I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.
“Resistance” by Dorothy Doherty. Part of the Beyond the Surface exhibition now on at the Zack Gallery until Sept. 8. (photo from gallery)
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver has opened its doors again, at least partially, and the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery is presenting a new exhibition, Beyond the Surface. Art lovers can make appointments to tour the show in person. It features five local artists – Janice Beaudoin, Olga Campbell, Dorothy Doherty, Jane McDougall and Ellen Pelto – and the Jewish Independent interviewed them recently by email about their art, and how the pandemic has affected them.
“This exhibit was originally scheduled for June 4,” said Campbell. “Because of COVID, it was a bit late. It was hung on June 18, and the virtual opening through Zoom was on July 8.”
Last year, the five artists attended a five-day workshop in Victoria led by California artist Michael Shemchuk, though some of them had met before then.
“Dorothy and I have been friends for 45 years,” said Pelto. “I met her in a clay class she was instructing. I’ve also known Olga for eight years.”
“I met Olga Campbell in various art workshops in Vancouver and then spent five years on campus with her at Capilano College between 2008 and 2014,” said Doherty. “We took some classes together and worked independently in others, all the while growing in friendship.”
Doherty, who has taken Shemchuk’s workshops several times over the years, met McDougall and Beaudoin at one or another of those sessions. And Shemchuk’s teaching, especially on the paper layering technique, has been instrumental in the birth of this Zack show.
“A couple of us thought that it would be interesting to show some of the work that we had created in his workshop,” Campbell recalled. “We thought that five [artists] would be a good number to demonstrate the cohesiveness of the art, as a result of us all using the same techniques, but also showcase each of our individual styles.”
Doherty came up with the title, Beyond the Surface. She said the rest of the group quickly agreed. “I think the word surface resonated with us because we all do unique surface treatments,” she said. “Surface is really important in art and in life, but we always want people to look beyond appearances – learn about people and artwork in greater depth.”
To produce the works, the artists manipulated a surface in many ways. They layered, sanded, abraded and painted it; even cut into it to reveal what lay beneath.
Beaudoin elaborated: “Beyond the Surface is the ideal name for this show, as the technique we all used is based on the process of layering paper and paint. As we add and subtract paint and materials by sanding or scraping, each artist makes decisions about what elements to reveal and what to hide. The final surface is one that often appears aged and somewhat mysterious, providing the viewer with enticing glimpses of things that are hidden beneath the surface and leaving them to wonder what has been covered.”
In a way, this show’s unusual story echoes its title as well. While a traditional vernissage is an event where art connoisseurs mingle inside a gallery, the pandemic forced Zack Gallery director Hope Forstenzer to show and promote the art digitally.
“She did a virtual tour of our show at the JCC,” said Campbell, “and she is also interviewing each of us in our studios live via Zoom, so that people can see our art and have a virtual tour of our studios.”
The artists mused about the changes in their field and in gallery procedures wrought by COVID-19.
“My sense is that pandemic or no pandemic, artists will always make art. The biggest challenge is going to be getting the art out to the world to enjoy,” said Beaudoin. “There is always a basic human desire to stand before a work of art in person. That is definitely the best way to engage with a painting. However, there is a generation of media savvy younger art buyers who are used to purchasing things by seeing them on a computer screen. I think that galleries that are working to provide virtual viewing options are the ones that will survive. The art world, like all industries, really has no choice but to adapt.
“I also feel that it must be acknowledged that many people still find comfort in seeing art in person. The art world is known for its fun social events – and we know now that the comfort of human contact cannot be fully recreated online. My sense is the future of art shows and museums will be a carefully managed balance of socially distanced in-person viewing and virtual showings.”
“I have been fortunate,” said Campbell. “I continue to meet regularly with three other artists. We create our art at home and then share it with each other on Zoom. With another artist friend, I have been playing Photoshop tennis online. One person sends the other an image, the other person adds another image through Photoshop, and this continues until the piece is finished.… I think that we are in this for the long haul; two years, maybe more. I think that, in the future, art shows will continue in real life – in fact, it is already happening – but I do think that some of the virtual things will remain.”
“It’s hard to say how the pandemic will change exhibition practices in the future,” said Doherty. “I do appreciate all the online exhibits, as there would be no other way to see many of these exhibitions. But I really believe there is no substitute for the gallery system as we know it, with wonderful opening nights and the ability to see the artwork in person. We need that direct exchange of human energy, and the feedback we get from visitors and friends. We need access to art in galleries and to artifacts in museums – it’s how we learn. I have always said, despite my gratitude for online Zoom meetings, that the human experience is not the same. It’s flat instead of three-dimensional. We are looking at screens. We are not looking at the real person. There is no exchange of human energy online. We need direct human contact. That’s what we need to live happy, successful lives.”
For McDougall, the pandemic hasn’t changed much for her. “I think most visual artists are used to working in isolation. My art practice has remained the same,” she said. “Listening to CBC in my studio keeps me up to date on the world and, of course, most of the talk is about COVID. I feel grateful to live in B.C.
“I am generally a positive person and my thoughts reflect that. I think there will be more of an online presence for art,” McDougall continued. “And, like Hope Forstenzer’s example throughout this show, there will be interactive web calls and taped studio visits. Because of that, artists will become more involved in the galleries. Long term, I think the pandemic will pass. Art galleries and museums will always be an important element in education and sharing the past. Nothing will replace the up close and personal view of art.”
