When I first entered the Zack Gallery to view its new show, the Chai Quilt, my first impression was that it was an amateur show. Only one wall of the gallery featured art, and it looked like the work of a kindergarten class, with several exceptions. I soon found out that that is indeed what it is!
In talking to gallery director Hope Forstenzer, I learned that this exhibit is different from most of the shows the gallery has produced. Many of the amateur artists are actually 3 to 5 years old and attend the JCC’s preschool.
“We sent out a call for participation in this show to everyone on the mailing lists of the JCC and the gallery,” said Forstenzer. “I wanted this show to connect the gallery to the community, to make it a mixed show. Whenever someone expressed an interest, we gave them the fabric squares and the craft kits. Some families received four or five squares for every family member. Our preschool at the centre had several, too. A few professional artists also responded to the call, as did some of the JCC staff.”
The show takes place in conjunction with the JCC’s Festival of Israeli Culture and, therefore, shares the festival’s theme, which is celebrating life – chai, in Hebrew.
“We asked everyone to create their own celebration of life and spring,” explained Forstenzer. “No matter how hard the pandemic hit us all, there is still life worth celebrating.”
When the squares came back from the artists, Forstenzer created a quilt of them on one long wall of the gallery, a continuous artistic surface reflecting community members’ united vision of life. “The squares touch sides,” she said. “Even if we can’t meet because of the pandemic, we’re still in this together. Our art brings us together.”
The show’s unique blend of professional and amateur artists means there are several profound differences from previous Zack shows. One of those differences is that there are no name cards. If a participant signed their square, everyone can see their name; if not, the square’s creator is anonymous.
Another difference is that the show started a week later than planned.
“Many of the participants are families with children,” said Forstenzer. “They kept calling me and asking for more time. Even now, when the show is open, the squares are still trickling in. There are already over 70 on the wall. I had three new ones today, waiting on my desk, and more are coming, I’m sure. I’m going to add them on to the end of the quilt as they come.”
The show, or rather the quilt, grows daily; resembling a living organism. And, it also changes. As I was speaking to Forstenzer, one of the participants, Jessica Gutteridge, artistic director of the Rothstein Theatre, came into the gallery. She wanted to rotate her square, which was already on the gallery wall. “It would look better the other way,” she offered, and Forstenzer agreed.
“I was excited to have an opportunity to participate in this community art project,” Gutteridge said. “Although my professional artistic practice is in the theatre, I have been involved as a hobbyist and student in visual arts and crafts, particularly needlework, for most of my life. During the early part of the pandemic, Hope and I created a virtual drop-in community art program called the Creative Kibbitz. It was based on a project I had started – to invite people to my home to socialize and make creative work. This show was a nice way to extend that work, and a theme based on celebrating life and renewal seemed very appropriate and inspiring in this moment.”
Although Gutteridge has never participated in a Zack show before, her pink square with its jolly cherry blossoms looks like it belongs on the gallery’s wall. “Cherry blossom time is one of my favourite moments of the year,” she said. “It is so ethereally beautiful for the short time it lasts. To me, it captures the rebirth of spring perfectly and the stirring of new life. I decided to make a spray of cherry blossoms using two of my favourite media, yarn and rhinestones, in an effort to make something that captures the shimmer and sparkle of spring.”
In addition to needlework, the quilt pieces have been made using an astounding variety of media. Photo collages and paintings. Feathers and beads and felt flowers. Dried leaves and confetti paper ribbons. Letters and abstract glitter splashes. Buttons and lace.
The creator of one square, which has dancers in lacy costumes, is Beryl Israel, a retired teacher. “I am a member of the fantastic JCC Circle of Friends program,” she said in an email interview. “Up to the start of COVID, I taught tap dancing at one of the local community centres.” Her love of dancing poured into her contribution to this show.
“My motivation for this work was to concentrate on the happiness and positivity around us in a gentle, hopeful way, with the inspiration from the dancing figures of Matisse,” she explained. “I wanted to record some of my old dress fabrics, laces from my mother, favourite photos, handmade paper, flowers, etc., plus the use of acrylic paints and stitching, which resulted in my composition.”
The imagination all the artists infused into their squares seems to know no bounds, as if they wanted to say, the ways in which we each see life is different, but, together, we can create a life as diverse and colourful as the Chai Quilt on the wall of the Zack Gallery.
The quilt is on exhibit until May 14.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].