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Articles on this Page
- 07/09/12--11:48: _War memorial by Bas...
- 03/06/17--06:52: _Linda Stein
- 03/28/17--11:58: _Linda Stein
- 07/07/17--07:05: _"The Three Musician...
- 07/07/17--07:07: _"The Three Musician...
- 07/07/17--07:13: _Art and America-A L...
- 08/10/17--17:39: _Janet Indick
- 12/05/17--07:36: _Diving into the Wre...
- 04/23/18--11:51: _Passover, Freedom, ...
- 05/29/18--09:35: _A Fringe of Her Own...
- 07/09/12--11:48: War memorial by Bashka Paeff dedicated in Kittery, Maine
- 03/06/17--06:52: Linda Stein
- 03/28/17--11:58: Linda Stein
- 07/07/17--07:05: "The Three Musicians" Sculpture by Sam Cashwan Main
- 07/07/17--07:07: "The Three Musicians" Sculpture by Sam Cashwan
- 07/07/17--07:13: Art and America-A Letter to Senator Rob Portman
- 08/10/17--17:39: Janet Indick
- 12/05/17--07:36: Diving into the Wreck with Linda Stein
- 04/23/18--11:51: Passover, Freedom, and Public Art: An Interview with Julia Vogl
- 05/29/18--09:35: A Fringe of Her Own: An Interview with Tamar Paley
On May 31, 1926, a bas-relief bronze and granite memorial to the sailors and soldiers from Maine who died in World War I was dedicated in the coastal town of Kittery. It depicted a woman fiercely protecting her child, a dramatic departure from most war memorials that feature soldiers and guns. The sculptor was Bashka Paeff, a Jewish woman, whose family had emigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms.
Born in 1893, she grew up in Boston’s crowded North End. She studied at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, the Boston Museum School, and at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. She financed her studies working as a toll collector on the Boston subways.
After a state-sponsored competition, Gov. Percival P. Baxter had commissioned the work. It took one and a half years to create and earned Paeff a $15,000 fee, including the costs of casting and installing the sculpture.
In the years after World War I, when feelings about pacifism and militarism ran high, the work became controversial. When it was almost completed, the man who succeeded Baxter as governor objected to it as “too pacifistic.” Paeff compromised by adding a few soldiers in low relief in the background, as well as military inscriptions. While she called the statue “The Horrors of War,” it was officially named “Sacrifices of War.” Most Mainers know it as the “Sailors and Soldiers Memorial.” See photos of the memorial here.
Bashka Paeff clearly intended the sculpture to be a statement against war. “I have some decided opinions about war memorials,” she said. “I hope most of all that we shall not erect memorials to glorify war… We forget what suffering and horror it brought. We should set up memorials that would make us loathe war instead of admire it.”
Paeff produced another war memorial, this one in the Massachusetts State House honoring Bay State chaplains who died during World War I. She also created a relief sculpture of the Minutemen who fought in the first battle of the American Revolution. Her other works include busts of Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ellen Richards. She made a marble bust of Louis Brandeis.
The home and studio Paeff occupied on the north slope of Beacon Hill still stands. Passersby can see the large windows that brought light into her work space.
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions, Boston, G.K.Hall, 1990; Jennifer Wingate, “Motherhood, Memorials, and Anti-Militarism: Bashka Paeff’s “Sacrifices of War, Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 29, no. 2, page 31.
In crafting sculptures that incorporate concepts of weaponry, armor, and the female form, Linda Stein has found new ways to consider issues of power, violence, and protection. Stein studied at the School for Visual Arts before earning a BA from Queens College. She also earned an MA from the Pratt Institute. In 1972 she founded Have Art, Will Travel, a non-profit which offers exhibitions and education on positive, authentic expression of gender and gender fluidity, combatting the sexism often perpetuated by art. In 1990 Stein created an artistic series called Blades that used machetes, musical instruments, and other materials. After 9/11 she shifted focus, creating a series called Knights of Protection which involved human forms shaped from metal, wood, leather, and stone, a theme that has continued to resurface in her work in series such as The Fluidity of Gender (2007) and I Am the Environment (2006). Other series Stein has developed include collage portraits of female superheroes and of courageous women of the Holocaust.
