Susan Schwalb: Art Emerges from Jewish Identity

Though Susan Schwalb says she has never thought of herself as a religious person, she identifies with her Jewishness, even if her artwork doesn’t carry specific Jewish themes.

But some of her work emerges from personal experience. Creation #6 (left) covers a theme that has fascinated artists for hundreds of years. Clear references to the tablets of Moses are central to the artwork. As her inspiration, she points to the illuminated medieval manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was composed in Barcelona and carried into exile by a Jewish family in 1492 until it reached its final home in the Bosnian capital.

On her website, she describes the Creation series: “In general, I have stayed close to the symbolic imagery of this manuscript. Unlike familiar Christian portrayals of the creation, the image of God is not represented. But sun, moon, and earth are clearly rendered by circular forms; I interpreCreation as visualed by Susan Schwalbt the arc that encloses the picture as a symbol of the universe. The drawing within the large circle, though abstract, was intended to suggest something of land, sea, and sky.”

A series of works on paper and wood entitled Judean Desert is tied directly to her Jewish identity. First was a visit to Israel, when she drove extensively through the desert, in and out of sandstorms. A second influence was a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the training ground for rabbis of the Conservative denomination. While examining illuminated manuscripts, she says she realized that the spacing guidelines were done in silverpoint. These grids counterpointed with memories of the desert to become the basis for the series, including Sacred Land #3 (below).b2ap3_thumbnail_Schwalb.png

Schwalb has continued to work with silverpoint, an ancient technique of drawing with silver on a prepared surface, which was commonly practiced during the Renaissance. She has been using the technique since 1974 and it has been undergoing something of a revival today. Her Strata #227,1998, 9x9in, silver/aluminum/copperpoint on clay coated paper, was just used as the cover for The Luminous Trace, a just-published book on the history of metalpoint drawing by Thea Burns.

In an interview, Schwalb said she sees herself as an “experimenting person.” “Things change my work,” she says. “Things that I experience as a person. Things I read, see in a museum. Something strikes me, a color, an image, and it creeps into my work. I don’t always know where it comes from. Each work leads to another. Sometimes it involves a series and I make one from another.”

Schwalb grew up in New York City and b2ap3_thumbnail_Sacred.png had two residencies in Israel in 1994 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, and the Tel Aviv Artists’ Studios. “I am a spiritual person,” she says, “and I do believe in God but I am not terribly “observant”, although I do celebrate all the Jewish holidays and go to Sabbath services on an irregular basis.”

However she practices her religion, her artwork stands for itself. She cannot point out specifically what is “Jewish” in her work, but doesn’t hold back that her Jewishness is part of who she is. “I don’t start out any work with Jewish subject matter,” she says. “I identify myself as a Jewish person, as a woman, as an artist, as a feminist.”

Schwalb’s work is included in collections in museums around the world. Her Creation #6 was included in the JAE’s The Art of the High Holidays DVD. For more information on Susan Schwalb, visit her website,

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Passover, Monday 22 April 1940

It's said that "memory" is an engrossing theme for Jews ...

It's the first night of Pesach, Monday 22 April 1940. The photo with the women at the right is of the Hershfield family seder. Zaideh officiates, flanked by two grandsons, and Baba is to his left. Their sons and daughters-in-law are ranged at the table in descending ages.  My father Leible, age 31, is 3rd from bottom left; my mother Babe, his 23 year old bride of six months, is 2nd from bottom right. Two grandsons and a grand-daughter at the foot of the table, an infant grandson in the carriage in the kitchen. On the fridge sits the precious samovar that Baba and Zaideh brought with them to Winnipeg from Zhitomir in 1910, and that I've seen at my cousins' all my life. I'm years away from being born.b2ap3_thumbnail_03a_Hershfield-photo.png

Through a YIVO "share" on Facebook, I find a photo held by Yad Vashem of another family seder, this one in Warsaw that same Monday 22 April 1940. The similarity between the photos is unbalancing, foreboding: women on one side men on the other line the linen covered table, wine-filled kiddush cups, candles, plates of matzah, women bare-headed, men with Fedoras, haggadahs, even flowers on the Warsaw table. A time of celebration, a time of despair, a few goose-steps away from being burnt to a crisp.

Hershfield family seder, 22 April 1940, Winnipeg, Canada

 Memory weaves in and out of my conceptual image-making. I gather, save, archive. My work is digital: I photograph, download, alter and manipulate in Photoshop, scan, import my writing from Illustrator, and then produce inkjet prints on archival paper with archival inks. These days, I'm  also sending image files on-line to the photo lab at Costco. Yet with these two Passover photos I couldn't bear to do anything manipulative except for a bit of dodging here and there, trying to bring some life to even one of those Warsaw faces. And, yes, I did repair a rip in the Warsaw photo: their lives were torn from them, but the image of them needn't be torn. Besides, who knows when the photo was damaged, perhaps at some careless moment decades after the shutter clicked. Hardly worth curatorial agonizing.

Unknown family seder, 22 April 1940, Warsaw b2ap3_thumbnail_03b_Warsaw-photo.png

My dear family almost all gone now. Those dear unknowns from the ghetto for whom, perhaps, this seder was their last, most likely gone, too. Unknown, unknowable, unbearable.  Not even identified the way Leible did on the back of our family snapshot.

In my print Passover, Monday 22 April 1940, I juxtaposed the photos to highlight and focus on the immense mystery of it all, not the myths and stories of the Passover, but the painful mystery of that Warsaw family, it's disappearance, who they were, what they meant to one another, what they did, who loved and who resented whom, what might have been, what was never to be. Some of the women could be as young as my mother, but no one looks happy, and no one looks at the  camera capturing them forever.  For me and I hope for you, dear reader, the focus is also on a mystery equally as great as that of the Warsaw family, that of the inexorable passage of time that will turn us all eventually into dust.





Passover, Monday 22 April 1940
Inkjet from a digital matrix, on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper, 18" x 12," 2013



For a larger view of this image, please click here.


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