The interior of a dolmen (ancient burial chamber built of rocks) with symbols overlaid on the image for clarity. (photo by Yaniv Berman/IAA via Ashernet)
There are many such dolmens in the Galilee and the Golan, all of which date back more than 4,000 years. An inspector of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has identified engravings of horned animals, leaves, fertilizers and wild cows in one dolmen; a human face in another; and a panel with geometric shapes in yet another.
SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo from QAF)
“Since the very beginning, I said not doing the festival was not an option … because my belief is that they [the arts] are really, really important – I would say essential.”
Sharing their appreciation for the vital work being done by those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, said, “art is really keeping people alive, in different ways than the amazing health workers that are taking care of folks right now. Even people who say they don’t like art – if you read a book, if you watch Netflix, you take part in the art world.”
This year’s Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26, will happen mostly online. This is, of course, not what was initially planned.
By mid-May, Holman said, “we had to have a plan. And, right now, we’re still working on how the delivery is going to look because it’s not all digital. One of the things that was really important to us, to me, is that, not all people have computers, not all people have a stable wi-fi access, people can’t go to the libraries [now] if they don’t have computer, so how do people access it? If they’re not privileged enough to have this little box in front of them, how do we deliver a festival?”
One of the things being considered is billboard art. As well, there is the possibility of using parks as venues.
The planning of such a festival normally starts a year in advance, not the couple of months that COVID has allowed for a reimagined version. Some elements – such as the visual arts show – have been adapted for the new circumstances, while some will have to be postponed, as they do not lend themselves to online viewing, because they are interactive on some level, or the artists can’t make it to Vancouver.
When asked about the process for choosing festival artists, Holman said, “I talk a lot to people, I try and keep abreast of what’s going on. I always want to support local artists and also bring in folks from away, so that there are great conversations that happen of what’s going on in the world, as well as what’s happening here.”
The festival programmer does research and people can also apply to be part of the festival. As well, Holman said, “There’ll be people that talk to me about wanting to do something, and that usually percolates for two or three years before anything ever happens.”
Holman has been with the festival since its beginnings as a volunteer collective in 1998. “Two-spirit artist Robbie Hong, black artist Jeffrey Gibson were the main founders of Pride in Art [Society],” they explained. “I was an artist and then I became involved in the collective in 2005, when Robbie was wanting to step away … and I called in Dr. Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa because she had approached me about something and I said, ‘Come and join me on this.’ And we spearheaded making it professional, making it a festival…. It was a community visual art show up until that point…. As an artist myself, I wanted to pay artists – too often artists are expected to do stuff for free, and that’s impossible.”
According to the festival website, PiA became a not-for-profit in 2006, mounted its first festival in 2008 and rebranded to become the Queer Arts Festival in 2010, obtaining charitable status in 2012.
“Rachel has finally managed to extricate herself,” said Holman, “because we also both have our own arts practices and it’s very hard to run this organization and also have an arts practice; it might have fallen a bit by the wayside, but Rachel is a concert pianist. [She’s] no longer staff with us, [but] she’s still doing some contract work with us and passing over her organizational knowledge.”
While Holman is a photo-based artist, the festival remains their focus. It is the belief that “art changes people and people change the world” that motivates them, “because it’s important work” – “when a country is taken over, the first people they suppress are the artists.… You take over the media and you get rid of the artists because people can be completely destroyed – the first thing they start doing [to recover] is making art, whether it’s in a mud puddle, making a mud pie, they start, that is, expression; that’s what brings them back.
“Art reaches you on a visceral level,” Holman continued. “There’s this thing called confirmation bias, so we take in more what we already agree with, but art can get you in a way that can transform our ways of thinking.”
For Holman, being queer and Jewish are parts of their larger identity. Holman has self-described, for example, as “a queer pagan Jew” and “a Jewish, butch, bearded dyke.”