Dear Senator Portman,
My name is Tess Kelly, and I’m a sixteen-year-old girl from Cleveland, Ohio. My passion is for the written word, and I am a performance poet as well as an avid writer. I am a firm believer in the power of language, and that is why I write to you today. Writing is my art, and its significant role in my life fuels my belief in the overall importance of the arts. When things get tough, art is usually one of the first things to suffer, but today, I’m asking you to vote in favor of allocating funding for the arts in the federal budget this year.
Cleveland is an amazing city, and this is largely due to the arts. Here, in the second largest city in your state, we have one of the world's best orchestras, one of the best art museums, and a fabulous theater scene. For me, Cleveland is like the poor artist's New York City, with an astonishing number of bars and clubs which hold poetry readings and slams. For a city of its size, the Cleveland arts scene is unprecedented and thriving, and I do not want to lose it. Programs for teen poets which I attend derive their funds partially from federal financing, and I fear what will happen if we lose this funding, but this is bigger than me. Art is one of those rare things that can connect people regardless of background, and therefore strengthens our community. If we lose the arts, I believe the ramifications will be more harmful than one might think.
My great-great grandfather, Samuel Cashwan, was commissioned by the Public Works Administration in the 1930s to create fantastic sculptures, sculptures that still stand today. He sculpted Abraham Lincoln for a park, angelic gargoyles for a church, fairytale scenes for a library, as well as abstract art that is placed throughout the city. The Great Depression actually helped people see the value in the arts, because beautifying our country and inspiring people is critical to all Americans, especially in trying times. Whether one likes country or hip hop or classical compositions, music is emotional and important to around 98% of Americans. Poetry is so powerful that United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera said that “poetry is a call to action, and it also is action.” The point is that the arts do matter, and we need them. While many might argue that the arts aren’t necessary, and wouldn’t hesitate to set them aside during tumultuous times, I would argue that this is when we need them most. The arts allow us to make sense of the world around us, and we need that now more than ever.
Now, I get it. There seem to be much larger issues that we need to address. Our country is in crisis, and it would be naive to insist otherwise, and so it might appear convenient to cut funding for the arts in favor of what might feel more relevant. But again, times of trial are in fact the most important times for art. Theater, music, poetry, and the visual arts in all forms, give people hope, make people think, and inspire communities to lift themselves up. Cleveland, for all its problems, has become a hub of artistic expression, and has shed its image of “the mistake on the lake.” Our once poverty-stricken district along the Cuyahoga River, though it still has a long way to go, has become a center for concerts and open mic nights.
The arts have revitalized Cleveland’s once factory-based economy. We have theaters for every price point, bars filled with jazz, and we have people coming together through art. Our steel industry may be dwindling, and this brings new challenges, but we face these head on and we ask hard questions through poetry and music. We are willing to ask and wonder. Our economy is multi-faceted, but any Clevelander will tell you that part of the reason they love their city is the presence of art. Without our theater, music, poetry, and art, we are a smaller, less vibrant city. Without it, we are a dull and dying place, just another forgotten American steel town. But with art, we become a revitalized place.
There is no single solution to gigantic problems, but sometimes the smallest touch can change lives. If a single Ohioan’s, or American’s, life is improved by their experiences with poetry or music or theater, then it is worth it, because art lifts people up one at a time, until entire cities are stronger and better for it. I am an artist. My great great grandfather was an artist. An artist is someone who sees the world in a certain, special fashion, and then they compose it or they sculpt it or they write it or they act it, and they make you see it, too. Give them a chance, and they will make you see it, too.
For these reasons, as well as the others I have outlined, I sincerely hope that you will agree that the arts are critical to our community, and vote in favor of allocating funds in the federal budget for the arts this year.
Janet Suslak Indick incorporates Jewish themes and inspiration from the natural world into her sculptures and medallions. Indick graduated from Hunter College in 1953 and did post-graduate work both there and at The New School. While pursuing her art, she also served as director of the Teaneck Jewish Center Nursery School from 1964–1992. She joined the National Association of Women Artists in 1975 and served as president from 1997–1999; and also served on the Teaneck Arts Advisory Board from 1982–1988. Indick’s sculptures usually involve abstract metal shapes, varying in size from small medallions to large outdoor installations, and have been exhibited at galleries and museums around the world, including the Waterside Gallery in Massachusetts in 1995, the Goethe Museum in Germany in 2000, Museum Wroclaw in Poland in 2002, and Yeshiva University Museum in 2004. Her work has also joined the permanent collections of several synagogues and museums. In 2011 she was inducted into the Hunter College Hall of Fame.
