WHITEFISH BAY – It started five years ago with an idea and about a dozen area artists.
The idea was to have local, professional-level artists study Jewish texts together, then create work based on an annual theme and show it at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. The plan was always to grow it to the rest of the Midwest, and that’s exactly what’s been happening.
Today, it’s a sprawling Jewish artist’s network, serving five Midwestern cities with a free retreat (including transportation) for nearly 100 artists set for September of 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. Ever since JCC Judaic Education Director Jody Hirsh discussed the idea with representatives of the New York-based Covenant Foundation, the foundation has supported his “Jewish Artists’ Laboratory Network of the Midwest” with more than $350,000 in grants.
The cash has been used to publish annual books of artwork produced by this “artists’ lab” — as it’s often referred to for short — along with plane tickets and other expenses related to the annual retreat. Funds have been used for staffing and the design and installation of exhibits. It’s paid to spread the lab to other JCCs in Minneapolis and Kansas City, plus the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago and Madison Hillel. Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland is to be added next year – every year has brought in another city.
At first Hirsh had to “twist a few arms” to get artists to participate, reassuring the first participants that the caliber of their fellow professionals would be high and they would not be forced to conform to any institutional view of Judaism. They wanted to know, he said, that they wouldn’t have “to be a certain kind of Jew.”
Later, he was surprised at how the idea took off. “I kind of assumed that Jewish artists knew each other,” he recalled. It turned out they often work in isolation and there was a need for community.
The artists work in various media, including painting, printmaking, photography, playwriting, poetry and music. Each year, they first spend several months studying Jewish text with Hirsh, which could be anything from poetry to Torah. Then, they move on to thinking about art and what their projects will be, working with Arts Facilitator Marc Tasman.
Connecting art with wisdom
For the theme this year, “Voices: Echoes of Wisdom,” Tasman is thinking in terms of how Jewish wisdom and prophets can offer guidance for people and how such thoughts can be translated into art. “The end game is to make a piece of work,” he said.
The wisdom theme is the same across all five Midwestern cities and about 18 of the local artists now have wisdom-themed work on display at the Surlow promenade at the west entrance of the JCC, through the end of August.
Tasman himself is participating as an artist and he examined darkness and wisdom in Leonard Cohen’s music, connecting with it through his own drawings.
Mitch Shiner is a musician, percussionist and composer, living on Milwaukee’s East Side. He’s connected wisdom with happiness and has composed related songs using a vibraphone.
Artist Barbara Kohl-Spiro’s search for wisdom led her to title one of her creations for this year’s artists’ lab show, “Thank G-d for making me a woman.” It was inspired by a Jewish prayer that expresses thanks for not making me a woman, an ancient verse that has caused some controversy in modern times.
She said she appreciates being part of a community of artists that thinks about art from a Jewish perspective without thinking about art solely as Judaica.
Supporting the arts
Hirsh and Harlene Winnick Appelman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, first discussed the artist’s lab idea over lunch in New York. Previously, in 2005, the Covenant Foundation had granted Hirsh the Covenant Award, honoring him as an exceptional Jewish educator.
“The foundation is very interested in the arts, but also cognizant that you don’t legislate, you facilitate,” Appelman said in an interview with the Chronicle, adding that the interest extends well beyond New York City.
The idea for an artists’ lab was based in part on programs in New York City. One is LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, a program of the 14th Street Y that uses classic Jewish texts to inspire the creation of art, dialogue and study. Other endeavors took place at the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center, on Manahttan’s Upper East Side.
“We’ve very proud of Jody,” Appelman said.
“I’m very gratified,” Hirsh said. “It became even more powerful than I thought it was.”