What does it mean to be a Jewish artist in the 21st century? The current art show at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s Goldman Gallery wrestles with that question. Eight contemporary Jewish artists who live and work in Maryland and the District each find different paths to expression for their artistry and their Judaism. Yet together they have forged a community in order to share their creations.
Bethesda painter Erin Friedman said that her abstract canvases don’t necessarily represent Jewish subjects, values or stories. “What I gain most [in my artistic practice] is bringing the Jewish community together,” she said as she gestured to the Bender JCC’s gallery filled with friends, families and art lovers.
For Friedman, the JCC is a special place — it’s where her children attend preschool, where events and activities of all sorts occur for all varieties of participants. Why, she suggested, shouldn’t art be a part of a fully engaged Jewish life. That was one of the goals in bringing artists together for this show.
“Radically Amazed,” the show’s title, is inspired by a perhaps apocryphal story about how 20th-century American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel one morning exclaimed to his seminary students that he just saw a miracle. “What?” they asked. “The sunrise!” was his reply. He then exhorted his students to live even amid the mundanities of life with the philosophy that, “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually.” Instead we should all “live life in radical amazement.”
The eight artists were brought together by art collector and former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington Mark Levitt and artist adviser Danielle Glosser. While the artistic genres represented vary from abstraction to collage to realistic portraiture and still lifes, these artists found a commonality in the intersection of their artistic goals and their Jewish identities. They met regularly over the course of a year exploring where art, spirituality, Jewish identity and history intersect and, ultimately, they came together as a community to share their efforts.
Ruth Becker of Chevy Chase fabricates intricate abstract, multi-layered paper cuts that on an initial glance reflect contemporary kinetic art akin to Yaakov Agam. But Becker, who grew up in Montgomery County, was first introduced to paper cutting as a Jewish folk craft during a high school seminar at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. Taught by master Jewish paper cutter Tamar Fishman, Becker became fascinated with the beauty, complexity, skill and possibilities of this traditional Jewish art form. Her “Star of D” is a series of rows and columns of three-dimensionally cut triangles from layers of paper that allows the eye to discover the Star of David. Other amorphic shapes in shades of blue and white recall, for Becker, the tallit — or traditional Jewish prayer shawl.
Baltimore-based multidisciplinary artist Suzy Kopf grounds her artwork in deep research. Her latest series, “The Land of Oranges and Lemons: 2022,” draws on the industrial and cultural history of citrus culture in the U.S. She explained that her works explore mid-century modern ideals and designs, which often reflect her own California Jewish roots — and her Jewish ancestors who picked citrus after emigrating from Eastern Europe.
In her collages, which can resemble 1940s and ‘50s snippets from “Life” magazine ads, she often homes in on the cultural Jewish “influencers” of the period, like industrial designer Freda Diamond, who designed the Libbey glassware popular in mid-20th century households across the country, or Vladimir Ossipoff, architect of the Honolulu International Airport and many other mid-century buildings in Hawaii.
“I’m exploring my Jewish family by looking through the lens of mid-century modern designs,” Kopf said. “My grandmother came here [to the U.S.] in the 1930s at 15 … in the pursuit of the American dream. My work pays homage to those [Jewish figures in history] who have been forgotten.”
In Becker’s public remarks at the exhibit’s opening, she noted: “Our first meeting was about a year ago … we all went around the room, introduced ourselves … and shared something about who we were, as Jews…. I believe that a majority of [us] said something like, ‘I don’t really know if I belong in this room. I don’t know if I’m Jewish enough. I don’t know if my art is Jewish enough.’”
Those weekly meetings bonded these artists and led them to understand how intrinsically connected their creative lives are to their Jewish backgrounds and experiences. And, as Becker continued, how these moments of sharing their works with the public can be significant.
“After the process we’ve been through putting this show together, it’s very clear to me that every single one of us very much belongs in this room,” Becker gestured to her fellow artists standing together nearby, and looked out to the attendees. “Here’s the takeaway: We belong here. Being an artist — and being a Jewish person in America, in 2023 — starts with being in the room, taking up space.”
Stefanie Stark, a Bethesda-based painter who draws inspiration for her floral abstractions from her mother’s memory, added that even to put brush to canvas “takes a leap of faith.”
“Radically Amazed” features the work of eight contemporary Jewish artists: Drew Tye Ruby-Howe, Stefanie Stark, Emily Strulson, Leslie Harris, Suzy Kopf, Ruth Becker, Nathan Silver and Erin Friedman, through March 26, 2023. Goldman Art Gallery, Bender JCC of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville. https://www.benderjccgw.org/event/radically-amazed/
Correction, March 19, 2023, 5:05 p.m., Artist adviser Danielle Glosser’s title has been corrected.