Pelto agreed. COVID has changed exhibition practices, she said, and “will inevitably change the future practice of making, exhibiting, buying and selling art. However, people will always need to see art. That will not change. People need to see it to appreciate the scale, proportions, richness of colours and textures, and to feel their evocative response. Some of the positive outcomes include the creation of more and stronger online artistic communities. The online presence increases exposure for artists, and interesting themes will emerge in art that will define the human condition of COVID.”
Beyond the Surface runs until Sept. 8.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Avram Finkelstein will be participating in the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo by Alina Oswald)
A lot of it feels familiar, said New York-based artist and activist Avram Finkelstein about the current situation in the United States. The same American institutions that failed during the HIV-AIDS crisis are failing to effectively deal with the pandemic. And, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, cities were also being burned in America.
“It’s sad to think that we will be having the same struggles,” he told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview last week. “But, also, as you get older, you realize that progress is not a pendulum swing from left to right, it’s actually a spiral going forward and things do move to the right and they move to the left, but [there is] incremental change. So, part of me feels like we’re seeing the dying gasp of a world that I hope we’re leaving behind, and I see a world in the future that I want to live in. So that’s kind of helping me through this.”
Finkelstein was scheduled to come to Vancouver next month to participate in the Queer Arts Festival.
A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, as well as the political group ACT UP, he is the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images (University of California Press, 2017). His artwork is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but a few places, and his work has been shown around the world. He was set to unveil one of his new works in Vancouver. As it is, with the restrictions required to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he will be helping open the festival remotely, as part of a panel discussion chaired by curator Jonny Sopotiuk, which will also provide viewers with a tour of the festival’s art exhibition.
“I have a large mural that was going to be in the exhibition and now it’s going to be in a virtual space,” said Finkelstein. “I’m very excited about this piece and the fact that Jonny chose it – it’s the first time I’ve shown it…. I had a commission to do a work for the Shed, which is a new art space in New York, and, while I was waiting for the weaving tests of the final pieces – it’s a very large jacquard weaving – I decided to start drawing from the same source material as the cartoon for the weaving. I hadn’t drawn since recovering from a stroke; I had a stroke about two years ago…. I then realized that my hand isn’t my own, my body is no longer my own.”
The source material, he explained, “is a portrait of a gender-non-conforming friend who later transitioned. The work was all about corporeality as an abstraction and the ways in which we’re allowed to look at certain things, and what is public and what is private about gender and sexuality. And then, all of sudden, I realized, I’m actually talking about my own body in these drawings because my own body is not my own body anymore. I realized that I had made this sharp pivot from an abstract, theoretical idea of corporeality to this kind of war or dance, or I don’t know how to describe the physical process of having to use your entire body to hold a pencil.”
Despite the health, political and other challenges Finkelstein has faced, he remains hopeful.
“We’re trained to think that, if we don’t have hope, then the only thing that’s left is despair, but the truth is, hope isn’t so much the point – it’s the horizon that hope is sitting on and, so long as you can see a horizon, I think that, to me, is the same thing,” he said.
“I’m Jewish, as you know, and I think that Jews have a very different relationship to memory and to witnessing. If your people have been chased all over the globe for centuries, you take a long view. You sleep with one eye open, but you take a long view, and I think, therein, I’m eternally hopeful.”
In an interview in 2018, Finkelstein predicted that the situation in the United States would worsen before it improved.
“Which is another thing about being Jewish – you learn that there is no such thing as paranoia because it’s all real,” he said. “So, one could have seen, as plain as the nose on one’s face, where America was heading. And, in actual fact, what happened with Trump’s election was, we’ve joined the international march of global totalitarianism…. And, it’s not about to get really bad, it’s really, really bad. It’s really bad and I think that, here again, you can’t be Jewish and not think – not think your entire life, actually – in some way being prepared for, OK, what are the risks I’m willing to take if this happens? How far would I be willing to fight for other people if that happens. The shadow of Nazi Germany never escaped your consciousness.”
So how does Finkelstein conquer the fear?
“I guess I’ve replaced it with anxiety,” he said, laughing. But, he added, “I don’t know why I’m not fearful. I think that I was just raised – a day doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded of another lesson or another incident or another part of Jewish-American social history in the 20th century that my family was directly there for. I almost feel like I’m the Zelig of the left. All the stories you would tell my mother or my father, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there. We were there at the Robeson riots. Oh, yeah, we were there when they closed The Cradle Will Rock and everyone walked down the street’ – exactly the way it was in the last scene in Tim Robbins’ movie. When I saw it, it seemed too preposterous, I called my mother, said, ‘Could that have happened?’ And she started singing the song that Emily Watson sings in the film.
“So, I think I have such a sense of self that one could interpret it as fearlessness, but I think that it would be more accurate to say I was not given an alternative role model. I was raised to feel the suffering of others and, if other people are suffering, there’s no night’s sleep for me. So, there’s really no option – you’re either closing your eyes to something terrible or you’re doing everything you can to try and make it less terrible. And I think that that’s the Jewish condition.”
He described Jews as being like queer people. “We are everywhere,” he said. “We’re in every culture, we’re in every race, we’re in every gender, we’re in every country. We have every type of ethnic community that we surround ourselves with. An Ethiopian Jew is different from an Ashkenazi Jew, but we’re still all Jews.”
Though raised by atheists, he said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone more Jewish than I am or than my family, but Jews are prismatic. We are many things. Consequently, I feel like I can’t speak on behalf of other Jews, I can only speak on behalf of myself.
