“About Faith,” does not hide behind a clever name. It is, both on its surface and deep down, about showcasing its artists’ Jewish identities. According to a placard located immediately inside the first room of the exhibit, “About Faith” is curator Beth Goldstein’s attempt at completing the Hiddur Mitzvah, or “adornment of a commandment.” She writes that there are 613 Mitzvot (commandments) that a person should complete during his or her lifetime. “Given the enormity of such a challenge,” Goldstein writes, “I realized a long time ago that I’d better see how many Mitzvot I could ‘cover’ with the one thing that I loved to do – art!” This exhibit features nine artists’ paintings, sculptures, prints, installations and mixed media works as representations of their relationships with their Jewish faith. Notably, all of the artists are women, giving the exhibit feminist undertones. It is done in celebration of National Jewish Arts Month, an initiative of the American Guild of Judaic Artists.
Housed in the Kennedy Heights Arts Center, the exhibit is spaced out over several spacious rooms. The Arts Center is the former house of Kennedy Heights mayor Lewis Kennedy. It must look much like it did when it was first built in 1875, with hardwood floors and plenty of natural light. Individual rooms still exist, giving the exhibit places in which to shift in subject matter and to distinguish clusters of any one artist’s work.
A large collage of the Western Wall covers much of the entryway. Visitors are invited to write a prayer on a piece of paper and slip it in between the folds of the collage, just as pilgrims in Jerusalem slip written prayers in between the stones of the Wall. This Western Wall, though made to mimic its Israeli counterpart, is much more colorful than the beige stones that form the original. Made up of large square pieces of paper, the gray “stones” vary in hue, and the top of the collage is a colorful depiction of the Jerusalem skyline. Coupled with the large, blocky shapes that make up the wall, this gives the collage more cheerfulness than solemnity. It feels like a celebration of the prayers that its visitors leave, instead of the mourning that traditionally accompanies a visit to what is otherwise known as the Wailing Wall.
Aside from the Western Wall collage in the foyer, the entire exhibit is housed in a series of rooms on the right hand side of the building. The first room most prominently features an oil painting by Estelle Laibson titled “Henrietta Szold (From the series ‘We are All People of Color’).” Szold was the founder of Hadassah Women, which notably helped Jewish youths escape from Germany in the 1930s, and which still dedicates itself to providing health care to Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The large painting hangs above a fireplace, giving Szold the best seat in the room. Laibson used bright blues, greens and yellows in her portrait, which is beautiful as it is shocking. Written around Szold’s head is the phrase, “Make my eyes look to the future,” which is how she once told a sculptor to portray her late in her life.
The remainder of the first room is lined with smaller works of art, including a walnut sculpture by Harriet Kaufman, “Male and Female They were Created.” The sculpture is a torso that stands facing the window with its back to the room and the exhibit beyond. Easy to miss at first, tucked in a corner of the room, the sculpture is quietly proud. It stands tall with one leg seeming to step forward of the other, though both are cut off at the upper thigh. The grain in the walnut creates swirling lines down the entire torso, which animates the figure.
Immediately off of the first room is a small space that is hard to see from the entryway. This room is dedicated entirely to Deborah Brod’s contribution to the exhibit. Torn scraps of paper line the walls, each with watercolor images of paperwhites. Shelves are placed underneath each of these watercolors, containing books, miscellaneous objects and handwritten notes from the artist. Live paperwhites grow under each shelf and fill the small room with their sweet, mild fragrance. “This narrative installation is composed of opposing, contrasting themes, materials, and feelings,” Brod wrote in her artist statement, noting that books and paperwhite bulbs alike have hidden value that is not known until they are opened. Brod’s handwritten notes range widely in subject matter, but center around memories. She remembers singing to herself, writing “So, digging further, what are my strongest, even subconscious, connections to Judaism? The songs I learned in childhood…!” The objects scattered on the shelves include candles, glasses and a yarmulke. The installation is as personal as it is accessible. Though it is about Brod’s relationship with Judaism, the homey, everyday objects are ones that people of all walks of life could recognize and associate with memories of their own. Each shelf looks as if it came straight from Brod’s living room.
