For the past two 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. In part three, four more artists discuss their work as Jewish, women artists.
Mystical Israeli Trees
Elizabeth Barakah-Hodges of High Springs, Florida, had not thought of herself as a Jewish artist until she applied for a previous JWAN exhibit as an art student at University of North Florida. “I knew that I was Jewish, and an artist, but not a Jewish artist,” she says.
Suddenly, she found her work full of Jewish references: The “Dorchester House” series was “totally Jewish-identified, full of references to Jewish culture and religion.” “Living Room” featured a mezuzah, “Kitchen” an ancient menorah from the Israel Museum, and Rosh Hashanah dinner set ready for guests in “Dining Room.”
Light and Peace: Trees, by Elizabeth Barakah-Hodges. Acrylic, 2006.
A Jewish CD cover, Chanukah card, and several other Jewish art projects and exhibits later, Barakah-Hodges found herself becoming “a Jewish artist more and more.” She lived and traveled in Israel for two-and-a-half months two summers ago, which proved an experience, which “moved me deeply and inspired my best work so far, my ‘Light and Peace series.’” “Light and Peace: Trees,” one of 22 paintings in the series to date, was part of the “Words Within” exhibit.
“Trees” presents a view of the Kinneret, which Barakah-Hodges feels is uniquely her own. “Were I not Jewish and had I not studied (the little I have of) the Zohar, Jewish mysticism, and the sefirot, I could not have painted Israel so,” she says. “Had I not (earlier in my life) had a direct experience of G-d, I could not have painted this piece. I did feel the immanence of G-d in the land when I lived and traveled in Israel. It seemed to me that all is one, and there is nothing not-G-d.”
At the opening to “Words Within,” Barakah-Hodges felt particularly aware of herself as a Jewish women artist after seeing “remarkable and powerful collections of work by Jewish women artists” and after seeing how many of the artists, and what a largely female group of non-artist attendees showed up at the event.
The Four Corners Of Jewish Art
Marcia Talmage Schneider of New York, N.Y., describes herself as having a “very strong identification as a Jew,” specifically keeping Kashrut, attending Shabbat services, loving to visit Israel, having studied Judaic Studies on a university level, and speaking fluent Hebrew.
Most of the themes in her art are inspired by tefillot, particularly “Pesukei d’Zimra or Psalms; and the Torah.” Her piece in “Words Within,” titled “Gather Us in Peace from the Four Corners of the Earth,” derives from the prayer that immediately precedes the Shema.
Gather Us in Peace from the Four Corners of the Earth, by Marcia Talmage Schneider. Acrylic, 1999.
Schneider conceived of the piece praying one Shabbat in a Barcelona Sephardic synagogue several years ago. Praying from a Spanish-Hebrew siddur, she reached the words, “Gather us in peace from thefour corners of the Earth” and had an epiphany moment.
“Here, I now was praying in a land in which my peoplewere tortured, killed and forced to convert or exiled 500 years before,” she says. “Yet, I was coming in peace from one of the four corners of the world to Spain. I was overcome with a burst of emotion. The words within my soul brought tears down my cheeks.”
After returning home, Schneider created the painting using ancient Sephardi lettering and a design, which she researched and found in a Medieval Sephardic synagogue, which “matched the theme and the words of the prayer. The geometric design opens up into four directions, like the words – outwards, towards the four golden square corners of my painting. Four, being like the four fringes or tzitiot of a talit, which has as its source the Shema prayer. The words of this prayer within my painting are prayers for all Humankind.”
Kabbalistic Shells Of The Seashore
Elaine Langerman of Washington, D.C., showed “Liver Series #6: Through His Creations” at the “Words Within” show.
She describes the work, which contains many rectangles filled with fish and birds, as evoking Moroccan Zillig, Persian rugs, and Indian manuscripts. It also features old Hebrew texts, stories and passages from the Torah, and Yiddish tales, “little gems to be gleaned and polished like shells of the seashore.”
Liver Series #6: Through His Creations, by Elaine Langerman. Acrylic, 2006.
White script – which could be confused with Arabic – in one of the rectangles declares, “… but only indirectly through His creations,” presumably referring to the means of “knowing” G-d.
Langerman also found herself inspired by Jewish mystical sources and “the delight of discovering them and letting them form themselves into unexpected configurations impelled by a kind of private, mystical/mysterious experience,” which happened to her.
“It’s a kind of spontaneous metamorphosis that happens on an intuitive level, away from logical, linear thinking,” she says. “Forming these composite, re-configured images is a kind of prayer for me – a sort of meditation about what is beyond what we see.”
Tender Heaviness And Heavy Tenderness
Tamara Wasserman of Chicago, Ill., grew up in Israel and studied at the Bezalel Art School, an experience, coupled with the landscape, colors, air and light of Israel, which was “one of the most important influences in my life.”
But Wasserman also sees herself as a blend of a few cultures (Eastern European, Israeli and American); “Add frequent traveling to it – and you come up with a pretty cosmopolitan Jewish woman.”
Heaviness and Tenderness, by Tamara Wasserman. Oil, 1999.
Wasserman’s “Heaviness and Tenderness” is based upon a poem by Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, whom she considers one of the most interesting poets of the Russian Silver Age, titled “Sisters Heavy and Tender.” Wasserman was particularly attracted to the poem, because of its focus on “opposites as being similar. This also happens to be one of the oldest ideas, an expression of which you can find in ‘Genesis‘ (the way G-d separates the light from the darkness).”
In the painting, Wasserman paints a seated figure as “heavy and light at the same time.” Mandelstam’s 1920 poem is worth quoting in full:
Sisters “heavy” and “tender,” your signs are the same and repeated.
Bees and wasps will be sucking a heavy voluptuous rose.
Man is dying. The sand will grow dark and less heated.
And the sun of the past will be carried in blackness away.
Oh, the heaviest bee heaves, and the most tender tenets,
Repeating your name, oh, it’s harder than raising a stone!
I am left with a single and ultimate worry to ponder,
Golden worry, the burden of time to resolve.
And like darkening water, I drink of this turbulent air.
Time is turned by the plough, and a rose is an aspect of soil.
In a leisurely turmoil, those heavy and most tender roses,
Roses “heavy” and “tender” are weaved into wreathes of coil.
This move of toying with weight and allowing the heavy to become tender and vice-versa is one Wasserman shares with Chagall, as we have explained previously in this column. But Wasserman’s painting employs a very different style from Chagall’s. Like Mandelstam’s poem, the painting shows a “leisurely turmoil” of illegible texts that all but obliterate the crouched figure.
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 opening March 25.