“I come from L.A.,” they told the Independent. “I was born and raised in L.A., and I have had several Jewish friends be, ‘Oh, you’re too much for Vancouver.’ And I’ve been here for a long time … [but] people are, ‘Why aren’t you in New York, why aren’t you in L.A.? Why aren’t you where you can be more?’ I always get this feeling here … that people are always trying to be, ‘Shh, could you just be a little bit quieter, could you just be not quite so much?’ There’s this too-muchness about Jews. And there’s kind of this too-muchness about queers, too. There’s this assimilation. My family assimilated – I got, from my bubbie and my great-aunt, I would get Christmas cards. We’re Jewish! But we assimilated because that was what was safe for us. And so there’s all this assimilation and erasure that happens with queers and Jews, because, also, many of us can pass; we can pass as straight, we can pass as not Jewish.”
Despite skepticism about the possibility of Jews being fully accepted – the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville a couple of years ago featured chants of “Jews will not replace us,” for example – Holman is completely out there in her Jewishness and queerness, in a seemingly fearless way.
“Oh no, I’m afraid of everything, that’s why I do it,” they said. “Although, that’s not true anymore. Since my wife died [in 2009], I don’t fear anything because the worst thing has already happened to me. But I used to be, I was quite fearful.… [However] I’ve never been able to be in the closet about anything really. And, I guess, for me, that’s kind of Jewishness, [being] more emotive and not afraid to debate, not always trying to please people. For me, it comes from my Jewish heritage.”
Despite the many accolades for their art and for their work with the Queer Arts Festival, including the 2014 YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Arts and Culture, Holman said, “I have been a failure all my life.” Among their reasons for that description, Holman said they are dyslexic. They added, “I’m butch, so that’s a failure as a woman; feminists were called failures as women.” But, they said, they are working with that in their art and, on the positive side, being a failure “frees you up to make your own rules, so make your own rules.”
The theme of this year’s Queer Arts Festival is “Wicked.” The press release quotes Oscar Wilde: “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.”
“It’s always really multi-layered the theme and then people take different stuff out of it,” said Holman. “So, there’s also the book Wicked … because Wicked is about it’s not easy being green, it’s not easy being different. It’s not easy being a Jew, it’s not easy being queer. It’s not easy being butch, it’s not easy being an activist. It’s all actually about activism, the book Wicked.”
In addition, there is, as Holman writes in the press release, the question, “What do we lose – who do we lose – if we accept induction into the dominant order, and reframe ourselves as a ‘moral minority’?”
“It’s a bit of a double pun,” they explained to the Independent. “The ‘Moral Majority’ years ago, who were trying to say [what’s acceptable in society], the right-wing, and there’s the ‘model minority,’” the Asian community, whose perceived greater-than-average success and stereotypical politeness are used to downplay the existence of racism. “It totally ties in with what I was talking about ‘too-muchness’ and excess and how we, as queers, work towards justice and inclusion.”
While becoming “more acceptable,” Holman said, “it’s still, ‘please don’t scare the horses.’… So, it’s OK if you want to be gay and lesbian and you want to get married and you want to have kids and you want to buy a house and be part of the whole heteronormative [framework] … be part of society’s morals, but could you leave the drag queens and the leather dykes at home?… Even with gender stuff. We know now that it’s a real spectrum and people are getting [more accepted], trans are really out in the world [for example] and it’s OK if you want to be a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man,’ whatever that is, but people in between are still, ‘Come on, could you choose a side?’
“There’s this whole [feeling like], we’ve given you these things, we’ve given you marriage rights, you can have children, you can affirm your gender, you can do those things, but could you now just be nicer to us? And, I think, we have to be careful of that – being sanctioned by the state of what’s OK [because] then people get left behind, and that’s what we’re seeing right now … the more privilege you gain, you have to be really careful of that,” of remembering that not everyone is being treated well.
The QAF opens on July 16. “And we’re going to have a binge/party at the end, on the 26th, and there’ll be prizes,” said Holman. “We’re going to play the whole entire festival. I think it’s going to be 12 hours or something – we’re inviting people to get into their best dress jammies.
