“United (Jewish) Artists”: Jewish Artist Groups Profiled in Hadassah Magazine

18 Dec

By Aaron Rosen for Hadassah Magazine

The 'Torah Kittel' from Jacqueline Nicholls's kittel collection. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Nicholls.

The ‘Torah Kittel’ from Jacqueline Nicholls’s kittel collection. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Nicholls.

On a sodden late autumn evening, I tromp through the byzantine streets of Spitalfields in the East End of London. A couple of wrong turns and drenched trouser legs later I find myself at the humble entrance to Sandys Row Synagogue, the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in London. Sandys Row lies on a cultural fault line. It is at the heart of what used to be the city’s Jewish quarter and is now a mecca for artists. It is the perfect meeting place for the London Jewish Artists’ Salon.

The salon was started by artist Jacqueline Nicholls and arts producer Juliet Simmons in 2012 and has grown to well over 100 members, including artists of all stripes—sculptors, graphic novelists and performance artists—as well as students and scholars. While London has two major venues for displaying Jewish art, the Ben Uri Gallery and the London Jewish Museum, Nicholls and Simmons recognized a lack of opportunities for artists to interact. Their recipe is simple: Put a bunch of clever, creative Jews in one place, leaven with wine, cake and self-deprecating humor—all English specialties—and see what happens.

For artists like the young sculptor Benedict Romain, presenting his work at salons and seeing other artists share works in progress have pushed his art in new directions. “Though I come from a Jewish household, my surroundings, friendship groups and education have always been very secular,” he says, “and making Jewish art is something that did not occur to me previously, where now I have made a conscious decision to explore it.” This turn has begun to bear fruit for Romain, who is currently preparing for a show next summer at the London Jewish Museum called “The Invention of Ritual,” in which he will respond to some of the institution’s more eccentric examples of ceremonial art, from an Art Deco etrog container to a Kiddush cup with a moustache protector.

The salon formula is not unique to London. In recent years, Jewish art salons have been springing up around the world with increasing frequency. Some groups can claim an older provenance, including the American Jewish Artists Club, which was founded in Chicago in 1926 and continues to exhibit across the Midwest. However, the vast majority of Jewish arts societies date back less than 15 years. It is an exciting phenomenon whose success has even shocked many of the salon members themselves.

A watershed moment came in 1999 with the formation of the Artist Beit Midrash at the Skirball Center in New York by Rabbi Leon Morris and Tobi Kahn, a charismatic painter and sculptor. As its name suggests, the Beit Midrash brings artists together to study Jewish texts on a regular basis, challenging them to find new ways to visualize Jewish subjects. “It was a way for Jewish artists who were interested in Judaism and were already creating art to merge the two,” Kahn says.

Read the rest at this link.

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