“I put on the body-armor of black rubber...I came to explore the wreck...I came to see the damage
that was done/and the treasures that prevail...
the thing I came for/the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth...
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
I am she: I am he”
As a young woman raised in a conservative community, my feminism was, at that point, only half-articulated. The idea that gender itself could be fluid, that someone could be both he and she and inhabit the space in between these two social constructs was entirely outside my realm of experience. And, yet, here was Rich placing her diver in a “black rubber suit” that allowed for the melding of male and female identities into one androgynous being that could submerge itself in a wholeness of self-expression. I became besotted with this narrative image, and with the idea that how you engage with the world could be altered, and made more honest, by the willingness to change your external self. I wound up writing my final paper on this rubber suit and the notion that one could put on, and experiment with, gender.
This image felt singular and powerful but it seemed the transformative “rubber suit” could only exist in Rich’s poetry.
Imagine my surprise when I encountered the equivalent of an androgynous rubber suit embodied in the sculpture of artist/activist Linda Stein. Unlike Rich’s suit, which is confined to the page, Stein’s art is tangible. In fact, some of these sculptures are wearable, as Gloria Steinem learned when she first visited the artist’s studio in Tribeca.
A New York-based artist, activist, educator, performer, and writer, Linda Stein starts a conversation, leading with art about the spectrum between masculinity and femininity. She focuses on authenticity and becoming an "everyday upstander" in the face of bullying and bigotry through her educational organization Have Art: Will Travel!
Stein has dedicated her life to exploring gender. With HAWT’s educational programs, including performances by local poets, actors, dancers, and songwriters, Stein inspires viewers to become protectors of “others” and upstanders against racism, ageism, classism, and trans/homophobia. In lectures at CUNY and in The Feminist Superhero, Stein has been the “bridge” between poets Adrienne Rich and Jayne Cortez. She is as fearless in her visual art as the poets are in their written words.
In Stein’s art, we see Eleanor Roosevelt rocking a bronzed six-pack, a voluptuous Barack Obama fearlessly addressing the nation in a feminine curves-hugging pantsuit, and Bella Abzug sporting both her signature hat and masculine arms.
The sculpture in this traveling exhibition, The Fluidity of Gender, is even more powerful. Participants can actually don a new avatar and take on another identity. When asked about her process of creating the wearable sculptures in her exhibition, Stein says:
As I create it, the sculpture becomes a kind of “foil” that protects me against my fears. I am making a defender and sentinel who will watch out for my safety. The form is androgynous and contains attributes along the continuum of masculinity and femininity. We all live between these binary constructions. If you look at “Mascu-Fem,” you will see breasts and more feminine attributes from the front and broader shoulders and more masculine traits from the back.
Stein’s artwork aims to empower women. In her second traveling exhibition, Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females, the artist has chosen ten brave upstanders from the time of the Holocaust and created tapestries and sculpture about them. Her newest series, Displacement from Home–What to Leave, What to Take: Cabinets, Cupboards, Cases, and Closets, captures the chaos of displaced persons' experiences and the struggle in choosing what must be left behind. Stein’s activism is contagious as she travels around the country and abroad speaking at universities and museums. She offers her audience and participants a chance to expand their thinking about gender, identity, and authenticity. Her traveling exhibits are multi-layered, with books, videos, and educational curricula designed by international scholars.
When HAWT brought Stein’s The Fluidity of Gender exhibit to Helena, Montana, one participant, a staff member for the museum, was radically transformed in the process of hanging the art and reading about the artist. Stein recalls:
Paige Ferro stood up at the podium and said (for the first time in her life): Hello. I’m queer, and in the fourth row is my husband. You may think this is startling...First, I was a lesbian, then I was straight, and then I was bisexual and I wasn’t comfortable with any term. While this was happening, I fell in love with my husband and people came to me confused and asked how I could be marrying a man when I’m a lesbian. I knew, when I opened these crates and when I saw that these sculptures were about femininity and masculinity and the combining of the two, I couldn’t hide my feelings any longer from my neighbors. The word I want to use to identify myself is queer.
The Stein event provided this woman with a new way of opening up and entering the conversation around gender. It gave her the impetus to find the word she had been searching for. Linda Stein’s art creates a safe space for these conversations and allows her viewers and participants to put on their own “black rubber suits,” wade into the wreck, and engage with the “thing itself”––their personal authenticity.