“Everything is going to be pay-what-you-can, by donation…. Pay as much as you can, please, because we want to support the artists.”
Among those artists are Jewish community members Avram Finkelstein, from New York, who helps open the festival (see jewishindependent.ca/political-art-of-living) and locally based Noam Gagnon, whose work This Crazy Show (July 25-26) is described as “a reflection on the quest for love, through revisiting the worlds of childhood, both real and imagined.” In it, he “choreographs and performs, pushing himself to his physical limit to explore and expose ‘the art of artifice’ in a culture obsessed with pretending authenticity. This Crazy Show explores just how precarious and ambiguous identity can be, through the evolution of the body and the self, as both are continuously morphing, unfixed and boldly celebrated.”
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.
Gilad Seliktar, left, and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam. They are drawing the last hiding place of Nico and Rolf Kamp in Achterveld, which was liberated in April 1945 by Canadian troops. (photo from UVic)
A University of Victoria professor is orchestrating an international project that links Holocaust survivors with professional illustrators to create a series of graphic novels, thereby bringing the stories of the Shoah to new generations.
Charlotte Schallié, a Holocaust historian and the current chair of UVic’s department of Germanic and Slavic studies, is leading the initiative, which connects four survivors living in the Netherlands, Israel and Canada with accomplished graphic novelists from three continents.
The project, called Narrative Art and Visual Storytelling in Holocaust and Human Rights Education, is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Its aim is to teach about racism, antisemitism, human rights and social justice while shedding more light on one of the darkest times in human history.
UVic is partnering with several organizations in the project, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Many historians of the genre have argued that the rise of graphic novels as a serious medium of expression is largely due to the commercial success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in 1986. Maus, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, depicts recollections of Spiegelman’s father, a Shoah survivor, with Jews portrayed as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs.
Schallié told the Independent that the idea for the project came from observing the interest her 13-year-old son has in graphic novels and the appeal Maus has had among her students, who have continually selected it as one of the most poignant and memorable materials in her classes.
“Though a graphic novel, Maus could hardly be accused of treating the events of the Holocaust frivolously,” she said from her office on the campus of the University of Victoria.
As most survivors are now octogenarians and nonagenarians, the passage of time creates an ever more compelling need to tell their stories as soon as possible.
“Given the advanced age of survivors, the project takes on an immediate urgency,” said Schallié. “And what makes their participation especially meaningful is that each of them continues to be a social justice activist well into their 80s and 90s. They are role models for the integration of learning about the Shoah and broader questions of human rights protection.”
The visual nature of a graphic novel allows it to bring in elements or depict scenes that are not possible with an exclusively written work, according to Schallié. A person may describe an event in writing but leave out aspects of a scene that might add more to the sense of what it was like to be there at the time.
One of the survivors participating in the project, David Schaffer, 89, lives in Vancouver. He is paired with American-Israeli comic artist Miriam Libicki, who is also based in the city. The two met in person in early January so that Libicki could learn the story of how he survived the Holocaust as a child in Romania.
In 1941, Schaffer was forcibly sent with his family to Transnistria, on the border of present-day Moldova and Ukraine, by cattle car. There, they suffered starvation and were subjected to intolerable and inhumane living conditions.
“The most important thing is to share the story with the general population so they realize what happened and to avoid it happening again. It’s very simple. History has a habit of repeating itself,” said Schaffer.
Libicki, who was the Vancouver Public Library’s Writer in Residence in 2017, is the creator of jobnik!, a series of graphic comics about a summer she spent in the Israeli military. An Emily Carr University of Art + Design graduate, she also published a collection of essays on what is means to be Jewish, Toward a Hot Jew. (See jewishindependent.ca/drawing-on-identity-judaism.)
“The more stories, the better. The wiser we can be as people, the more informed we can be as citizens and the more empathy we can have for each other,” Libicki said. “Graphic novels are not just a document in the archives; they’re something people will be drawn to reading.”
