Hillel Smith tastes victory in art contest

Artist Hillel Smith

D.C. artist Hillel Smith out-created nine other artists to win a four-week reality-TV-like Jewish art competition. Smith, who specializes in graphic design, illustration and spray paint art, captivated both voters and  judges with his creative pieces that were linked to the weekly Torah portion. He won $5,000 and the title Grand Makher.

“I was really into ‘Project Runway’ and the ‘Great British Bake Off’ so I thought this idea of a Jewish version of that was so cool,” said Smith. “I love making stuff, I love watching people make stuff and also it’s this really interesting opportunity to think about Jewish ritual, Jewish heritage, Jewish creativity in a completely different way.”

Each week, the contest’s three judges gave the challenges. For example, Week 2’s theme, Idle Worship, occurred in conjunction with the reading of Ki Tisa, the Torah portion recounting the story of the golden calf. The judges asked the artists to “make something that represents or illuminates false idols of today.”

“My first thought always is, let me look at the source material a little bit,” said Smith. After looking at his chumash, or Torah, and brainstorming, Smith decided to make a “monument to convenience,” out of cardboard boxes and food delivery bags. The creation combined aspects of the impatience shown in the Torah portion and the pandemic-era reliance on delivered goods.


The competition, called Expedition Maker, ended last month and was run as a program of Camp Nai Nai Nai, a Jewish summer camp for adults in their 20s and 30s. Camp Director Lisa Klig said she came up with the idea in response to Zoom fatigue and a love for reality TV.

“It’s just from being a fan of reality TV and being surrounded by people who are in the arts and piecing two and two together,” said Klig. “Part of it was thinking, how do we still engage people without asking too much of them given how overloaded and over burdened we are at this point.”

Over the course of the month, 3000 people got involved, which included voting for their favorite artists and live streaming workshops hosted by the artists.

Eventually, the pool of 10 competitors was narrowed down to four. After that, awarding the final prize was turned over to the judges, who highlighted Smith’s “deep research and thought process” as reasons to award him the title of Grand Makher.

“During the course of the pandemic, we have gone exactly nowhere, so I’m very excited to take a little bit of a break,” Smith said of his plans for the $5,000 cash prize. “I do really hope that this is not just a one- season thing.”


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