See below for Stein's CUNY lecture on Adrienne Rich.
Artist Julia Vogl travels the world, transforming public spaces into works of art that reflect the shared experiences of the local community while embuing those spaces with strikingly vibrant color and patterns. This spring, in a piece commissioned by Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative, Vogl will bring her love of color and storytelling to the Boston Common in Pathways to Freedom, a public-art installation inspired by Passover that showcases perspectives on immigration, freedom, and personal history from the Greater Boston community.
I was lucky enough to speak with Vogl about her transformative work, her love of color, and how she “puts the public back in public art.”
In a Ted Talk you gave in 2015, you discuss your desire to “put the public back into public art.” How did your relationship to public art and social sculpture first begin?
My interest in public art stems from a confluence of experiences. I worked as summer intern for a high-profile NYC gallery in college and felt it was removed from the community I wanted to engage with art. It seemed that certain gallery work was just for the rich and educated and that rubbed me the wrong way. Soon after this, in February 2005, I got to experience Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates and was blown away. The big conversion, and my passion, to make public art with community, was working at Public Art for Public Schools under my now mentor Michele Cohen. She really coined the phrase “putting the public back into public art,” and was a huge inspiration to me in understanding both the power of public art and the process of commissioning, contracts, community boards, and collaborating with artists and architects to make large scale work for public spaces. I saw artists make incredible work and I also saw the shortcomings of not involving the community enough––these experiences were my drive when I set out to get my MFA, and ultimately led to me making social sculpture.
The collaborative nature of your work speaks to a faith in the public’s participation. It also introduces a level of uncontrollability in the finished work. How do you manage the uncertainties of creating art in collaboration with the public?
As an example, Pathways to Freedom showcases how many decisions I make to ensure a high-quality aesthetic work. Even if I am not totally sure what it will look like, I do actually hold a lot of control. I designed all the images, the framework, and––at the end––I designed the scale.
I enjoy the democratic nature of my projects––and not totally knowing what will happen––I think the public is further encouraged and empowered to participate because I do give them my trust. It’s critical, however, to know that I don’t ask the public to be artists; I ask them to be decision makers, to be self-reflective, and to be a little bit creative.
How do you decide which colors or patterns will represent what? Does knowing that these installations live on in public spaces affect what colors or patterns you select?
David Batchelor has this theory that, especially in the Western world, we have “Chromaphobia.” In essence, we are afraid of color. I have read enough color theory to know how impactful color, and pattern, can be and I continually strive to fill places that are lacking in color, to perhaps combat this phobia and encourage more positivity.
I have been inspired by so many artists who work on a large scale with color. Color has a phenomenal impact on our moods, our perception of safety, and our ability to embrace our inner curiosity. There are so many things in our world that also do this. If you see a bouquet of multi-coloured balloons, how can you not smile? I do a lot of evaluation when linking colors and patterns, but it’s also a gut reaction. I just read the world in colors. For me, some things just have to be a certain color, and I want to share the way I see the world with others. I do have a more lengthy explanation for why I choose the patterns and colors for this project.
In creating Pathways to Freedom, what inspired you about the Passover story? Did the story, and the setting of Boston, change your ideas of freedom? How did thinking about the immigration experience influence what questions you chose to ask the public?
This project is personal, it’s political, it’s been designed for Boston and its most definitely about Passover!
Many levels of this project were inspired by the story of Passover. From big picture ideas, like the concept of freedom, to the tiny detail of the pin being designed to look like a seder plate.
Very simply, the Exodus story is the tale of people leaving slavery, crossing a body of water, and ending up in tents for 40 years trying to discern their new identity and find home. To me, that emulates perfectly the current refugee crisis occurring worldwide. My own grandparents were refugees during and after WWII; my mother’s parents met in a displaced persons camp. I have been involved volunteering with refugees in London for a while because I believe the only reason I am here today is the kindness of strangers helping my grandparents, coupled with my grandparents’ bravery. They moved countries, crossed bodies of water, and ended up in camps trying to determine their new start. Immigration, or the movement of people, is at the crux of the Exodus story.