“Likewise, I’ve always had people of colour in my family; I just always have. And, I learned very early on back in the ’60s, when the civil rights movement was fragmented between King and Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, and everyone was choosing sides, I think that’s another example of what I’m talking about – there are many ways in which to be black. And so, I don’t feel like what I have to say about this current moment is anywhere near as important, essential, vital, critical … [as] a person of colour – what a person of colour has to say about this moment is much more important.”
Finkelstein was one of the minds behind the now-iconic Silence=Death poster, which has been adapted over the years by many people. A variation of it could be seen in at least one of the recent protests. The original iteration encourages viewers to use their power and, for example, vote. In general, working towards solutions is an important part of Finkelstein’s activism.
“I think critiques are easier,” he said. “I think also we mistake public spaces, we mistake the commons, as a declarative space. I tend to think of it as an interrogative space. I think that, even in late-stage capitalism, when someone is trying to get you to put your money in a bank or go buy a soft drink, there’s something Socratic about the gesture of trying to get you to do something … you’re responding to it, you’re engaged in it, and that’s the interrogative part that I think is easy to overlook. And I think that’s where the answers are.
“I think that the way that the Silence=Death poster is structured is it’s really like a bear trap. We worked on it for nine months – the colour has certain codes and signifiers, and the triangle has another set of codes and we changed the colour of the triangle from the [concentration] camps and inverted it to obfuscate some of the questions about victimhood. And the subtext has two lines of text, one that’s declarative and one that’s interrogative, and the point size forces you into a performative interaction.”
This poster and other work with which Finkelstein has been involved include aspects that “people are very afraid to experience,” he said, “which is fallibility, mess-making and tension. And I find all of those things as generative, as kindness, support, community. They’re differently generative and … hearing so many people who are trying to figure out how to find their way in, as white people, into the conversations that are happening in America right now, is the same struggle as a young queer person trying to find their way into the AIDS crisis. I mentor a lot of young queer artists and activists and the first thing they say, their immediate impulse is, I have no right to this story, I wasn’t here, I didn’t live through it. To which my response is, immediately, you have every right to the story – it’s your story, it’s the story of the world…. Race is a white person’s problem. People of colour are paying the price for it, but the problem, the genesis of the problem, is whiteness. And we have to figure out how to talk about it…. But I think now is the time for listening.”
He said, “We have to know what our responsibilities are and this goes back to Judaism – our responsibilities as witnesses. You can’t let your discomfort change the importance of this moment or overshadow the importance of this moment.”
One of the things Finkelstein does is teach social engagement via flash collectives. “I think we’re never put into a position where people mentor our personhood,” he said. “We have people mentor us as computer programmers or healthcare providers or tax accountants or artists or writers, but … there’s something primeval which is missing in the way we’re acculturated, and the flash collective is almost shamanistic in that regard; it taps into this primal thing that is quite astonishing when you let it out.”
Understanding that he will not live forever, he said “the Silence=Death poster casts a very mighty shadow and it makes it very difficult for people to figure out how to make new work, if that’s what they think it has to be…. It became obvious to me that I could be talking about Silence=Death until the day I drop, but, one day, I am going to drop and I want other people to start making those new works and I thought this would be a way to get people to make new work.”
He described the collectives, which teach political agency, as being “like a stew of the top 10 hits of grassroots organizing in a condensed workshop that’s tailored to the individuals in the room.”
He said, “I believe that I don’t necessarily have to change the world because I know that there could be a teenager in 2050 who sees something that someone I worked with did that made them think of something else that I never would have thought of. That is the point of the work, not the how do I fix it before I’m gone, which is the dilemma of Larry Kramer [who passed away last month]. He really thought, and I think it’s really male, but it’s very men of a certain generation also – he really thought that he could fix the AIDS crisis, and it didn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow for most of what Finkelstein shared with the Independent about Kramer, who he described as “a complicated person.”
Kramer was a rhetorician, said Finkelstein. “And I’m a propagandist. We’re both rhetoricians in a way, but what was the dividing line that made Larry incapable of understanding the work that I did?… I felt like I understood his process better than he understood mine. And I started to think, well, here’s the difference between a person who articulates their rage with words and a person who articulates their rage with every tool in the toolbox…. Not to make myself sound superior, but I realized that I think of rage as sculptural; he thought of rage as rhetorical. I think of rhetoric as sculptural, I think of it as casting a shadow and activating social spaces. And I think that he was a Jewish gay man of a different generation and a lot of his rage was tied into his personal struggles. And I did not have those. I had other personal struggles, but I did not have them.”
As part of the Queer Arts Festival, Finkelstein will lead a flash collective on the question, “What does queer public space mean in a 21st-century pandemic?” He hopes the resulting work will be shown in a public space.
For more information about the festival, visit queerartsfestival.com. The next issue of the JI will feature an interview with QAF artistic director and Jewish community member SD Holman.
“Midnight Sun” by Monica Gewurz, who was to show her work at Art Vancouver, which has been postponed. (image from Monica Gewurz)
The Jewish Independent last spoke with Vancouver artist and Jewish community member Monica Gewurz when she participated in Art Vancouver in 2018. She was to be a participant in this year’s international art fair, which has been indefinitely postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As a professional artist,” said Gewurz, “it is important to exhibit at high-calibre international art exhibition shows. Art Vancouver provides me with a platform to display my works as well as sell them – this will be my fifth time exhibiting there.”
Gewurz was to share a booth with fellow contemporary artist Pam Carr. Previous Art Vancouver fairs have drawn more than 10,000 art appreciators and collectors to the Vancouver Convention Centre. The annual event is billed as “Western Canada’s largest contemporary art fair.”
“In the past year,” Gewurz told the Independent, “I have successfully increased the number of juried exhibitions in B.C. and the U.S., including one in Singapore. My sales and my collector base has increased, as well.”
