Ellen Filreis is producing a fun book of art and educational poetry to spark memories and interest in Judaism for Jewish families from interfaith through Orthodox: “Chai Spy: A Visual Journey Through Jewish Life.”
In gematria (setting numerical values for Hebrew words), chai (life) is 18. Therefore, Filreis’ book contains 18 pages of her Jewish art accompanied by 18 poems written by her daughter, Ayelet, a teacher in Baltimore. Each page depicts miniatures assembled on various themes, including Shabbat, Jewish holidays, synagogue, the alef-bet, food, New York and Israel.
Ellen, a self-taught mixed-media artist, was born into the Orthodox community of Newport News, Va., and raised in Virginia, New York and New Jersey. As a child she loved art and won several contests.
In first grade, her teacher would slap her left hand until she became right-handed.
“I’m always joking that I’m not sure if I’m left-brained or right-brained,” she said, noting that for years she didn’t pursue art. Instead, she used a degree in finance from the University of Virginia to work in personal and corporate trust in the United States and Europe.
In late 1990 she moved back to Atlanta with her children and husband Steve, who worked for Coca-Cola.
Ellen sold residential real estate, then became a “full-time mom.” In 2005, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her husband told her that life is short, so “go nurture your creative side. Go follow your dreams.”
“I don’t draw or paint,” Ellen said. “I put stuff together.”
She always has been fascinated by dollhouses, and her miniatures, Petits Trésors, as her online shop is called, come from suppliers all over the world.
Using found objects and other embellishments, she creates collages (flat pictures) and assemblages (three-dimensional works).
Ellen, whose work is known for its color and texture, is a member of the American Guild of Judaic Art and served as treasurer on its national board of directors. She’s also a member of the Atlanta Collage Society, the National Collage Society, and the International Society of Assemblage and Collage Artists.
Her work has appeared in juried art shows, and her shadow boxes are commissioned by organizations and individuals. She donated a shadow box to the Children’s Holocaust Memorial (the result of the Paper Clips Project) in Whitwell, Tenn., where it is on permanent display.
“Chai Spy” took five years to complete. “Ayelet and I lovingly collaborated on this project,” Ellen said. “She did the educational text, and I did the art.”
Hal Schroeder of Harold Alan Photographers took photos of the art, and graphic designer Chava Goldberger did the layout.
Besides discovering a chai on each page (a suggestion by her artist friend Barbara Fisher), someone viewing the page is not asked to find anything specific. “Every time you look at a page,” Ellen said, “I hope you will see something you didn’t see the last time you looked.”
Creative and surprisingly humorous, “Chai Spy” is for children and parents to share. But there’s a second market as well. Several years ago, at a workshop for Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients that Ellen led at the William Breman Jewish Home, a man in his 80s who rarely spoke spotted something from a beach collage he was making and started talking about the time his mother took his family on an outing to Miami when he was young.
“It was incredible,” said Ellen, who sees the book as a way to spark memory for those who need it. “It’s for anybody who’s Jewish.”
Eventually, Ellen would like to have an electronic version for Jewish schools to use on iPads or computers and perhaps be part of an exhibit at the Breman Museum. She would also like to take the 18 art pieces on a national tour.
“I want to leave something behind that’s good and rich in Judaism to help people grow,” she said.
Her website, www.MYPetitsTresors.com, tells more about “Chai Spy,” which is self-published (print on demand) and will be available from Lulu.com, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Also available are holiday cards made from images in the book, such as an $18 Rosh Hashanah package carried by Judaica Corner.