You Should Know… Hillel Smith

Hillel Smith holds his parshah book illustrating the weekly Torah reading. Photo by Dan Schere.

Hillel Smith has found a way to combine two of his strongest passions — Judaism and art. The 33-year-old Washington resident and Los Angeles native is a freelance artist who designs posters, greeting cards, ketubot and other items for nonprofit organizations. He also teaches art classes at Jewish institutions around the country.

What was your Jewish upbringing like?
I come from a long line of synagogue founders and presidents, though I have no rabbinic lineage. All of my family on both sides has been very involved in synagogue life, and I was raised with an appreciation of being a part of a community with Jewish engagement.

How did you get into art?
I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a little kid. I remember being at birthday parties where all the other kids would be on the swing set. I spent the whole birthday making macaroni frames.

Macaroni frames?
Yeah, you know when you make picture frames using Popsicle sticks. You put macaroni on the sticks in a pattern. I enjoyed just the process of making stuff. And I was obsessed with the building toys we had.

You mean like Legos?
Yeah, we had Tinker Toys and these plastic star-shaped pieces. The architectural part was really cool. You had to see how all the wheels and axles functioned. Eventually everything turned into spaceships.

Who are your art clients now?
My day job is graphic design, so I do a lot of work for Jewish nonprofits. I’m finishing up a project for [the immigration organization] HIAS. I’ve done some work with PJ Library. And then I do other projects on the side, like this parshah book. It’s a self-directed art activity that now that it’s finished, it’s on view in two cities I’m promoting it around the country and abroad. It’s hard to divide it up, because there’s the client-directed work and the self-directed work.

What’s a parshah book?
It’s a book of posters where each poster goes back to the [biblical] text and tries to tell the story of what’s happening in that parshah. For example, Vayakhel is about the building of the mishkan [tabernacle], so it talks about the weavings of the various coverings of the outside and the curtain inside that had blue, crimson and purple. The lettering says Vayakhel. And then Pekudei talks about the half-shekel donation. God decided a census needed to be taken of the Jewish people, and so everyone gave a half-shekel, and they counted all the half-shekels to figure out how many people there were. So I made a poster representing the half-shekels.

You know the Torah well.
I went to Jewish day school, and we had parshah class. It wasn’t stuff that really stuck with me, but when I started doing this series it was an opportunity to go through the entire Torah and go through it critically for the first time. These are things I didn’t necessarily remember reading as a 12-year- old.

I hear you also do spray-paint stencil art?
I always like the opportunity to learn new materials. So in college I did a printmaking class, fell in love with silk screen and then realized that that was too hard to do when I graduated. So I figured the next- best medium is to use spray-paint stencils, which I could do in the alley behind my apartment building. I like the problem solving that’s involved in creating a multidimensional image. And then I started teaching a spray paint workshop at Camp Ramah in California.

I’ve never met a Jew with last name Smith. What’s the story behind that?
There’s several of us [Jewish Smiths]. My father’s father was born in a little shtetl outside of Kiev in then-Russia, and the family in the early 1900s said, “There’s a war coming, and we need to get the hell out of Europe,” and so they made their way to Germany to get visas. To come to the United States you needed to have a sponsoring relative. The only relative that they had was someone I was distantly related to. His last name was Shapiro. They managed to get on the last boat out of Germany before World War I broke out. So my grandfather shows up in the United States as a little kid. Grows up. Later he became an attorney. He changed his name from Herschel Shapiro to Harry Smith. There are a dozen grandkids, we all have Hebrew-first name Smiths.

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  1. Some local folks (and other for around the country) met Hillel and his work at the National Havurah Institute several years ago, where he was a Timbrel Fund Artist in Residence. Reviews were glowing.

  2. Having taken the course with Hillel Smith at the Havurah Institute I have been following and supporting his work whenever I can. I consider him a most creative Jewish artist in the tradition of Mordechai Rosenstein and others. Hoping to see more examples of his ingenious work in the Jewish Week and perhaps a mural in town. Are you listening EDCJCC renovations committee?


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