Gewurz’s artwork can be found in corporate and private collections throughout Canada, the United States, Europe, Mexico, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan.
Artistically, she said, for this past year, “the focus of my work has become more introspective and philosophical, with less emphasis being put on the literal depiction of the landscape and more on the feelings evoked by the experience.
“The expansiveness and the quiet energy of coastal British Columbia are strongly evident in the imagery and the palette of my recent paintings, which are meant to be a transformative interpretation rather than a literal rendering of the coastal landscape,” she explained. “Using mixed media and metallic paints and foils has allowed me to develop a personalized style that translates and interprets nature and iconography through layers of transparent glazes.”
Another new development since the Independent spoke with Gewurz is that her art is featured on both a wine bottle and on a line of skincare products. While she has always created wearable art, such as jewelry, this foray into commercial art is different.
“‘Ebbing’ was chosen through a juried competition to become the label of Safe Haven fortified wine of the 40 Knots winery,” she said. “A portion of the wine sales goes to support the Kus-kus-sum salmon habitat restoration by Project Watershed, an NGO. Because I am a supporter of environmental causes, I donated the artwork.”
The vineyard also produces its own line of skincare products and, said Gewurz, “The owner of the 40 Knots winery commissioned the artwork ‘Waves of Tranquility’ to be featured in all VinoSpa product labels, using some of the lees of their red wines. The painting was created to capture the feeling of and tranquility and restfulness provided in all VinoSpa skincare lines and their associated spa.”
The winery website explains that Gewurz mixed the lees from the fortified wine with acrylic gels and paints to create the colours of “Waves of Tranquility.” It notes, “Influenced by Turner, ‘the painter of light,’ and Asian traditional painting, Monica’s abstract landscapes aim to reflect truthfully the moods of nature. Captured on canvas or in silver, her work draws on the exceptional landscape of the Pacific West Coast.”
Gewurz was to bring a new collection of work to this year’s Art Vancouver. Her bio noted, “She is excited to share her highly textured, iridescent, colourful acrylic and oil abstract paintings, often worked with a palette knife, unconventional tools and metallic patinas.
“Texture and thin layers of colour are two key elements in her work, as she aims to blur the line between painting and sculpture. She invites you to touch the work, by integrating natural and man-made repurposed materials, including textiles, paper and plastic, each layer of colour and medium allowing you to experience the paintings – perhaps sparking memories, perhaps freeing your mind to wander, imagine and dream. Through materials and her own travels and life experiences, she strives to make work that can be understood across cultures.”
A harsh critique early in her career didn’t stop Victoria-based Jessica Ruth Freedman from doing what she loves – painting – and becoming a successful artist.
“I was born in Montreal, and then my brother and I were whisked away to Kibbutz Ein Dor in the Galilee,” Freedman told the Independent. “After a few years there, we returned to reside in Calgary. I attended what was then called the Calgary Hebrew School-Talmud Torah. I was filled with the love for Jewish lifecycle events, food, and being part of a community. Apart from a fabulous school experience, one episode of failing an art assignment in kindergarten stands out. We were told to pick a rock and paint it like a ladybug. Creatively, I painted it black on red, rather than red on black, so that the white dots would stand out better. I sadly was singled out as an art failure in front of the whole class!
“Fast forward a few years, a career as a contemporary dancer, yoga teacher and accountant, [then] I returned to my love of painting,” said Freedman, who has a bachelor of arts, with a major in dance and a minor in fine arts, from Simon Fraser University. “At this time, I had moved to Victoria to chase the warmer weather and, after a few holidays in nearby Hawaii, I was hooked on representing the juxtaposition of botanicals versus the urban in my artwork.”
Freedman is one of the artists participating in Art Vancouver, which has been postponed from its scheduled dates, April 16-19, because of COVID-19.
“These days, the traditional way of selling art through a gallery is changing,” she said. “Many galleries are shutting their doors due to increasing rents and a growing online marketplace. Art fairs give individual artists an opportunity to connect directly with new collectors. I also love the communal spirit of the artists working and showing together. There is a lot of sharing of process and information that goes on at these types of events. Since I live on the West Coast, Art Vancouver is the best art fair to participate in, and Vancouverites are a knowledgeable art bunch.”
She said she likes to create fresh work for each art fair. “I consider carefully the city, people, environment and sizes of artwork,” she said. “At this Art Vancouver, I will be debuting some non-traditional materials in my paintings, all while keeping the abstract botanical theme. My aim is to always create work that uplifts and inspires, and I attempt to do this through colour, theme and design.”
Freedman works in acrylic, ink and mixed media. She has exhibited internationally and her work is in private and public collections around the world. On her website, she notes, “My journey through life can only be described as an artistic DIY.” She says she “was always the child who wanted to be left alone to explore and discover” and yet that it is her “path in life to share my art to celebrate connection, serenity and humour and to share this journey together.”
“Many artists will agree that one needs to look inward to find the source of creation,” Freedman explained of her need for both solitude and community. “Even realist painters rely on an internal compass based on technique and free expression. As a Jewish person, I honour the spirit of creation within me, and I also pay tribute to the concept of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. I feel fortunate to explore the creative side of myself for a living, but I also feel it’s necessary to do good work in the world. This might mean volunteering for Jewish events, donating my paintings to charity auctions, or just being a positive person with a solution-focused outlook.”
For Jewish community members who come to see her work at Art Vancouver, the dates for which will be released in the near future, Freedman said, “Surprisingly, a fair amount of Hebrew – my first language – appears in my paintings. If readers come visit my booth, I’ll look forward to pointing it out!”