The other illustrators are Barbara Yelin, a graphic artist living in Germany, and Gilad Seliktar, who is based in Israel. Yelin is the recipient of a number of prizes for her work, including the Max & Moritz Prize for best German-language comic artist in 2016. Seliktar has illustrated dozens of books – from publications for children to adult graphic novels – and his drawings frequently appear in leading Israeli newspapers and magazines.
Brothers Nico and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam and Emmie Arbel in Kiryat Tiv’on, Israel, are the other three survivors who are providing their accounts of the Holocaust.
The books will be available digitally in 2022. A hard copy version of each book is planned, as well. When finished, the graphic novels will be accompanied by teachers guides and instructional material designed for schools in Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
UVic hopes to match a larger number of survivors with professional illustrators in the future. To learn more, contact Schallié at [email protected]. You can also visit the project’s website at holocaustgraphicnovels.org.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
“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.”
Peleg Design’s Magnetic Vase is a bestseller. (photo from Peleg Designs)
From optical illusion flower vases to playful elephant-shaped cutlery drainers, Shahar Peleg wants his products to bring his customers joy, but first and foremost to fulfil a need in their home.
How does he figure out what those needs are? “Some of the ideas came to us while daydreaming, some in the shower, some we woke up with and some just came to us by email,” reads the website’s Suggest an Idea section.
People from all over the world reach out, the designer and founder of the brand told Israel21c. “Once in awhile, we get a great idea and we pay royalties to the designers or inventors,” he said. “It’s really amazing because a lot of people have a lot of ideas.” For example, the Bag Bunny, a magnetic rabbit-shaped tool for easily opening plastic packaging, was inspired by a customer suggestion.
Founded in 2005 and based in Tel Aviv, Peleg Design’s online store offers around 100 unique products that stem from everyday needs, each with quirks, twists or optical illusions that Peleg describes as “magical.” Nothing, he said, is what it seems.
The product that kicked off the company’s success was a vase Peleg designed for his own wedding in 2005. These “floating” vases are anchored by magnetic bases hidden underneath the tablecloth. To this day, the vase set is one of Peleg Design’s bestsellers. “It was a huge hit,” he said. “That’s what really began to generate business.”
Another universal problem Peleg wanted to solve was grime building up at the bottom of a cutlery drainer. His answer was Jumbo, an elephant-shaped cutlery holder that drains water out of its trunk, directly into the sink.
Peleg said function is key, and design secondary, to usefulness. But, still, he hopes his customers will fall in love with his “cute” designs.
His newest item, the Egguins, is an example of that cuteness. The penguin-shaped eggholder is not only visually amusing, but makes it easy to remove eggs from boiling water and store them in the fridge. One comment on Peleg Design’s Instagram page calls the item “the best thing since sliced bread.”
Many of Peleg’s products are made from plastic but they are meant to last. Sensitive to environmental issues, he explained that he wants his customers to develop an emotional connection to the items and use them for as long as possible before discarding them.
Passion and profession
Growing up, Peleg dreamed of being an astronaut, but he would eventually find his passion in a different form of exploration: design.
Peleg studied interior design at the Holon Institute of Design. A class project made him realize he had an eye for creating quirky but useful knick-knacks. He had made a wine-bottle holder that seemed to defy gravity. He was able to sell a few even before graduating.
“It started from selling one product in two or three stores in Tel Aviv,” he said. “It’s now become both my passion and my profession.”
What began as a one-man show has expanded to more than 30 countries, including the United States, Japan, Peru, France and South Korea. Some designs can even be found at the gift shop of the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art’s gift shop in New York City, where the Magnetic Vase is one of its bestselling items.
Peleg explained that his products are available in most major economies, excluding those that have no political relations with Israel. He hopes one day that will change, and he says so to the businesspeople he meets from countries like Iran and Kuwait.
Every now and then, Peleg receives an email from an Israeli customer, with a photo of his Magnetic Vase on a shelf in the MOMA gift shop. They are so happy to see an Israeli designer’s product among some of the world’s best, he said, noting, “That makes me proud.”
Israel21cis 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.
“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.