Life of Jewish Art

Comments and discussion about the role of Jewish visual arts in Jewish civilization.


Evelyn Render Katz and J. K. Thorsen's works of art shown at the JCC in Omaha share a passion for Tikkun Olam, saving the planet. Both Evy and Julie use recycled materials as surfaces to paint on. Julie uses old copper roofing and brass kick plates from an old building that was being torn down. Evy also makes sculptures from objects that would otherwise be thrown away. She paints and then weaves old bicycle inner tubes through chicken wire fencing, creating beautiful decorative containers.Evelyn Render Katz

Evy's paintings, abstracted from a natural starting point, contain bright colors made with broad strokes that appear to be woven with each other. One painting, on an old cabinet door, represents Lot's wife, twisting and turning, losing her bodily integrity just before she is turned into a pillar of salt.

Evy's self-portrait explores her family's Levite heritage, in which she holds her hands in the priestly blessing gesture, which is interesting in itself, as women traditionally can't be priests. (Book of Numbers 6:22, "May Gd bless you and keep you...)  On her sweater is an outline of a dove, symbolizing her hope for peace in the Middle East, which is represented by the domes in the background.

Her 2-d paintings of her baskets capture the essence of the 3-d form where you can see both the inside and outside but also create a non-geometric pattern, reflecting the fact that the materials she draws from are not perfect. Layers of paint create a depth to the images, which look as though you are looking into deep space versus just seeing colors on a canvas.

J. K. Thorsen (Julie Kregness Thorsen) paints a number of studies "en plein aire" using whole oils on repurposed copper and brass. Not only is she recycling used material but she paints landscapes outside, in which she reflects the beauty of natural sunlight and reflections in an abstracted landscape.

Sycamore  Sweetpea Whole Oil 25in x 32in em
Julie's active engagement with nature reflects her environmental concerns. It's very important to her to be outside in gardens, parks, or wilderness, and her imagery reflects her concern for preserving the beauty and integrity of the earth.  Any time that it's possible, Julie rides her bicycle rather than driving. It is her used inner tube that Evy wove into her basket.

Julie uses "whole oils" in which she mixes walnut or unrefined linseed oil, natural oils, and and tried not to use synthetic, poisonous, toxic petrol based thinners as well.  Her images on copper or brass can't be overworked, because once the pigment is placed on the prepared metal, she leaves them alone, so the strokes show the artist's hand.  However, these might be sketches or finished works, but they are not done quickly. Each mark she makes is thought out beforehand.

Her larger landscapes on archival board almost always have a human element, to bring the landscape into focus and give it depth and scale. Greens indicate trees and grass, blues indicate sky and water, and other blocks of color show paths or gardens or flowers, but they are quite abstracted.

Both artists celebrate their positive outlook on life by choosing bright, luscious colors to draw in a viewer, but they also reflect a world that they want to help clean up and heal with their works of art.

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Digging Deep into the Bible

Jewish digital artist Naomi Susan Schwartz Jacobs remembers vividly when Philip Ratner walked into her fourth grade classroom at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and instructed her class on how to make Hebrew letters out of yarn. Jacobs chose the aleph. Many years later Jacobs is still creating Jewish themed art, including using the alphabet. Her recent Kabbalah series of the 10 sephirot includes carefully placed Hebrew names.b2ap3 thumbnail Holocaust-Remembrance-Day

But Jacobs is not only a Jewish artist; she is a Jewish scholar, with a focus on the Hebrew Bible and Judaism during the Second Temple period. Not only has she done numerous paintings related to the Exodus, she has also drawn on the War Scroll and the Book of Enoch. Jacobs says that her goal in making Biblical art is to bring about aspects that are often less emphasized.

Recently she has done a series of paintings on women in the Bible, especially women who were not Israelite. Feeling very strongly the desire that the children of Abraham find peace together, Jacobs painted Hagar My Sister, capturing the moment that Hagar is convinced her son Ishmael is about to die. Other biblical women portrayed by Jacobs include the wise and noble Queen of Sheba and the controversial Queen Athalya of Judah. Jacobs also depicts the less widely known Lady Wisdom, who is a divine figure in the Book of Proverbs. Later identified as the Torah, the phrase “she is a tree of life to all who hold on to her” refers to her.

b2ap3 icon Keter-CrownJacobs focused on another famous woman in the Torah for Passover exhibit at the Imajewnation Museum in Saint Louis. Invoking rainbow colors, a theme in her art in general, Jacobs depicts a dancing Miriam, tambourine in hand, dancing out of the well of water the midrash links to her. Jacobs has also long been drawn to the story of Joseph. “At the moment of meeting his brothers, Joseph realizes that he can destroy them entirely as they are now in his power. But he ultimately chooses to forgive,” says Jacobs. In her painting of Joseph and her brothers, Joseph is depicted as an enormous Sphinx towering about his tiny siblings. His facial expression is enigmatic; perhaps he is not sure yet what he is to do.b2ap3 thumbnail Miriam-s-Well

Jacobs has also felt especially haunted by the Holocaust, in which she lost relatives. In honor of Yom HaShoah Jacobs constructed a black and white painting. Marked by the strokes of barbed war, indistinct figures and ominous smoke convey a sense of muddled horror. Other inspirations have come from God’s address to Job during a whirlwind, Nachman of Bratslav’s image of a narrow bridge, mystical Jewish views of heaven and angels, the act of creation, and of course, Jacob’s ladder, a painting that was inspired by the work of Israeli artist Yaacov Agam.

Jacobs has a website at

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