ARTICLEArt, Impact and Community: The Jewish Artists’ Lab, Eleven Years Later

More than a decade ago, Covenant Award recipient Jody Hirsh had a hunch. And a vision. He wanted to fill a need among Midwestern Jewish artists for community, engage them in Jewish study in a way that would penetrate their work, and in doing so, bring art and Jewish expression to the local Jewish communities in a reinvigorated style.

“Arts are the best education,” Hirsh said, in a recent phone conversation, during which he looked back at the impact of the Covenant grant he received in 2010 for the Jewish Artists Lab. “Arts can be a purveyor of Jewish culture, tradition and knowledge.”

He piloted the project first at The Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, where he serves as the longtime Judaic Education Director, and then with partners at the Sabes JCC in Minneapolis and the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 2014, Hirsh and his team received another Signature Grant to bring the project to Jewish communities in Chicago, Kansas City and Cleveland.

For each cohort, a group of Jewish artists was recruited, along with a professional Jewish educator and, in some instances, an art educator (in subsequent years participants stepped into the role of arts facilitator). While each group evolved its own style, the model was to meet regularly and study texts together – whether traditional Jewish texts or works of art, modern poetry or other eclectic materials sharing Jewish values on a theme – and then create art inspired by the sessions. Participants would also discuss their own art and exhibit the work together annually in a public space. The themes used over the years included text and subtext, inside and outside, wanderings, water and light.

“I know that artists living in the Midwest feel neglected – that the center of the art world is New York – and I wanted to help them to feel important and noticed. I wanted them to learn more about themselves as Jews,” Hirsh says. “And I think there’s a need for artists who are Jewish to get to know other Jewish artists. The process was electrifying.”

Hirsh and the other pioneering program directors – Robyn Awend, Director of Cultural Arts at the Minnesota JCC and Rabbi Andrea Steinberger of the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin at Madison – speak with enthusiasm and a strong sense that the project has flourished and gone better than they imagined.

“I am passionate about exploring ways that art and Judaism intersect and impact community,” Awend says.

An artist specializing in printmaking, Awend explains that in her city, the program has continued beyond their Covenant funding, with some of the artists involved all along, and new artists joining each year. In fact, Minneapolis is the only site where the program is still in full swing. This year, their theme was wholeness and brokenness, and they followed a new model: Each of the twenty Lab members selected a partner of a younger generation to work with outside of the Lab. The group met virtually throughout the year and will have a virtual show later this year.

Over these ten years, Awend explains, some of the artists have shown their work together in galleries, traveled together, formed deep friendships and acknowledged a lot of important moments together, both joyful and tragic.

“This program is such a special gem for the artists. Over this last year, people really needed this. Lab members already trust the process and each other,” she says. Participants share their thoughts and news of their artistic work on a blog.

In Madison, which does not have a JCC, Rabbi Andrea Steinberger had the challenge of bringing together students and older artists from the community to work together through Hillel. While the program is not running in a formal way, she says that many of the artists “have continued to be in community with each other.”

“The Art Lab was not really asking anyone to create Jewish art. It was an understanding that artists have a way of connecting with Jewish texts that is intense and beautiful, that learning with a supportive group can open up a piece of their identity,” she says.

“I think the artists who loved the Lab were thirsty for meaning in their lives,” she added.

Hirsh, who is also an award-winning playwright, says that many of the artists are still active on the Facebook page, Midwest Jewish Artists’ Lab Network. He is retiring this June, but he will continue to work on cultural projects for the JCC, and on his own projects, including theater.

“I’m very proud of this project,” Hirsh says. “It has brought out a new dimension of the artists’ Judaism, a new sense of participation in the Jewish community and Jewish culture, and has inspired them to think about how complex Jewish life is.”

By Sandee Brawarsky, for The Covenant Foundation

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