A Midwest Movement Creates and Elevates Jewish Art

The outcome is on display in Milwaukee this month, as more than a dozen artists showcase an eclectic exhibit shaped by nearly a year of collective study, interpretation, and creative support.

Over here are three vintage folding chairs, salvaged by artist Barbara Kohl-Spiro, painted white, marked graffiti-like with literary text, and adorned with keepsakes from a lifetime of journeying and connecting.

And over there, a intricately designed silver pendant and mezuzah by artist Annette Hirsh – a senior who can weld and blow torch with the best of them – depicting little girls running wildly in mischievous fashion.

There’s a common thread here, between these two, and among other creations filling a main hall at The Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center just outside the city.

Wandering, and its place in Jewish text, culture and history.

Fourteen Milwaukee-area artists – from across spectrums of age, experience, Jewish identity, imagination and art form – joined last year as The Milwaukee Jewish Artists’ Lab to study, interpret and represent this part of the Jewish experience.

“Wandering is universal to the Jewish community,” said Jody Hirsh, Judaic Education Director at the JCC and a 2005 recipient of The Covenant Award. He established the initiative with the support of The Covenant Foundation.

“Being scattered and wandering is something we all know not only from biblical history, but also modern history and even our own family photographs. As a universal theme open to varying levels of interpretation, it is very appropriate for what we are doing here.”

The parameters and potential of the initiative are expansive. With the artistic cohort now firmly in place in Milwaukee, and the first installation now being staged, the program moves into its second year, focused on a new, yet still unidentified theme.

But more than that, the Milwaukee model is being adopted further west in cooperation with Hillel, the Jewish Student Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in Minneapolis, with the Sabes Jewish Community Center.

The cumulative and geographic impact is intended to be no less than a Jewish arts movement in the upper Midwest region.

The expansion will allow participating artists to broaden their own communities and synergies, and also infuse the region, and these Jewish centers, with a fresh portal for Jewish engagement and education through art.

“The micro here is the community of artists and the creative support they alone can offer each other over the long term,” Hirsh said. “The macro is the broader community. I want people to see and absorb the power of art, and to educate themselves by interpreting it. This is already happening here.”

At the opening of the Milwaukee exhibit, hundreds of community members turned out to take in the installations, meet the artists, and discuss their works and the wanderings that brought them to this particular place.

Some said that as artists, studying and going through a creative process together is theoretically counterintuitive, but in reality, was a surprisingly nourishing process.

“We came into the room as unique artists, most a bit cynical about working as a group and doubtful about working in a specifically Jewish-themed environment,” said Richard Edelman, a sculptor whose bold interpretations of Abraham, Isaac and the Ram sat like bold punctuation marks in the JCC gallery.

“But through study and discussion and integration and selection of unifying themes, we developed and inspired a lot of good work. Over a period of wandering and exploring, we generated art worth noticing, and community among ourselves. This has opened a new path for me.”

For 25-year-old Benno Rothschild, an emerging artist and the Lab’s appointed artist-in-residence, immersion into a Jewish educational setting among a group of more established artists is shaping him as a Jew, as well as a creative force in his own right.

“I’ve just had no close connection to the Jewish community and this type of Jewish education,” he said. “I was apprehensive at first, but then more and more intrigued. I’m learning about the faith to which I was born, Jewish culture and life. I’m feeling much more connected than ever.”

Rothschild, who travels often to Uganda to work on art projects with children there, created a small version of Noah’s Ark, in painted steel, an intricate yet simple metaphor for wandering.

Later this year, a seven-foot long version with clay animal figures – a collaborative project between Rothschild and children at the JCC – will live in the center’s entry hall, sparking interest and discussion among visitors.

A look around the gallery presents not just varying interpretations of this year’s theme, but also dramatic cross sections of art forms, from print and photography, to sculpture and jewelry.

And in an adjoining theater space, one artist – author Judith Harway – read from a work in progress about the wanderings and journeys brought on by the onset of her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. And Hirsh presented a one-act drama centered on the life and evolution of a family.

“Jewish art is and should be so much more than depictions of a dancing rabbi,” said Maida Silverman, a writer who presented a mixed media presentation of plants as metaphors for wander.

“Judaism is so rich for any artist or writer or poet to explore and go deeper. The Artists’ Lab gives us that opportunity and platform, and a way to reach the greater community.”

Natanya Blanck, Associate Professor of Art History at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, teamed with Hirsh to lead study at bi-monthly classes for the artists. She said the initiative is all about living beyond comfort zones, both for the artists themselves, and the greater community.

“Everyone needs to push themselves in different ways,” she said, “whether we are thinking about being Jewish for the first time, or in a new way. This is what art can do, as we develop and educate ourselves and seek a higher level of understanding and being. So it’s quite amazing to have this start right here.”

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation

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