A fellowship of artists fuse Judaism and contemporary art

Jewish Artists Collective Chicago bring Jewish themes to new art

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Members of the Jewish Artists Collective Chicago express Jewish themes through a variety of artistic mediums.

Local artist Carol Neiger sees Judaism as "such a rich religion full of history, liturgy, and tradition--and when I sit in temple, I think about how I would express what I experience in art." 

She and 10 other local artists have found their outlet to demonstrate their passion for Judaism through the Jewish Artists Collective Chicago (JACC), a group that formed in 2016 after the inaugural Spertus Institute's Midwest Jewish Artists Lab. After the fellowship ended, the group stayed together to continue exploring Jewish ideas and themes in the arts. 

While each artist defines Jewish content differently, they all use religion as their inspiration for museum exhibitions, lectures and workshops, and educational programming for synagogues and other institutions. The artists meet regularly to brainstorm ideas for new pieces, tour each other's studios, and teach each other new skills.  

During the pandemic, when physical displays of art were challenging to arrange, Neiger envisioned a new project for JACC: a Haggadah. Out of the Narrows: The Artist's Haggadah , which debuted at Passover, features 75 artworks designed to explore Passover themes like "immigration, persecution, diaspora, and the unpredictability of nature"-as well as a way to "create dialogue about contemporary Jewish art" at the Seder table. 

Neiger's Jewish art journey began in high school and flourished during a trip to Israel where she sketched the late Israeli President Shimon Peres during a Knesset speech. She sees her "Judaism as a catalyst for creating art."  

Judith Joseph, also a JACC member, enjoys exploring topics she sees as inherently Jewish that also have a wider reach. She pitched one group exhibition, "What We Carry," focused on the experience of immigration and life in exile. "To us, this relates to the ancient Jewish issue of exodus, but it's not only a Jewish topic," she said. "Any good art exhibit comes from the specifics of the artist's experience but has universal meaning." 

For Joseph and the other artists, some pieces that may not appear Jewish at first glance have Jewish roots. She recently created an installation work about Abraham Lincoln for a University of Illinois Springfield artist residency program using leather strips reminiscent of tefillin to string together Lincoln's words. " Tefillin create lines in your skin like the lines of text, tying together the body, writing, and words of Torah. That was the genesis of this piece about Abraham Lincoln," she said. 

Joseph hung the tefillin-like lines from a black stovepipe hat flocked by birds designed to resemble Hebrew letters. "It's a piece that isn't obviously Jewish," she continued, "but it shows how you can be a Jewish contemporary artist who incorporates things into your own heritage that people may not recognize, but it's there." 

As each project ends, the members look ahead to the future. Ellen Holtzblatt is a JACC member whose works include a series of woodcuts based on the Biblical flood, and paintings featuring her 99-year-old mother, titled after passages from the Song of Songs. She has introduced a new idea: a process-based Psalms study. She and the other artists are studying individual psalms and creating art more focused on the process of creation than the product. "The psalms are rich in imagery and emotional content, and open to personal understanding" that can help the artists further explore their Jewish identity, she said. 

For the collective's artists, taking a personal artistic journey and sharing Jewish art with the world go hand in hand. "Jewish art today is a very vibrant, active community that people aren't necessarily aware of," Joseph said. "There are many Jewish artists in Chicago and all over the world creating contemporary artwork with Jewish themes because we have a Jewish background that we cherish and wrestle with and means a lot to us." 

For more information about the Jewish Artists Collective Chicago, visit jac-chicago.com. 


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