By Suzi Brozman | email@example.com
What is Jewish art? Who is a Jewish artist? These questions are at the heart of Jewish Arts Month, which was in March, but for each artist it’s more a question of how can a person express himself or herself through artistic means.
Art is so personal and inspiration can come from anywhere — religion, family, culture, nature — so it’s next to impossible to pin down a definition.
Judaic art can be a ketubah on your wall, a Torah cover in the synagogue, the stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall that hang in the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. It can be a seder plate you use at Passover, a collage, a print of a work by a famous artist, or whatever else you prize as art in your life.
Back in the 1990s, Rabbi Avi Magid came up with the idea of using art to educate people about the Torah and to connect the community with Jewish artists. His idea, a Jewish art week, gradually morphed into Jewish Arts Month. March was chosen because that’s when we read Exodus, in which we are introduced to Bezalel, the artist/workman who designed and built the Mishkan (Tabernacle). He used precious metals — gold, silver and copper — and supervised weaving and embroidery, metalwork and painting, all in the glory of G-d, to construct and embellish the first house of worship, as described in the Torah.
Today, Jewish Arts Month is celebrated and sponsored each year by the American Guild of Judaic Art, which encourages the rich diversity and quality of Judaic art around the world.
“The Guild is about mentoring and networking, not just about selling work,” said Flora Rosefsky, an Atlanta-based artist who recently completed her term as the president of the guild. “It’s a community of artists who have a similar passion for what they do, for the ways they express themselves through their art.”
The guild is an international not-for-profit membership organization dedicated to the promotion of Jewish art and culture in society. Members exhibit works and lead workshops and residencies encouraging knowledge of and participation in Jewish artwork.
The guild is but one of many arts groups, but it’s one with a specific purpose: representing visual artists with a definite Judaic influence in their work. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the art doesn’t have to be specifically Jewish.
At the guild’s website, Jewishart.org, you can acquaint yourself with many artists and view examples of their work. Rosefsky also suggests visiting local outlets, shops and galleries that carry Judaic art. “When you know the artist,” she said, “the work is more personal. It’s good to support those who support art in the community.”
Part of the guild’s purpose is to offer an annual online exhibition. This year’s choices include works selected by juror Lisa Alembik; they are exhibited for a year.
Many Jewish artists live in the Atlanta area and work in media from paper to paint to pottery to printing to glass to fabric and more. Here are three examples who are members of the American Guild of Judaic Art.
Rosefsky (www.FloraRosefsky.com) describes her current art as collage work that uses ephemera (found paper). She has designed Torah covers, stained glass for synagogues, Sukkot art, quilts and much more.
She frequently teaches workshops for children and adults, such as a paper cutout workshop she did at the Breman Museum at the end of March in connection with the “Where the Wild Things Are” exhibit.
Rosefsky is a self-described folk artist whose work is frequently inspired by her Jewish heritage. Her work has been featured in many solo and group exhibits, and a number of synagogue sanctuaries display her designs. In addition to Judaic work, she loves doing illustrations and cutouts, especially of people and pets.
Other work she is proud of includes an art quilt she designed with Anne Mandel. “Justice, We Shall Pursue” was sewn by several members of the Peach State Stitchers, the Atlanta chapter of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Art. The quilt was donated to the Center for Civil and Human Rights last May and is installed on the first level near the King Papers exhibition area.
Ellen Filreis (www.mypetitstresors.com) works in mixed-media collage and assemblage, some Jewish-themed, some not.
She’s working on a book for Jewish children, though through years of volunteering with seniors, she believes that this new work also will be beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients, focusing as it does on familiar things. Using mostly miniatures and all kinds of ephemera, each page of the book will deal with one aspect of Jewish life, such as Shabbat and holidays.
Filreis is a former finance professional who became a self-taught artist.
“I just decided to follow my heart’s desire and do something creative where I can do some good with my creations for the Jewish home and education,” she said.
The new Young Israel of Toco Hills building features an eye-catching wall installation by Lynette Joel (www.lynettejoel.com). It’s the shul’s donor wall.
Joel, a native of South Africa, lived for a time in Europe, then moved to Boston with her family before settling in Atlanta. She began making clothes and decorating them with silk screening. She progressed to machine embroidery and found herself using her skills to create wall art, often for fundraising.
The Epstein School asked her to do a print of Zebulon. That led to Issachar, then Levi and more. Her work is imbued with symbolism, often from Midrash, so much so that educators use her prints as teaching tools.
She saw the Young Israel donor wall as a way to honor people giving money to study Torah. “I wanted to use Zebulon, but a print wasn’t good enough,” Joel said. “I wanted something really significant, different. I had the idea of doing a mosaic. I got in touch with Flora Rosefsky. She introduced me to Bonnie Cohen, another member of the guild. We got together to try.”
Joel wanted the work to be all white and glass. “I felt color would detract from it.”
She and Cohen worked on the project remotely. The first time they met in person was when Cohen came down from Ohio for the Young Israel installation. “It was the first time we met in person,” Joel said. “We got along so well, we couldn’t sleep. It was a real mutual admiration society.”
Joel is working on an art book about the 12 tribes, showcasing each one separately and highlighting the meanings through Midrash, so the book can be a learning tool and a coffee table book.