From “Cartoonist” to “Jewish Artist”: How Jewish Arts and Culture Networks Gave Me Inspiration and Confidence


Jake Goldwasser (self-portrait above) is a writer and cartoonist who teaches poetry at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poems have appeared in GristThe Spectacle, and The New England Review. His cartooning and humor have been published by The New YorkerAir Mail Weekly, and as a weekly feature in The Sunday Long Read.

You can find out more about Goldwasser on his website. But first, read his illustrated essay on how Asylum Arts and The New Jewish Culture Fellowship (both CANVAS Network Grantees) helped him reconsider his Jewish identity and how he thinks about himself as an artist. It’s an encouraging example of how Jewish arts and culture networks can have a profound impact on an individual artist while forging links between creatives. 

Cartooning has long suffered from an identity crisis. Cartoons, like those found in The New Yorker, are distinct from the comic strips that you find in the funny pages of newspapers. Then there are comic books, and the more recent genre, the graphic novel, which is distinguished from comic books by (a rather vague notion of) literary merit.

One word that isn’t often used to describe these media is art. Cartooning has long been considered as a mere form of entertainment, as lesser than fine art. Only recently has it gained traction as an art form in literary, academic, and artistic institutions.

As a cartoonist, I always thought of art as something distinct from what I was pursuing. My heroes were other cartoonists, like Roz Chast and Barbara Smaller. I loved artists too—Rembrandt, Mondrian, Rothko—but didn’t recognize them as part of my tribe.

Then a coworker forwarded me a call for applications to an Asylum Arts Artist Retreat, a four-day meet-up of emerging Jewish artists in the Bay Area, hosted in a mountain house in Marin County. (Asylum retreats bring together multidisciplinary artists to share their work and learn from Jewish educators and arts professionals.) The idea that I, a cartoonist, might pretend to live up to the label of artist was scary, but I applied anyway.

I was elated when I was accepted, but I was also nervous. I wondered if I would be viewed as a fraud, someone whose art didn’t live up to an ideal. But when I arrived at the retreat, I was immediately met with the radical inclusivity that artist communities foster. We were artists from all kinds of media—performance, book arts, writing—and Jews from various lineages, some observant and some completely secular. My imposter syndrome didn’t evaporate, but I was welcomed as an equal member. We danced together. At night, we howled at the coyotes of the mountain, and the coyotes howled back.

“We howled at the coyotes of the mountain, and the coyotes howled back.”

We had many candid conversations during the week, and I was able to be honest about my insecurity as an artist. What I found when I shared this vulnerability now seems obvious in retrospect—many other artists felt similarly ambivalent about labels and identities, including being Jewish. The benefit of this “community within a community” was its ability to bolster these identities. It gave me permission to own being an artist, which for me was a transformation. It also broadened my understanding of Jewish identity, Jewish art, and Jewish activism and helped me identify my own place in that fabric.

A few months later, the pandemic struck. Every Sunday, for over a year, we met over Zoom, and checked in for accountability on our creative work that week. It was and is one of the most significant spiritual and artistic communities I’ve been a part of.

Later that year, feeling a little more confident about my artwork, I was accepted to the New Jewish Culture Fellowship. I was amazed at and intimidated by the other fellows: dancers and musicians and visual artists and writers with impressive resumes and publication records. And my project was to teach a course on the Jewish graphic memoir, which meant I needed to embody a sense of teacherly authority, too.

When my students and I met over Zoom, my anxiety was put at ease. Rather than feeling like I was instructing a class, I felt that I was at home in a community of like-minded people who were deeply engaged in this art form. Not all the students were Jewish. Not all were cartoonists either. But our shared commitment to engage with the topic of Jewishness and the idiosyncrasies of graphic media broke down the barriers that can easily make a classroom experience feel stilted and hierarchical.

Because the New Jewish Culture Fellowship took place during peak Covid, I didn’t get to experience as many of the other fellows’ projects as I normally might have. I did, however, get to go to Plant Bodies, a ritual designed by the artist Ellie Lobovits, which used the plants of Prospect Park as a jumping-off point for thinking about lineage, both familial and artistic. This was not the kind of thing I used to consider part of my artistic practice—cartoons are pretty much the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from an outdoor botanical ritual. But there, on one of the lawns of Prospect Park, as I learned what goldenrod and pokeberries looked like, my understanding of art expanded.

I haven’t built my artistic identity in lecture halls. I’ve built it in bars and coffee shops, where I’ve felt understood by a small group of likeminded people. Communities like the ones cultivated by fellowships, temporary as they may be, can be a place where artists find confidence in their vision and form long-lasting relationships with colleagues. I owe my identity as an artist to these spaces, and as a Jewish artist in particular.

“…as I learned what goldenrod and pokeberries looked like, my understanding of art expanded.”

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