Though she paints the natural world, Freedman noted a certain irony – she is not very good at caring for actual plants. “I am lucky that I can send my husband out to purchase plants – I paint them and he cares for them,” she said. “I am mostly fascinated by the riot of colour, of chaos, that Hashem has let loose in the natural world. The process of growth and decay, while natural, is obviously hard on us humans but is a natural part of life. I am also very interested in urban design that incorporates the natural world in ways that increase sustainability, beauty, communication and wonder.”
Much of artist Seth Book’s work has been influenced by his maternal grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor, including “A Series I Don’t Want to Continue” – “One work to symbolize each character tattooed on his arm, and each million Jewish people that were massacred,” explained Book. (photo from Seth Book)
“My art began as solely for the enjoyment of creating work that was esthetically pleasing, but it has since changed to serve a didactic purpose and to provide awareness to social issues and histories that are important to me and my family,” Seth Book told the Independent. “A significant part of my work is to keep the legacy of my grandfather, survivors, and Jewish history alive.”
Book is a member of the third generation. “My mother’s father was a Holocaust survivor, originally from Romania. He went through a few camps, Auschwitz being one of them. Since seventh grade, I have completed a significant amount of research on his story, directly with him while he was alive, as well as after his passing, and, like many other survivors, he had an unbelievable journey,” explained Book, whose work will be on display at Art Vancouver April 16-19, in the unlikely event that the spread of COVID-19 is under control by then and the fair is allowed to take place.
“His presence in my early life has been extremely impactful on the way I live and see the world,” said Book of his grandfather, “and this is what has influenced my art. I truly believe that, in school, work and life in general, I have gotten my tenacity, conscientiousness and resilience from my zaide. As I learned more about his life and what he fought so hard to build for my family, he became a strong source of motivation and drive to succeed in my life. I still uncover bits and pieces about his life after the Holocaust.”
While his art for the past few years has been primarily concerned with his grandfather, the Holocaust, survivors in general, and present-day antisemitism, Book said the past year has been “transformational.”
“My connection to my grandfather allowed me to begin my work at this starting point relative to my own history,” he said, “but it has since expanded to include broader focuses, such as the current generation living on the legacies of survivors, as well as generational trauma and current events affecting the global Jewish community.”
Book, who works at a branding agency doing graphic design and writing copy for clients, is set to finish his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of British Columbia. His coursework has allowed him to learn about and use many different mediums, he said, “including drawing, digital media, photography, painting and metalwork.”
Born in Vancouver, Book has lived in the Dunbar area his entire life. He attended Vancouver Talmud Torah from preschool to Grade 7, and then went to St. George’s School for his secondary education. He continued his involvement in the Jewish community via Temple Sholom, he said, “where I participated in the confirmation class in 10th grade and then taught at the Sunday school in 11th and 12th grade. I was also lucky enough to travel to Israel with my family on the Temple Sholom trip after my bar mitzvah.”
He was well-versed in diverse media long before his university years.
“Growing up, I was always interested in creativity: building structures, doing crafts, colouring, and especially playing with LEGO,” he said. “I recall being hilariously picky with colours and colouring inside the lines when drawing with other kids as early as preschool; I always find it funny to this day how much it bothered me as a toddler to see other toddlers using odd colour combinations or messy drawing.
“This interest in art was then supplemented by Colette Leisen’s art class all throughout VTT – it was probably my favourite in elementary school. This carried on into various art classes in high school, including drawing, animation, graphic design, ceramics and painting.”
Book said it is hard to define his artistic style because he has always been interested in finding new mediums and approaches. But he has less need for such definition since he began university. Since then, he said, “I have been able to let go of that and continue exploring what interests me rather than being labeled as a ‘painter’ or a ‘photographer.’ I always find that different mediums have such an incredibly unique ability to succeed in accomplishing a piece better than others. In other words, certain mediums are more effective than others in conveying certain ideas or concepts for varying projects. That being said, I try to use the best option I can for each work, trying not to limit myself in expertise. I can always try and learn! I did not work with metal until late 2019, and have already created two works using it, and I am very satisfied with how they turned out.”
Book, who has a background in business management in addition to his art training, said he first heard about Art Vancouver through a summer internship program he took part in a couple years ago, and has kept in close contact with the team there since. “I have loved working with the organizers and enjoyed attending the event every year,” he said. “I quite like the efforts they make to advance the art scene in my hometown and can’t wait to be a part of it as an artist this time.”
Hopefully, he will get that chance, but, even if Art Vancouver is canceled or postponed because of COVID-19, Book is an emerging artist whose works will available at other venues at other times.
He was able to tell the Independent about two pieces he was planning on bringing to the art fair. While he had not firmly decided on all the pieces yet, he said, “I selected the works from my portfolio which I have found to be the most striking, the works that I have received most compliments about, as well as the works which I feel represent my wide practice the best when shown together.”
One of those creations is called “A Series I Don’t Want to Continue,” which comprises six digitally rendered vinyl decals adhered to six two-foot-by-three-foot melamine sheets.
“A series opens an idea and simultaneously closes it,” reads the work’s description. “The values in between the first and last work tell a story or convey some sort of meaning through the relationships formed with the works in between.”
It continues, “A series of works in any media all relate to one another through consecutive nature. Labeling a group of entities as part of a series can bind them together, locking them out from further creation or reproduction. This is where the concept of my work integrates itself reflexively within the format of a series work. Through this work, I explore the contained value of past events, and particularly the Holocaust, in relation to my grandfather’s story.