America’s history, and Boston’s beginnings, are full of immigration stories. When asked to make a Passover-themed project that was accessible to all of Boston, not just the Jewish community, I knew I had to ask about immigration. When President Trump got elected, that term took on negative connotations. As a first-generation American in my family, immigration has always been a point of pride for my American-Jewish identity. My Hebrew-school education was littered with stories of Jews fleeing their own exodus to America over and over and over again in the 19th and 20th centuries. My parents, who came to seek a better opportunity, felt welcomed and at home in a country that was made up entirely of others. At Seder we welcome the stranger. Growing up in Washington D.C., America always stood for welcoming the stranger––and now that sense of welcoming is under great threat.
This project is about engaging with all the communities across Boston, so that the areas that seem separate in their hamlets––from Dorchester to Newton––are united in a common relationship to Freedom and Immigration.
The four questions I ask in my project were designed to be accessible to everyone, from ages 8 to 98, to someone who is Jewish and to someone who has never heard of Passover. The first question asks, “When did you or your family come to the Boston area?” Just like at Seder, I saw families come together over the iPad and project kiosk to discuss their family story and answer this question.
For each answered question, the participants collect stickers. The stickers are placed on a pin that has seven sections. While a traditional seder plate holds six items, in modern households it seems we are always adding something: an orange, an olive etc. The pin, like a modern seder plate, has seven components to hold your own addition. The first answer has stickers related to Boston landmarks. The last question asks, “If freedom were symbolized as a food what would it be?” (It wouldn’t really be a Passover project if we didn’t talk about food!)
I really enjoyed participating in Pathways to Freedom and getting to bring home my own pin! What is the role of the “anecdotal accessory” in your work?
The pin/button is the legacy component of this project. The Boston Common mural will come and go, but the pin hopefully will live on your jacket or bag for a long time. Like any jewelry, if it’s different enough, it usually evokes a reaction and can be an innocent way to start a conversation with a stranger and ask them about the story behind the accessory. I hope the pin will evoke conversations with family, friends, or strangers about art, freedom, immigration, diversity in Boston today, politics, or just where to get really good food! I believe that wearing this pin can create connections and be a catalyst to unpack large complicated issues. When it comes to refugees and immigration, for many it’s an “out of sight out of mind” conversation. I now have close to 1,800 advocates wearing pins, thereby bringing the conversation to their networks, which I think is cool.
Popular terms like “manspreading” and “mansplaining” highlight the many ways that men feel more ownership of public spaces than women do. How (if at all) does gender factor into your relationship to your work? Why do you think it’s important that women, and women’s art, become a part of public art and social sculpture?
My experience in public art has been that women just approach it differently. I have to be very open to fielding lots of opinions and strategies, and listening to what the community wants to say. I also need to be flexible because when you work with so many partners you can’t be a prima donna, you can’t let ego get in the way. You have to be a team player. Many successful public artists are actually couples. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are a perfect example: he was the draftsman but she was the planner, and negotiator. I have to be both.
I think being a woman makes me more approachable when engaging with strangers in bizarre situations, like when I was on the streets of Krakow with a converted pretzel trolley. My whole process is a nurturing one and I see each project like a child. I want to do all the research, put together a good team of partners, and get the proper funding to ensure the project succeeds and can live on without me. It has felt very maternal; I am not sure men feel that way about their projects.
At JWA, we often talk about the role of stories in sparking change. Your work invites the public to share stories with one another. Why is that important to you? What role do you think sharing stories plays in creating community or making change?
Sharing is empowering. A lot of people want a platform to be heard; that is why social media has been so explosively successful. Ultimately, for me, it’s about visually communicating, transcending backgrounds, and creating a universally and personally accessible piece of art. I am dedicating to showcasing both the individual and collective simultaneously because they enrich each other and illustrate a much more vibrant tapestry and story. We can talk about abstract concepts all we want, but if it’s not personal we don’t relate. Data can seem really impersonal but stories make it personal, and although much of my work is visually abstracted, it’s littered with coded meaning so you can explore the work on several levels. The hope is that you connect and are impacted, and that it maybe changes how you see yourself, others, or the world. If that impacts change––awesome!
My work is about in-person encounters and real placemaking art. If you want to make an impact, you need a lived experience and I think communities come together when they share an experience, good or bad. I am trying to foster beautiful, magical, and positive experiences that bridge disparate people. Telling their stories together is a powerful bridge.
What have been some of your favorite stories and conversations to emerge from the Pathways to Freedom project?
