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.”
Artist Monica Gewurz’s “Woven Tallit” was inspired by her father.
Judaism’s history, traditions and clothing and my Peruvian upbringing are always latent in my inspirations,” artist Monica Gewurz told the Independent.
Gewurz will be one of more than 90 exhibitors at Art! Vancouver, which takes place April 19-22 at the Vancouver Convention Centre East.
“Both of my parents were Polish Jews,” said Gewurz. “My mother left Poland before the war to Palestine as part of the youth aliyah to help establish Israel. My father left Poland to study in France where, after completing his studies, he went to Peru to work for a French mining company. During the British Mandate, my father volunteered to help build the underground tunnels as part of the Jewish resistance. He met my mother and, in three weeks, they were married. My father had to return to work in Peru, where they both stayed. I was born there and left in 1976.”
Though Gewurz’s mother was a nurse, she “had a passion for rendering still life in pastels and watercolours.”
Gewurz left Peru, she said, because of the military situation there, “and the increased level of antisemitism in Peru and in South America in general.” She obtained both her bachelor of science and her master’s in landscape architecture and environmental planning from the University of Guelph, in Ontario, then worked for the federal government in Ottawa until 1987. She moved to Montreal, she said, “to work in the private sector for pension funds and, later on, for Canadian Pacific Railway, working on both environmental decontamination and commercial real estate planning, marketing and sales until December 1997. I moved that year to Vancouver because of the rise of the separatist movement in Quebec and the lack of professional opportunities because I was not fully bilingual.”
During her career, Gewurz has worked in both large-scale commercial real estate development and sales; eco- and cultural tourism planning and marketing; environmental assessment; and for the Canadian government dealing with aboriginal issues. Her work in jewelry, photography and painting began as hobbies. However, in 2014, she received a fine art certificate from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and embarked on a new career as a professional artist. She is currently enrolled in Emily Carr’s advanced study certificate in painting.
“My textured paintings strive to reflect and connect cultures through the use of ancient and modern materials, colours and techniques,” she said. “I use texture to blur the line between painting and sculpture, integrating man-made elements such as paper, natural elements like semi-precious stones and gravel, and traditional textile designs from various cultures, including Israel and my native Peru.”
Gewurz also travels a lot, which has allowed her to study different art forms, she said. She has been to Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bali, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, India, Israel, Turkey, China and several islands in the Caribbean. She said she always tries to visit museums and historical sites when she’s traveling. Last summer, for example, she participated in a guided art tour through the rivers of Holland, which included visits to UNESCO sites.
Her travels and love of archeology and tribal symbolism inspire her art, she said, and lend it broad dimensions.
“I am attracted to the abstraction of stylized figures done in wood, metal or in textiles that are decorated with simple colours … the myriad high relief textures and multicolour metallic patinas that have been created by weathering and the use of metals to indicate status or ceremonial purposes.
“I am also attracted by their simplicity, honesty and inventiveness, and the fact that they are all made with natural materials and pigments,” she said. “Distorted yet primal in its raw geometry, it provides my inspiration to create a new artistic language with new forms, colours and meanings.
“In my paintings, I use an earthy, quiet palette echoing the colour found in metallic patinas, Raku pottery and ancient glass. To accomplish the above, I use intense turquoises, luminous teals and yellows, haunting blues, earthy ochres and siennas, deep burgundies and mysterious charcoals and blacks. I also use metallic paints and foils to accent textures to give my paintings more luminosity.”
Gewurz really does seem to communicate with the earth. Her sea- and landscapes are alive with colour and texture. In some paintings, it’s almost a wonder how the water stays within the frame, its flowing movement captured somehow into a moving stillness.
“My studio is located amidst the rainforest with an ocean vista,” she said. “I am surrounded by the subtleties of changing skies and rhythms of the ocean. Hikes into the local mountains, forests and beaches up the north coast inspire my abstract work.
“The abstraction of the constant changing of shapes, colours and patterns of light in the reflected water and changing skies during sunrises and sunsets mesmerize me and are a source of my inspiration. I am fascinated with the contrasting nature of the organic and how that can provide an escape to a dream-like place.”
As for works in which her Jewishness played an important role, Gewurz offered the Independent a few examples.
The mixed media piece “Woven Tallit,” she said, “was inspired by the one my father wore until he passed away.” It not only depicts a tallit in the early stages of being made, but also symbolizes, she explained, “the tapestry that we call life, where individually we are nothing much more than a single thread intertwined with others, and also the ‘woven’ aspect of the various cultures and religions that have come together to create modern Israel.”