“When he passed away, the evaluation of his extreme tenacity and hard work to establish our family and provide futures for generations to come was recognized more than ever. ‘Never again,’ the words that often cross our mind, could not be stronger upon recounting the horrors he endured. Never again, but also never forget. These events happened. They must be taught and preserved, but they are contained, and must never grow…. One work to symbolize each character tattooed on his arm, and each million Jewish people that were massacred. There will not be a seventh work in this series.”
The other piece that Book wanted to bring for sure to Art Vancouver is called “Untitled Crowd (The Stars, The Blues, The Ashes).” The 22-inch-by-30-inch ink-on-paper work is also related to the Holocaust. The description reads, in part, that the Nazis’ attention to detail was “dual-edged.”
“On one hand,” it notes, “they kept extremely particular and accurate data records of the prisoners murdered. Ironically, on the other hand, the attention to human detail was nonexistent. When Jewish people were funneled through various camps, they were stripped of their belongings and identities. They were nothing but a number.”
In “Untitled Crowd,” Book writes, “I attempt to discuss this specific lack of attention and elimination of one’s person. Each work is a recreation of real people who either survived or perished during the Holocaust. In order to illustrate the lack of respect and attention given to these unfortunately abused people, I spent a specifically short time on depicting them in the piece. Each face was dedicated about six minutes, to correspond with the six million lives lost. The faces are all overlapping with one another to represent not only the crowds of people who were murdered and their brutal living conditions, but also the morphing of individuals into a mess of numbers and bodies rather than human beings.”
The piece’s three parts carry added symbolism. “The first work is done with shades of mustard yellow to signify the yellow stars Jewish people were forced to use as identification, and the shades are more distinct in overlapping to show not all identity had yet been lost,” writes Book. “The second work is completed with shades of blues to represent the blue-striped pyjamas prisoners wore, and the difference in tone decreases to create a more homogenized look as they lost identity. The final work uses the greyscale to convey the ashes of those perished, and the gaining age of survivors around the world.”
“We are Family” by Cat L’Hirondelle is now on exhibit at the Zack Gallery, as part of he group show Community Longing and Belonging, which runs to March 29.
The new group show at the Zack Gallery, Community Longing and Belonging, is the second annual exhibit in celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. Organized by Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s inclusion services and its coordinator, Leamore Cohen, the show is a silent auction. Half of the proceeds will go to the artists, and the other half will be divided between inclusion services and the gallery.
The show consists of 50 paintings by different artists. The size and shape of all the paintings are the same – small rectangles – but the contents and media used are vastly different, indicative of the artists’ various styles and training levels. Some are highly professional. Some are figurative; others abstract. But all reflect their creators’ need to belong, to be part of a community. Each painting tells a story.
One of the prevalent themes of the show is flight. Wings appear on several paintings, emphasizing the yearning for the freedom flight entails, but also for the brotherhood of other fliers. The white ornamental wings on Mikaela Zitron’s multimedia piece are bigger than the background board. They take the artist into the sky, into a joyful aerial dance, while Jamie Drie’s feathers, drifting in a sad emptiness, invoke the feeling of disconnection.
The murder of crows in Cat L’Hirondelle’s painting relates yet a different story. “I am a feminist,” said L’Hirondelle. “I was thinking about the importance of being part of a community of like-minded women. My group of longtime women friends is my family, my tribe and, like the crows, I know that they will always be there for me. Since I became disabled, I have felt more and more disassociated with the able-bodied-centric society in general. Just look at the history of people with disabilities in different societies – genocide, forced sterilizations, segregation, isolation, etc. I would love to feel that people with disabilities belong in the world. My piece is trying to impart that sense of longing to be included in general community and how crow communities seem to include everyone: the old, the disabled, the young. I have lived in the crow flight path for many years and have been watching crows’ behaviour; sometimes, I wished people were more like crows.”
The second recurring motif in the show is loneliness, the sense of separation. Daniel Malenica’s image is distinctive among such pictures. The woman in the painting stands behind closed garden gates. She gazes at us from the painting, and the naked longing in her eyes is painful to behold. She desperately wants to open that gate and step through, to join us, but she lacks the courage. What if the people inside reject her? So, she just lingers outside, desolate and alone, waiting for an invitation.
Another outstanding piece on the same theme is Estelle Liebenberg’s black and white painting “Solitude Standing.” She told the Independent, “I work primarily as a potter and a metalsmith, but I accepted the challenge to paint something for the exhibition because I’ve had wonderful times working as a substitute art instructor at the JCC. I chose the monochromatic colour palette because, at the moment, I am quite fascinated by shadows, specifically how they change the shape of objects but still remain recognizable.”
Her focus for the piece was the idea of a community in general. “I’ve spent my life dealing with different communities and, I guess, for me, the lines have softened over time,” she said. “We spend so much time in our lives working on belonging, or longing to belong somewhere, to someone or something. It’s an integral part of the beauty, the joy, the frustration and the heartbreak of life. For me, this was longing and belonging as an immigrant, as an introvert, as a mother of grown children, as a single person living in a city.”
She explained the title of her painting: “It is a hat tip to a song by Suzanne Vega. For me, her words truly encapsulate the feeling of longing to belong somewhere: ‘Solitude stands in the doorway / And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette / By her long cool stare and her silence / I suddenly remember each time we’ve met.’”
Different artists explore different aspects of community and belonging, and not all the communities are small or local. For Marcie Levitt-Cooper, the community in her painting is the universe, the earth and stars encompassed by love. Esther Tennenhouse, on the other hand, contemplates the darker side of belonging.