At the cart, I have really enjoyed watching people go from a state of apathy or peer pressure to participate, to deep consideration, to ecstatic joy that they took part. It’s been fun to watch parents explain their family history to their kids and see how that invites all sorts of other conversations. Away from the cart, we actually recorded 103 audio interviews and are editing 44 to include with the actual artwork. They will live on the JArts website after the project. These stories reflect an incredible diversity of people and and their life in Boston.
I had one person after the interview say, “I need a psychiatrist … you really have unleashed some deep thoughts!” More than anything, I have learned how broadly the term Freedom can be interpreted. While it’s a light, euphoric, and liberating term; it’s also weighted in responsibility and fight. It is a heavy burden we continually work to protect. I look forward to the artwork inviting longer conversations on the Boston Common.
Tamar Paley is an Israeli artist and jewelry designer. I interviewed her this spring about her project,A Fringe of Her Own: A Collection of Ritual Objects for Women, which is currently on view at the Kniznick Gallery at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Jerusalem in a very progressive community. As a teen, I began to understand that my experience was unusual. The fact that I had a bat mitzvah in which I read from the Torah and made my own tallit––these were not things that other girls were doing. For my friends and me, the uniqueness of our experience as Progressive Jews in Israel became a big part of our identities.
Ever since high school, Judaism has been part of my art. I was an art major in high school and even then, I would be creating pieces and suddenly incorporating all kinds of biblical verses. When I started to study jewelry design, I kind of kept my religious identity on the down low. My school, Shankar, is a very secular, liberal, artsy place where we just didn’t talk about Judaism.
As I was approaching my final year of school and starting to think about my thesis project, I decided I wanted to use this opportunity to say something about issues that matter to me. And it just hit me: I'm going to make ritual objects for women. I’d get to talk about feminism and women’s issues and religious pluralism, and I’d do it through objects that connect to the body. That tied together everything I’d been studying about jewelry design and using different materials and Jewish text and all these things that I love. It was just perfect.
Some of my teachers, though, were surprised. They said, “Oh, you’re religious? How did we not know that? And if you’re not religious, why do you care about ritual objects?” I explained that these are issues that I think about and care about a lot. I’m not religious in the way that they understand that identity, but I do feel deeply connected to Judaism––it’s a big part of my life. It felt like I was coming out as a Progressive Jewish woman.
How do you understand the relationship between jewelry and ritual objects?
I like the connection between ritual objects and silversmithing. It goes way back––kiddush cups and candlesticks and menorahs and all that. So the craft within this field of ritual objects has always been there. But the objects that I chose to work with were mainly those that you wear: tallit (prayer shawl), tzizit (ritual fringes), and tefillin (phylacteries). I chose these pieces because they are the most controversial for women. The ritual objects that we use in the home are a little less gendered and more widely used among women. But we still have a hard time with the ones that are worn in public and on the body. And that really tied in with jewelry: how does this object that I choose to wear affect me and how I am choosing to present myself? How can I wear it and where can I wear it?
From a technical perspective, I took apart these ritual objects and rebuilt them to be modern and desirable––something that a woman would see and want to wear. I wanted to take away the controversy surrounding these objects. For me personally––even as a woman who grew up in a really progressive environment––I have a hard time wearing a kippah or putting on tefillin, so I wanted to understand my own discomfort and offer some alternatives.
What was your process in creating the objects?
I started from the conceptual: if women had a say in the creation of these ritual objects, how would they look and feel? I began by trying to figure out how women around me today are experiencing their spirituality. And as a jewelry designer, I was also thinking about how this material feels on the body, where it is worn, what are the gestures that come with wearing this object.
I wanted to give a voice to all the different ways that women in my life are experiencing their Judaism. And I wanted to reevaluate what these objects mean and find out what’s relevant about them. So I sent out a questionnaire of ten questions to women in my network. I tried to get as wide a range of answers as possible. Receiving their responses was amazing! I was so overwhelmed and moved by everything these women wrote. The biggest takeaway was that many women experience their Judaism in a private, inner way. I asked the question “If you could create a ritual object for yourself, what would it be?” A lot of women said it would be something they could keep private or expose at their will. So that’s why I started to create containers for the texts, and to focus on inner parts of the body, like the inner arm. For example, on the tallit piece ––where the text of the atara (the collar) is usually on the outside, in my piece it’s on the inside. I also played with typography so that the text wouldn’t be immediately legible.
