At CANVAS, we advocate for the value of Jewish arts and culture as a powerful way to investigate Jewish identity, including its religious dimensions. Art is an endlessly interesting way to examine Judaism, and given its richness and complexity, it’s only natural to see Jewish artists draw on their heritage in their creative practice.
And yet the commercial end of the art world can be reluctant to support such work; many Jewish artists who explore overtly Jewish themes note they can end up feeling sidelined or ignored in some commercial spaces.
Joel Silverstein is an artist whose vivid, colorful paintings fuse overtly Jewish themes with symbolism derived from popular culture. He explained that “religion can be a problem for galleries and many secular Jews. People get uncomfortable. For others, Jewish art is a problem because they associate it with kitsch and Judaica.”
Artists are resourceful: when they see a gap, they often close it themselves. Silverstein is a Founding Member of the Jewish Art Salon (JAS), a CANVAS grantee network that supports and promotes visual artists who work with Jewish themes.
With over 400 members, JAS is the largest network for artists, curators, and scholars who work with contemporary Jewish art. Through its auspices, artists and arts professionals have seen their careers elevated, their community strengthened, and above all, found a place where Jewish expression is encouraged.
“Artists working for other artists”
One driving force behind JAS is its president, Yona Verwer, who creates atmospheric, evocative artworks in a variety of media. Back in 2008, Verwer began exploring Jewish themes in her own practice. Her idea at first was simply to meet like-minded Jewish artists.
“I didn’t know anybody else who was doing it,” she said. “I wanted to create a community of artists who at least sometimes worked with Jewish themes. I thought we’d get together, see each other’s work, go to openings, maybe we’ll become friends.”
From the very beginning, though, Verwer realized she’d hit on something—a hunger for connection and support among Jewish artists.
“I was hoping to get ten people at the first meeting. We got double that,” she said. Artists like Siona Benjamin (her painting above, Exodus: I See Myself in You), Archie Rand, Helène Aylon, David Wander, and Tobi Kahn were early JAS members and remain involved, along with Founding Members Richard McBee and Silverstein. (Aylon passed away in 2020.)
JAS is largely a volunteer effort: “We are artists working for other artists,” Verwer said. She and her colleagues have worked with focus and enthusiasm to develop the network. To date, in addition to its salons, JAS has organized more than 60 events: exhibitions, workshops, and online discussions that have reached tens of thousands of artists and arts professionals in the US, Europe, and Israel.
“The Book of Yona 8,” an interactive project by Yona Verwer and Katarzyna Kozera (detail).
Creating solid (and fruitful) connections
Like many arts and culture networks during the pandemic, JAS has adapted its meetings to online formats. Every month they hold an online Open Studio, where artists and curators present work on a particular theme, such as feminism in Jewish art, or JAS members at the 2021 Jerusalem Biennale.
The upcoming Open Studio, Anti-Semitism: Documenta 15 promises to be fascinating: a roundtable discussion on Documenta, the German art fair that recently removed a huge artwork due to its antisemitic imagery. (It’s on August 28 at 12pm ET; for the link, sign up for the JAS mailing list.)
JAS also has Art Critiques, where members present works-in-progress for feedback. These presentations tend to be more direct exchanges: “Everyone gets to know everyone else real quick,” Verwer said. Held online, the critiques are also open to the public, but only members may present their work.
As pandemic restrictions have loosened, JAS has returned to in-person events, with two so far this year and two more planned for New York City. It’s an opportunity for members to meet each other and for artists, curators, and art historians to mingle and network. (Your correspondent attended one earlier this year at Richard McBee’s studio and found it a relaxed and convivial gathering packed with friendly people eager to discuss Judaism and Jewish art.)
One interesting aspect of JAS is its inclusion of curators, art writers, and other arts professionals. Art historian Matthew Baigell was an early participant, along with Laura Kruger, at the time senior curator of the Hebrew Union College Museum [now the Bernard Heller Museum].
It’s had a fascinating effect: “In a very real way we’re providing intellectual fodder for people writing about Jewish art,” Silverstein said. “They’re writing about our circle. We’ve created this atmosphere that shows that there is something serious about modern Jewish art, and they’ve paid attention to it.”
Verwer emphasized how these connections have been helpful for the careers of JAS members: “It’s resulted in many exhibition and publication opportunities outside of JAS projects.”
Bringing Jewish art to the larger community
As the group has grown, so has the complexity and ambition of its own projects. Upcoming initiatives include:
- JAS artists contributed artworks to The Samaritans: A Biblical People, an ambitious exhibition on the history and culture of the Samaritans created by the Museum of the Bible and the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. (The works were shown at the Yeshiva University Museum last March. The exhibition opens September 16 at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.)
- JAS is collaborating with Caravan, an interfaith arts nonprofit, on Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity, an exhibition that will examine Jewish, Muslim, and Christian creation narratives. The show will appear in multiple venues in the next spring—at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a church, and a non-denominational space—all within walking distance from each other in New York City.
- Cynthia Beth Rubin and Leah Caroline are creating an online gallery of completed works for institutions like galleries or community centers interested in acquiring or displaying Jewish-themed art. The gallery will include proposals of projects envisioned by artists for potential commissions.
Building bridges between Jewish communities
These broad-ranging initiatives haven’t distracted JAS from its core mission of supporting and connecting Jewish artists and arts professionals. These sentiments are reflected when you talk to members. Goldie Gross, Associate Director of Exhibitions for JAS, said that it’s “a very democratic effort that has made an impact on many artists’ lives. It certainly has made an impact on mine.”
Judith Joseph, a Chicago-based visual artist and educator, feels that in JAS, “the Jewish content in my work is validated and celebrated. In terms of career, JAS provides a network of talented professionals whom I can contact for technical and professional advice, and get feedback on my work, knowing they will understand it.”
Many members commented on the strength of the friendships that have grown out of JAS. The Salon has also served to make connections between different kinds of Jews through their common passion for creative expression.
“Aesthetics and art are a wonderful way to build bridges,” Silverstein said. “I’d lay my life down on that. What I think is amazing is that we have members who are Hasidic, Modern Orthodox, secular, and non-believing. We have gay and trans members. It is so much fun. It’s a beautiful thing, and I am so proud of that.”
Richard McBee, “Adam! Eve!” (detail).