Gewurz created “Rachel de Matriarch I” and “Rachel de Matriarch II” to honour her mother, whose name was also Rachel, and who was “an artist, and had similar abilities and qualities as Rachel the matriarch,” one of the four spiritual matriarchs of the Hebrew Bible, she said, noting that “Rachel means a small lamb, and she is described as ‘beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance’ (Genesis 29:17).”
“Although she is no longer alive,” said Gewurz of her mother, “she continues to guide me in my daily life and artistic journey.
“In terms of symbolism,” she added, “the pose of Rachel is of deep thought, dreaming and hoping for the well-being of all people in the world. The texture, patinas and colour palette of copper, earth tones and turquoise are inspired by the simple but colourful clothes, jewelry and headdresses that Rachel would have worn while working in the fields.
“The many layers of this painting are reminiscent of the layered depth of a person’s life, and like looking into ourselves. While the surface layer is easily recognized and understood, deeper exploration is needed to reveal the complex and veiled richness of the person within.”
The last example Gewurz gave was her “Friendship Shawl,” which she described as “an abstraction of a silk and gold scarf which can be wrapped around the shoulders of two friends. Friendship is one of the key values of Judaism and a fundamental building block of the global community.” This painting was also inspired, she said, “by the patterns formed by the warp and weft of the friendship bracelets woven over the centuries by aboriginal people from Central and South America. According to tradition, a person will tie a string or fabric bracelet around the wrist of a friend while making a wish or prayer for them … the wish will come true if the bracelet is worn until it falls off by itself.”
Gewurz is represented by four different galleries. “I have been represented by Ukama since 2016, the Kube Gallery and Sooke Harbour House Gallery since 2017 and, this year, I will be also represented by Mattick’s Farm Gallery in Victoria,” she said.
In addition to paintings, Gewurz also creates “wearable art.”
“They are all based on my paintings,” she said of these works. “I take a portion of the image and expand it so it is an abstraction of a painting rather than the whole painting. I have been doing it only for one year, mainly as part of participating in the Slow Clothes fashion show held as part of the Harmony Arts Festival every year, and to give them away as a thank you for people that buy my artwork, i.e. somebody who buys a large painting receives a scarf or a pillow as a gift.”
Gewurz also donates a percentage of her sales to the Brooke Foundation, whose mission is to improve “the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules” around the world, and to the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in Vancouver. She has donated art to numerous organizations, including the B.C. Cancer Foundation, the Children’s Heart Network Foundation and the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.
“It is a way of giving back to the community that has supported me in the past and continues to support me,” she said. “I like to donate art, money and time: ‘it’s better to give than to receive.’ I also like doing something useful and helping others, which makes me feel good about myself, which increases my self-esteem, and greater personal empowerment and better health.”
Other Jewish artists in the exhibition include Art! Vancouver director Lisa Wolfin – “I am doing a forest with a pipeline going in front of the forest to show what is going on in B.C.,” she told the JI. As well, Wolfin’s sister, LeeAnn Wolfin, and daughters, Taisha Teal Wayrynen and Skyla Wayrynen, will be showing their work. The event also features artist demonstrations and workshops, speakers and panel discussions, dance and other performances. For schedule and ticket information, visit artvancouver.net.
Johanan Herson is coming from Israel to Art! Vancouver. (photo from Johanan Herson)
“I am very much looking forward to seeing all the new artwork coming from around the world,” Lisa Wolfin told the Independent. “We have some giant heads coming from Miami, some art made out of spider webs, metal sculptures and some really crazy stuff – can’t wait to see it all together under one roof.”
Wolfin is the founder and director of Art! Vancouver, which this year takes place May 25-28 at Vancouver Convention Centre-East. She is also an artist herself and will be bringing recent work to the fair.
“Over the past year,” she said, “I have contemplated what to make for the show that is new and unique and have come up with my new series called I Feel. It is a portrait series made from different materials: oil on canvas, mixed media on wood panel, and photography.”
Her current work is contemporary, she said. “What I have found in the many art fairs that I have attended is that artists are using recycled materials and making them into creative art forms. My newest series is made out of my kids’ things they used when they were young. Sometimes, it feels like I am back in kindergarten being free to just play with materials, not thinking what you are trying to make out of it, just doing. Who doesn’t want to be a kid again?”
As more people have become aware of the art fair – this is its third year – inquiries have come from around the world, said Wolfin. And CBC Arts’ Amanda Parris “is flying out from Toronto to host the show and speak in a panel talk on Saturday at 3 p.m. Joining Amanda on the panel is Barrie Mowatt, who presently runs the Vancouver Biennale.”
