” as opposition to “a contemporary family, busy at work.”
Shabbat, Opposing the Work Week, by Irene Helitzer. Stoneware, 2005
The set resembles a project Helitzer created of Passover chess sets (the Egyptians against the Israelites, obviously), which casts the two teams in an equally clever fashion. The Egyptian king is Pharaoh, the bishops are overseers, the knights are cats, the Pyramids are castles, and the pawns double as Egyptian deities and the Golden Calf. The Israelite team includes the People of Israel as King, Moses as the queen (“the Queen is the most active player”), Aaron and Miriam as bishops, lambs as knights,sukkah huts as castles, and the Ten Plagues as pawns.
Women Lighting The Torah
Jeanette Kuvin Oren of Woodbridge, CT, has created Judaica exclusively in her entire 22-year career. Her chosen media and materials include hand-dyed silks, cottons, synthetic fabrics, quilting, mosaics, donor walls and stained glass.
“Being a woman influences my art, of course, and it has helped make me successful,” she says. “Probably the ‘woman’ thing has helped most in my ability to listen carefully to what my clients (synagogues mostly) want to express in their Judaic art. My art is colorful and filled with my love of Judaism, which I think is picked up on by men and women, and children, too.”
Light of Torah, by Jeanette Kuvin Oren. Fabric Torah cover, 2006
Kuvin Oren’s piece in “Words Within,” Light of Torah (fabric Torah cover, 2006), reflects her preference for “art that uplifts, informs, expresses my joy in Judaism, and is accessible.” The Torah cover shows active Jewish women: Eve pursuing knowledge, Sarah inviting guests, Leah cuddling a baby, Rebecca offering food, Rachel teaching children, Tamar leading a crowd, and Miriam leading the Israelites. Kuvin Oren explains that although many see the words of the Torah as outdated and irrelevant to women today, “They are, in fact, very relevant. Each of the figures on the Torah cover expresses a hope and desire women of all ages have for themselves.” She even added fluorescent bulbs within the cover, which allows the light/words to “shine outward to women of today and the future.”
Photographing The Hidden Synagogue
Emily Corbato of Plum Island and Newton, MA, is a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Her photograph of the synagogue, hidden in a Terezin storeroom in house L225, includes words painted on the wall:
And in all this we still have not forgotten Your Name, Please do not forsake us, Rescue us on behalf of Your Name. Listen to our prayers. Candles symbolize the forbidden ceremonies held in darkness. Words from Hashkiveinu echo in my mind as I imagine these silent prayers: shelter us beneath Thy wings, to keep us safe throughout the night.
Terezin: The Hidden Synagogue, by Emily Corbato. Black and white silverprint, 2003
Corbato describes the piece as art that is “most definitely Jewish. It is strong, especially when text is included … It says about Jewish art that it is powerful, it is profound and personal and universal and sad and glorious in its making. It will bring some viewers to tears, and will stay in the minds of others. It tells of tradition, history, hope, destruction, rebirth. It tells the Jewish story.”
Although she is comfortable identifying herself as Jewish, a woman, and an artist – and any combination therein – Corbato stresses that she sees herself primarily as herself. “I want my work to stand by itself, not categorized by feminism or Judaism or any other attribute I do or do not have,” she adds. “There is no one path to being a Jewish woman artist, and everyone responds differently. However as a Jew there is always unity with other Jews, and this amity is of course felt among Jewish women artists, as represented in this JWAN exhibit.”
The piece that Flora Rosefsky of Atlanta, GA, submitted to the Columbia show is sure to be endemic to Jewish women art, as it incorporates a copy of the artist’s own Ketubah (which she points out, “only a Jewish woman would have”) and eyelet curtains and recycled quilt fabrics, which she adds, “a male artist would be less likely to use these materials in their work.”
Ketubah Reflections/ Revisited I, by Flora Rosefsky. Mixed media collage: pastel, gouache, watercolor, fabric, paper cutouts 2006
Rosefsky defines herself as an artist in many ways: a spiritual mixed-media artist, a spiritual collage artist, an artist who expresses her Jewish heritage in her work, and one who seeks new ways to express Jewish ideas in a contemporary way. Her “Ketubah Reflections/Revisited I” is part of a series of four pieces on the theme of the Jewish marriage and “the lasting and unique quality of the Jewish marriage document, the Ketubah.” The collage of recycled curtain fabric, quilt textiles and paper cutouts “reflect the complexity of a marriage within the framework of one’s home.”
Ultimately, though, the most Jewish aspect of the work came to Rosefsky from Jewish viewers who, no doubt, were all too happy to present their own interpretations and experiences. “Some saw the ‘curtain’ material as a ‘chuppah.’ Others saw the structure of a house with some chaos, and yet some order at the same time within it,” she says. “Does this make it ‘Jewish art?’ It might depend upon who sees the work, and where they are coming from as far as their own Jewish background.”
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven,” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit, which opened on March 25.