“My piece is a photocopy from a pre-World War Two Jewish encyclopedia, Allgemeine Ensiklopedya,” Tennenhouse explained. “It was labeled in Yiddish and issued in New York in 1940, the year Germany occupied France. On first seeing this old map, I found it very poignant. The map had to fit the 16-by-16 canvas given to all participants. The format left space, and I filled it with the music of two nigguns and lyrics of six Yiddish songs.”
That colourful map with Hebrew lettering, published just before the Nazis unleashed the full horrors of the Holocaust on European Jews, made for a tragic, frightening image, despite its bright and cheery appearance.
While the exhibit includes other figurative paintings, the majority of the pictures are abstract, either simple swirls of paint or complex geometric patterns, like Daniel Wajsman’s piece – two irregular overlapping rectangles.
“I wanted to emphasize that we should bring everyone in, not leave anyone out,” he said.
Community Longing and Belonging runs to March 29.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
On Feb. 20, Vancouver-based artist Dina Goldstein’s Snapshots from the Garden of Eden opened at the Museum of Jewish Montreal (imjm.ca). The exhibit will be on display until May 17.
A collection of 11 large-scale black-and-white photographs, Snapshots re-imagines modernized versions of characters and passages from Jewish fairytales, folk stories and legends collected in the book Leaves from the Garden of Eden by award-winning folklorist Howard Schwartz. Drawn from Jewish oral and written traditions across the centuries, the stories span the Jewish world – from Italy to Afghanistan – bringing to life the diversity and vibrancy of this overlooked area of Jewish storytelling and heritage.
Renowned for her reinterpretations of cultural symbols, Goldstein’s Snapshots reframes Jewish lore both famed and forgotten through the eyes of the 21st century. “The resonance of Goldstein’s work stems from her ability to weave intricate visual narratives,” said curator Alyssa Stokvis-Hauer, “where the history of Jewish folklore is catapulted into the modern era with a cast of characters and film noir-esque scenes that are provocative, imaginative and layered with meaning.”
Playing with visual and narrative archetypes, Goldstein creates new connections and relevance by merging the traditional and whimsical with contemporary themes of technology, desire, justice and identity, exploring and reinvigorating the history and role of Jewish folk narratives in broader cultural memory.
Yehuda and Maya Devir and their self-drawn webcomic characters in One of Those Days. (image from Devirs)
Fans always do a double take when they see Yehuda and Maya Devir at a comics convention or in a New York City subway, or wherever. The young Israeli couple looks like they jumped right out of their virally popular webcomic One of Those Days.
“I suppose it’s like meeting a real Bart Simpson in the street,” mused Yehuda. “We act exactly the same as our characters.”
Indeed, about seven million social media followers know that Maya loves super-hot showers and hates folding laundry. They know Yehuda’s a big baby when he’s sick and is willing to say “I’m sorry” after an argument. They sympathized with the couple’s struggle to get pregnant.
Most of all, fans smile at the humorous spin the webcomic puts on everyday scenes in a marriage, from dishes in the sink to kisses on the couch.
“We get lots of emails and messages from around the world about how we changed the way couples look at their relationship and how they talk to each other,” Yehuda told Israel21c. “It’s amazing that we can make such a difference for people, that our work can connect Muslim, Jewish, black, white, rich, poor … it doesn’t matter.”
One of Those Days won the Most Creative Content Maker Award at the Inflow Global Summit 2019 Awards for social media influencers.
“We dedicated our award to our followers and supporters around the world. We have fans in Brazil, Japan, Trinidad, Iran, Iraq – basically, every country,” Yehuda said. “People thank us for making them happy once a week and making them feel they are not alone. It’s an amazing journey we’ve been on.”
The Devirs’ journey began in September 2016, when they packed up their diplomas in visual communication from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and moved to Tel Aviv.
The newlyweds hoped to find an affordable apartment in a nice neighbourhood. And they hoped to make a living in illustration and design. Neither aspiration was terribly realistic.
“A friend suggested we post a selfie on Facebook asking friends to help us find an apartment,” said Maya. “We didn’t know how to take a good selfie, but we can draw really well, so we did a cartoon of ourselves and posted that.”
Not only did that illustration help them find an affordable flat in a very expensive city, but it also formed the kernel of One of Those Days.
While working as a freelance illustrator in the fashion, music and startup industries, Yehuda posted funny snippets on social media about being a new husband.
“Very quickly I joined him because I wanted him to make me look good,” Maya said with a laugh, “and because the story belonged to both of us. The concept was to illustrate moments we both experienced.”
In May 2017, Bored Panda posted a piece about the Devirs that went viral. “After a week, we gained half a million followers on Instagram,” Maya said. “Since then, we never stopped gaining followers. We got tons of emails and Yehuda couldn’t manage by himself. So, I left my job as art director in an ad firm and joined him full-time in October 2017. This was our dream – to create something of our own.”
They take complementary roles in each cartoon. “We start the idea together and the actual illustration is Yehuda’s talented hand,” said Maya. “Then I add my suggestions about colour composition and typography. I also manage the business.”
She said, “I opened an ecommerce shop. At first, we sold only autographed A5-sized prints of One of Those Days comics and Yehuda’s other comic illustrations. People who were into art and comics appreciated that.”
The online shop now sells three One of Those Days books plus merchandise, including apparel, shower curtains, calendars, phone skins and other items imprinted with favourite cartoons.
The Devirs’ YouTube channel has 46,000 subscribers. They have a Patreon subscription content service. They’ve appeared at comic-cons in Europe, India and will soon visit the United States. They are in great demand to give talks and lectures.