Art! Vancouver opens on May 25, 7 p.m., said Wolfin, with “The Face of Art, where the artists walk down the runway carrying their artwork, so the attendees can put a face to the art to know who the artist is. People are curious as to who are the makers of the art – at this show, the artists are mostly in attendance, where people can come to meet them.”
Among those artists are several from the Jewish community, including Wolfin. Also presenting their work will be Johanan Herson, who is coming to the fair from Israel, and local artists Michael Abelman, Lauren Morris, Taisha Teal Wayrynen and Skyla Wayrynen.
“I will be showing mostly the soft art, textile art, but will have some of the sculpture works and acrylic paintings as well,” Herson told the Independent about what he’s bringing with him. “Le Soleil Gallery [on Howe Street] is showing the full range of my work and will continue after the fair to handle my artwork.”
Herson said he’s been to Vancouver a couple of times before, when he was a student at Banff School of Fine arts. He is originally from Montreal.
“I grew up in Montreal and visited Israel on various occasions before making aliyah,” he said. “In fact, I had come to study at the Bezalel Academy just after the Six Day War and hated it. I traveled the world before coming back to Montreal and the Canadian sense of pluralism and diversity. I came back later [to Israel] to understand the meaning of my Jewishness and fell in love with an Israeli woman, of a 10-generation family, and find myself part of this dynamic society.”
In terms of his artwork, Herson said, “I know that my soft art is a product of being at the right time and the right place, where this technique evolved, and I did look into the possibility of doing it in Quebec, but … the soft art is definitely an Israel discovery and development.
“My Canadian identity is one of respect for everyone, the celebration of diversity and acceptance of the other, and I cherish my Canadian roots and heritage and am proud of my citizenship. My work in Israel and my Jewish identity has always been part of who I am wherever I am and was part of who I am as a Canadian and an Israeli. I hope that my commitment to making the world a better place for everyone would have guided me if I had never left Canada, although perhaps the intensity of living and creating in the Middle East has challenges that are unique to Israel.
“I believe in the good in humanity,” he continued, “and have always sought to defend the less-privileged and suffering … whether they are in Montreal, Tel Aviv, Ramallah or Africa, and seek global communication as a platform to making the world a healthier and safer place of love, respect and opportunity for a better life for everyone. I do so as a Canadian Jewish Israeli artist.”
He gave the example of an exhibit of his work that just closed at the University in Minnesota. The exhibit, he said, was “part of encouraging dialogue between the Jewish student and Islamic student bodies. The message is that we must pray and work for a better world, that tikkun olam is to wake up every day and say that the world has been created for me alone, and that I must make it a better place for everyone.”
Teal Wayrynen is working toward a similar goal – making the world a better place – in a different way.
“I received my associates degree in psychology from Capilano University and am graduating this year with my bachelor’s degree from Simon Fraser University,” she told the Independent. “I will then combine my art with my counseling and do a master’s program for art therapy after I travel for half a year.”
At last year’s Art! Vancouver, Teal Wayrynen featured her Pop Icon collection. This year, she said she is “experimenting with charcoal and acrylic paint and drawing female bodies.”
Right now, her favourite medium is acrylic paint mixed with spray paint, she said. “I just started to mix mediums and use molding paste, acrylic paint and charcoal on top,” she added.
Morris has also been delving into new methods and media.
“I have continued predominantly working on flowers, however, I have introduced a new colour palette, as well as more abstraction within my floral pieces,” she told the Independent. “I’ve also continued with my free, fluid style and introduced some abstract landscapes using the new colours. My inspiration comes from the beautiful flowers that seem to surround me every day. Every season brings on something new and I am inspired by their shapes and colours.”
She has been working on a new series for Art! Vancouver, Morris said, “experimenting with a couple of new techniques and colours. They will be mainly florals and will all coordinate in style so that there is consistency within my pieces. I work predominantly in acrylic.”
She added, “I am hoping that my growth as an artist is shown in my new pieces and that my work continues to evoke my viewers’ emotions through visual imagery.”
Art! Vancouver opens May 25 at the convention centre with a VIP preview at 6 p.m. and the gala at 7 p.m. The show runs May 26-27, noon to 8 p.m., and May 28, noon to 5 p.m. A one-day pass is $15 (online) or $25 (at the door); $8 for children under the age of 14. A multi-day pass is $40 and a VIP pass is $100. Tickets to the opening gala are $30. Visit artvancouver.net.