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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Ephraim Keyser , Sculptor and Teacher

In the United States, Teacher Appreciation Week is in the spring. This year May 5-9 is Teacher Appreciation Week, with Tuesday May 6 being designated as National Teacher Day. It is a fitting time to remember Ephraim Keyser, 1850-1937, whose long tenure as a teacher in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute (now The Maryland Institute College of Art or MICA) and the Rinehart School of Sculpture affected the lives and careers of many students.

KeyserpassportIn 1893 Keyser was hired to teach modeling in the Maryland Institute's day school. He also was an instructor in the Freehand Division of the night school. In October of 1900, a third teaching position was added, as Keyser became head of the Rinehart School of Sculpture, which was allied with the Maryland Institute and offered advanced instruction in sculpture. He remained head of the Rinehart School until 1923 but continued to give lectures there and in the day school of the Maryland Institute until shortly before his death.

We can learn about Keyser as a teacher by looking at some of his correspondence that survives and by reading statements about him from his students and contemporaries.

Keyser wanted his students to have the best possible opportunity to learn and tried to acquire proper aids for his classroom. Toward that end, he wrote to the chairman and trustees of the Rinehart Fund in a letter dated October 14, 1909, and asked for a skeleton. He notified them that, "a well articulated and mounted skeleton is a need greatly felt and it would add greatly to the efficiency of the class could one be obtained."  The trustees apparently did not purchase the skeleton that year because on October 14, 1910, he again pleaded to the chairman and trustees for a skeleton. "My work in the class is greatly handicapped by the lack of a well articulated skeleton so necessary to teach the structure of the figure and I earnestly request that one be obtained."

Keyser's concern for his students did not stop after they left his classroom.  In 1907 one of his sculpture students was awarded a Rinehart scholarship to study in Paris. Keyser, concerned that the student, who had never been away from home, would have difficulty adjusting to life in Paris, promptly wrote to his nephew, Leo Stein, asking Leo to look after the student.b2ap3_thumbnail_images.jpg

 Keyser was well regarded by his students as evidenced by the following quote from Isabelle Schultz Churchman in The Rinehart School 75th Anniversary Catalogue, 1896-1971, "Mr. Keyser considered anatomy as vital for both sculptors and painters and would give lectures on it to the whole Institute. The students would flock to hear him…His most popular lecture was the one on the face and head for he would demonstrate the facial expressions and even wiggle his ears, to the delight of all."

A lighthearted comment found in the 1908 yearbook of the Maryland Institute demonstrates esteem for Keyser. The unnamed wag reported in the yearbook that, "With that left paw Keyser could draw."

The September 17, 1924 Baltimore Sun reported on a dinner honoring Ephraim Keyser held at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  During the dinner, J. Maxwell Miller, another Baltimore sculptor and teacher gave a testimonial of his esteem for Mr. Keyser as a teacher. According to Miller, a young student obtained from Keyser, more than guidance in art, but a philosophy of life.

According to the February 21, 1937, Sun newspaper, a past student of Keyser's, Miss Valerie H. Walter,  wanted to honor  her late teacher and called a meeting of his former pupils to  plan a memorial exhibit.  The newspaper reported that Miss Walter had exhibited in New York, Rome, Paris, and London but had never found anything to equal the inspiration she derived from Ephraim Keyser.

Keyser's students are deceased themselves now. It is well that some of their written praise of their former teacher survives to validate the career of this fine educator. 

Photo Credit of Keyser: Jewish Museum of Maryland

Image: A monumental bronze figure of a cavalier

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