“Everything we do is because our fans suggested it,” said Yehuda. “Now, they want a TV show and we are going to try to do it. We are working with a scriptwriter at a studio in the U.S.”
Relationships proved to be a universal kind of language for the Devirs. “When we decided to move into the stage of being parents and saw it wouldn’t be that easy for us, this was a turning point,” Yehuda confided. “Would we really talk about the unpleasant experience of trying to get pregnant? It’s a super-personal subject.”
Maya felt that Yehuda’s humorous and colourful style would put the right spin on the topic and could be supportive for other couples in a similar situation. And so they introduced comics about ovulation, periods and lovemaking on demand. Messages offering support and advice came pouring in. It was like a worldwide group therapy session, Yehuda said.
The cartoon announcing Maya’s pregnancy got 16 million likes and shares. The first illustration of baby Ariel got 13 million. As of Dec. 1, she had 219,000 Instagram followers at just six months old.
“It was unbelievable to see the amount of love we got from people we didn’t know,” said Yehuda. “As Israeli and Jewish people, it was especially unbelievable to get supportive reactions from our huge fan base in the Arab world. The Israeli part is not important. We’re just the cartoon couple about love.”
Now living on Maya’s childhood kibbutz, the couple puts Ariel in the care of her two grandmothers when they travel to shows and lectures. The difficulty of parting with their baby became another comic that went viral because it was so relatable.
“It’s hard for Maya and me to leave her,” said Yehuda, “but, when she’s older, she’ll join us.”
Israel21c is a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.
Former Zack Gallery director Linda Lando, left, with new director Hope Forstenzer. (photo by Daniel Wajsman)
The Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver has a new director, Hope Forstenzer – one of the few directors in the gallery’s history to be a professional artist.
Forstenzer is a graphic designer and a glass artist; she is a member of the Terminal City Glass Co-op. She takes over the reins of the Zack Gallery from Linda Lando, who retired at the end of last year.
“I have a background in visual art and performing art,” Forstenzer told the Independent. “For years, I was the artistic director of a multimedia company in New York. We worked on short plays: judged them and then produced them around New York. It was an amazing job, very interesting, but it didn’t pay my bills. For that, I worked as a graphic designer.”
She also taught graphic design, first in the United States – New York, Seattle and Baltimore – and, later, in Vancouver, after her wife accepted a job at B.C. Children’s Hospital in 2012 and the family moved here. Forstenzer has been teaching graphic design at Emily Carr University of Art + Design and at Simon Fraser University.
The artist began working with glass in 2001, while still in New York. She liked it so much that she made it her principal medium. A number of glass shows in Seattle and Vancouver have included her pieces.
“I had two solo shows for my glass, both here in B.C.,” she added. “I also participated in a group show at the Zack in 2015.”
The life of a freelance artist is a hectic one. Forstenzer has had to juggle her teaching schedule and studio time, plus a family with young children. She longed for more professional stability.
“I started looking for a steady part-time job,” she said, “then I heard Linda Lando was retiring from the Zack. I always loved this gallery and its artists, loved the JCC. I decided to apply for the job. I’ve worked in leadership positions in the art field all my life, so this job seemed perfect, both in its essence and its timing.”
Her plans for the gallery are extensive. “I want to do at least as well as Linda did. She was a marvelous director, so I have big shoes to fill.”
Forstenzer is already working on future shows, both solo and group exhibitions, in various artistic formats. “I love diversity,” she said. “But a group show might be harder in some ways to jury and organize. Art is always subjective and, in a group show, some people will always like certain artists more than others. The trick is to make it work for the majority…. When a curator assembles a group show, it is a collaboration, like putting together a puzzle, making as little dissonance as possible from the disparate pieces. On the other hand, in a solo show, you create a flow of energy.”
With regard to the gallery and its place in the community, Forstenzer said, “I want to make sure the gallery is connected to the JCC. We are part of it, and that should be emphasized. It doesn’t mean only Jewish artists – the JCC has a diverse membership, it draws in people of all ages, skills and cultural influences. I want to reflect that in our future shows and programs. Linda started that with her amazing poetry series. I want to do more. Children’s programs. Sessions for older citizens. Workshops for families. I want interactions with the gallery. I want our visitors to be part of the shows.”
As for the artists, she said, “I want to create a nurturing environment for them in the gallery, want to encourage younger artists, not just in age but in experience. Some people only start in the arts after they retire, and their mastery in other areas makes them unique in artistic venues. I want to establish a relationship with our artists, so they will trust me.”
Forstenzer is sure that her being an artist herself is an asset for her work as gallery director. “I’m not only an artist, I’m a fan of the arts, of beautiful things of any kind. It’s not really that common. Many artists are not fans, they prefer their own art to anyone else’s, but I love art. When I visit a museum or a gallery, I want to absorb as much as I can of the other artists’ imaginations.”
Her years as an artist and as an art administrator give her a unique perspective – to see the gallery from both sides. “I can advocate for the artists,” she said, “but I also can and will represent the gallery and its patrons.”
While acting as the gallery director, Forstenzer said she will not exhibit her own work at the Zack. “It would be a conflict of interest,” she said. “I’ll never exhibit here. I will participate in the Terminal City Glass Co-op’s group shows as a glass artist, but, at the Zack, I’m the director, not an artist. I will keep a hard line between my glass-blowing and my gallery.”
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Hope Forstenzer was not the first Zack Gallery director to be a professional artist, but rather is one of the few directors in the gallery’s history to be a professional artist.