The next room is large and most prominently features a group of works by Pam Kravetz. A television plays a song on repeat, looping back every couple of minutes, and features a woman at a stove with a speech bubble that reads, “Oy vey, I think I see Moses in the Matzo!” The Egyptian pyramids serve as the background, and one by one, the ten plagues dance across in the screen in comical waves. Kravetz cites C. Jacqueline Wood, proprietor of Golden Hour Moving Pictures, as the creator of the television short. Cartoon-like locusts are placed around the mantle that the television sits on, and a table with a mound of dirty dishes sits directly below the screen. The dishes represent what Kravetz calls the eleventh plague. Seder dishes would pile up in her kitchen as a child, and in a lighthearted nod to a dark tale, she included this childhood chore as a plague akin to a thunderstorm of hail. A colorful quilt sits in front of the table and features Kravetz herself as the Wandering Jew. In her artist statement, she likens herself to the Wandering Jew, a figure who taunted Jesus on the way to Crucifixion and was subsequently doomed to wander the earth until the second coming. She says that she sees herself as the Wandering Jew because she constantly grapples with fitting in to the Jewish community. Again giving a comical spin to a traditionally dark tale, the quilt is comprised of patches of neon green fur, sequins, beads, polka dots, hot pink fabric and Kravetz’s own colorful, smiling face.
The remainder of this room is relatively calm, featuring several works by Julie Staller-Pentelnik. The first is “The Tree of Life,” which is made up of a large tree whose branches weave together at soft right angles, reminiscent of Hebrew lettering. A small passage at the bottom reads, “It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast and all who cling to it are happy.” This serene piece is in stark contrast to the noise, both visual and aural, that Pam Kravetz’s art puts forth.
The following room has one wall dedicated entirely to a mixed media piece by Ruth Banta entitled “Man-orah.” Nine plastic male figurines are lined up across three shelves, each with a colorful candle affixed to its head. While it is on the surface a pun, the piece is also a commentary on Judaism’s roots as a primarily male-centric religion. This comes right after Stellar-Pentelnik’s more solemn works, but visitors can still hear the television in Kravetz’s installation. The exhibit is laid out in such a way that lightheartedness and serious contemplation are mixed together.
Banta’s whimsical menorah is answered by a series called “The Matriarchs” by Pamela S. Feldman-Hill. In her artist statement, she says that the triptych features figures that are “mothers, lovers, martyrs, and saviors.” One “Matriarch” print depicts Rachel and Leah, twins who are said to have been “bearers of the Jewish people.” The two figures are embracing and standing under a chuppah (wedding canopy), a reference to each sister’s marriage to Jacob. Feldman-Hill uses rich blues and purples, and, as in each of her “Matriarch” pieces, very visible strokes, giving the figures a sense of fluidity and movement.
Also included in this room is a book of paintings by Beth Goldstein of the four seasons, each with a small description of that season’s significance in the Jewish faith. Each painting is displayed in the exhibit, giving visitors the chance to take a closer look at the details in each one. The four paintings have very rich colors and each depicts a tree bearing something of importance. “Of Summer,” for example, depicts a number of fruits including pears and pomegranates, which Goldstein says “feed us along the way.”
The centerpiece of the final room is a mixed media installation piece by Robin Hartmann entitled “Grandma Rose.” A life-sized grandmotherly figure stands at a stove. This, however, is not the most impressive part of the piece. She faces a wall that has a calendar and a shelf full of trinkets, including a salt and pepper shaker set and a card addressed to Hartmann. Behind her is a small table with a radio, a houseplant and a copy of Gone with the Wind. A small puppy sleeps beside the table. The copy of Gone With the Wind, along with Grandma Rose standing at a stove, indicate Hartmann’s experience with Judaism as being a religion in which women are traditionally domestic creatures. However, aside from a few odds and ends, there is nothing that is especially faith-oriented about this piece. It is a small slice of memory that has been staged exactly as the artist remembers it, even going so far as to recreate her grandmother’s figure. It is a touching reminder of the role that family plays in a person’s relationship with his or her faith.
Next to “Grandma Rose” is another one of Estelle Laibson’s oil portraits. This time, Einstein surveys the room, looming large and bright pink. Next to this painting is another menorah from Ruth Banta called “Women’s Bowling Team Menorah.” The bottoms of bowling team trophies serve as candleholders. Further along the same wall, a ketubah, or marriage contract, sits. Beth Goldstein created this ketubah with brightly colored flowers and leaves swirling around the text. She makes them by custom order. Like the other rooms of the exhibit, this one strikes a perfect balance between fun and solemnity.
As a whole, the exhibit showcases an incredible variety of art. Though all of it has been united as being about the Jewish faith, it has more to do with each individual woman’s relationship with Judaism. Some, like Ruth Banta, find their journey humorous. Others have more solemn, seemingly traditional and religious outlooks. Age certainly plays a role, with artists like Pam Kravetz falling on the younger end of the spectrum. For the most part, older women created the traditionally religious artworks in the exhibit. “About Faith” showcases some of the artists’ innermost feelings; being presented with these feelings is a privilege. The exhibit, which opened on March 7, will be at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center until April 18.
The Kennedy Heights Arts Center is open Tuesday – Friday, 10 – 5 and Saturday 11 – 4. 6546 Montgomery Rd, Cincinnati, OH 45213. 513-631-4278