All the texts that I use are pieces that women sent to me. Many are texts about gratitude and thankfulness, and also a lot of texts about guarding or protecting––which is really interesting considering the rise of #MeToo. It was also important to me to change all the text into language that was gendered feminine.
I thought a lot about the material, too. I searched for sources that dictated the requirements for the materials of ritual objects––you know, that would say, “this needs to be made out of leather” and have these specific dimensions. But I didn’t find many of those. The original texts say things like “it should be a sign on your hand and a sign between your eyes” but we don't necessarily have more guidelines for what it should look like. So that gave me permission to make changes. Maybe leather straps aren’t relevant anymore, in a time when not everyone is comfortable wearing leather.
Am I changing the essence of these ritual objects by changing their form? Can I feel more comfortable with the meaning of an object just by redesigning it? These were the questions I asked myself as a designer. Maybe if I altered the shape or the material, I could allow someone to reconnect with these objects. It may sound kitschy, but I believe I can make social change through my design.
What are the old and new elements that you incorporated?
I stayed true to handcrafted woven textiles––which I made with a colleague from the textile department––and colors of blue and silver. But then in some cases I changed the location on the body. For example, I adapted the tefillin head piece by moving it down from the forehead to the chest because the forehead felt so visible and so revealing, and that was not what the women I spoke to wanted. In some places I stayed true to the original text and in some cases I changed the text to respond to what women said they wanted in their ritual objects and what spoke to their Jewish values. A lot of the women I surveyed sent me Jewish texts but ones that had to do with universal values. So that was really interesting.
What was the response of your secular classmates and teachers?
They were totally into it. It was amazing. My advisors were women who are extremely secular, and whereas in the beginning they were like “Forget Judaism, just make jewelry!” by the end they thought this was an important project. They were part of this journey with me, and they were really supportive.
In Israel, if you’re a Reform Jew, you’re kind of in-between––you're not a hundred percent accepted by either secular Jews and or by the religious establishment. When I presented my project, I was worried that people be distracted by politics and not even pay attention to the work. But my professors reminded me that I wasn’t judging anyone’s beliefs or behavior, but rather showing a new way of thinking about these religious objects. And I think there is a real thirst for it. I had prepared myself for argument, and there just wasn't any need for that. People really got it. So the response was actually way more positive than I had expected.
As a designer, how do you relate to the pieces you created––do you think of them more as ritual objects or as jewelry?
At the end of the day, these are material things: it’s a piece of fabric, it’s a thread, it’s a box. I do think these pieces of material have real power, but we’re the ones charging them with this meaning––with the belief that just by covering your shoulders or head or wrapping something around your hands you are transported into the spiritual realm. I thought a lot about those gestures and the ways that these objects put us into a spiritual framework. I could be walking down the street, but if I cover myself in a tallit, am I in a holy place? People keep asking me if I would mind if my pieces were worn in a non-ritual context. I think I would feel weird about wearing a tallit just as an accessory, but ultimately these pieces are what you make of them: it’s a necklace, and you can decide what it means to you.
The most amazing conversations I’ve had so far are with people who have said “I can imagine giving my daughter this piece for her bat mitzvah and her wearing it.” Or “I really want to wear tefillin, but I haven’t felt comfortable, and maybe this kind of piece would make a difference.” I often wonder how far I can push the boundaries of the traditional objects and have the pieces still feel legitimate. But people have definitely expressed that they would use these objects, and that’s been really gratifying.
I really like the idea of women passing down these objects to daughters in the same way that a boy will inherit his grandfather’s tefillin or tallit. I think that we do that already with jewelry––so many people say things like “I can’t leave the house without my grandmother’s necklace.” We pass down objects in the same way that we pass down traditions. I want this to be work that encourages people to explore different ways of thinking about tradition and how they can make it their own. That's what it’s really about.
What are you working on now?
I'm still working on this project, actually––I just made a new piece the other day. And I'm working on a new project with two friends from school. We came up with this concept that the three of us would choose three objects and each of us would create a piece of jewelry that interprets those three objects. We based it off of the German saying “kinder, kuche, kirsh”––that women’s place is in the kitchen, church, and with the children. So for the three objects, we chose a coloring book, a set of measuring cups, and a pregnancy test. We’re thinking about calling it “Me Three” ––three objects, three women, #MeToo… I'm excited about that project. It lets me continue to work on women’s issues, which are very much on my mind. So it should be fun!