Life of Jewish Art

Comments and discussion about the role of Jewish visual arts in Jewish civilization.
A look at what is happening at Jewish museums and other collections of Jewish art.

Interview with artist Ellen Soffer

Ellen Soffer's paintings are intentionally ambiguous-evoking feelings left behind by a dream, emotion or memory. She has been a resident at Ragdale and Skowhegan and was awarded Shreveport Regional Arts Council's Visual Arts Fellowship.  Originally from Philadelphia, she has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. JAE blogger Sheri Klein, talked to Soffer about her art and her career. Her interview follows:

What are the influences for your work?

I explore the self through an abstract narrative with reference to human, nature, and formal elements. I looked a lot at Picasso, Matisse, and early Pollock when I first started painting.  I think of those artists as my roots in painting. I also like Gorky, Cezanne, Lee Krasner, Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Murray, Phillip Guston, Miro, Frank Stella, Mondrian, Leger, Morandi, Diebenkorn, Marsden Hartley, Rothko, Newman, Giacometti, and Stuart Davis.

Do you work from sketches? Or do you start painting and let the painting emerge?

I work on paper a lot, from sketches to more finished work, but they are usually working out visual ideas that may overlap with my painting.  I usually do not transfer sketches to painting on canvas.  I work directly on canvas, usually with a drawing method of creating shapes and a loose grid but not based on a direct drawing.  Sometimes these compositional elements at the beginning of the painting have a direct influence on the finished painting but other times they are completely changed.Chamber by Ellen Sofer

Has your artwork been influenced by Jewish art, themes in art, or Jewish beliefs and principles--and if so, what in particular?

I think about my paintings as a moment in time captured and made still, sort of a snapshot of a churning universe. I am probably influenced by the awareness in Judaism of time by day, week, season, and year, but I am unsure as to how it manifests in my work.

Whatever Jewish-ness is in my work is deep and unconscious, though I can't help but insert some of my cultural experiences. For instance, I have used Hebrew month names as titles to my paintings and have signed the back of some paintings with the Jewish year.  Sometimes when I use a number in the title, I think about what the number would symbolize in the Jewish use of number symbols.  I would like to explore this idea more.

How do you identify yourself?  Do you identify as a Jewish artist or as an artist who is Jewish, and what does that mean to you?

I think of myself as an artist who is Jewish, not a Jewish artist.  I think of a 'Jewish artist' as someone who is taking more direct themes from Jewish life, historical or religious, and can clearly identify their content as connected to Jewish themes.  I would be open to having someone read my work in a Jewish context as I'm open to them looking at it in terms of gender or geography, or their own personal beliefs, but I don't think that is main focus of my work.

Where can we find your work?

My website is, and I have a Facebook public page:

During the month of August (2012) I have a painting in the Trans- exhibit at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, Texas ( and a painting in the Texas Artists Coalition Membership exhibit at the Fort Worth Community Center in Fort Worth, Texas.

In Shreveport, Louisiana I also have small works available at artspace, a painting at the Shreveport Regional Airport, and an ongoing exhibit at Agudath Achim Congregation, Shreveport, LA

For more information: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Suzan Shutan: Sculptor, Social Activist, and Hiddur Mitzvah

I met Suzan Shutan while we were in graduate school at Rutgers University in 1986.  When I moved to Omaha in 1993, she was already here, as a resident at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art.  A few months ago, she announced her collaborative exhibition "Watered Down" at the Norfolk, Nebraska, Arts Center.  I wanted to review the show.  However, since I'm publishing on the JAE blog, I asked her, "I don't suppose you're Jewish?"  

To my surprise, Suzan's answer was "yes," and she explained to me how her paternal grandmother spoke to her throughout her childhood about Kabbalah. Suzan infuses her sculpture with the idea of dualities or opposites, which reflects her vision of this ancient text.Shutan Watered Down

Focusing on the subject of water as an essentially nurturing yet potentially destructive part of life on Earth, Suzan references the third day of creation, when God divided dry, fertile land and the sea.  She explains, "Water is significant for me because, in the Kabbalah, it is a metaphor for wisdom (a divine source), and for abundance or deficiency.  Water is still used for ritualistic purposes in Judaism.  It also makes our planet unique because it supports life."  

Suzan's most recent sculptures, the "Tar Paper" series, reflect upon the interconnectedness of water, earth, and life, a concern for the environment, and her social activism.  In "Porosity," 2012, Suzan connects strips of tar paper and colorful Japanese handmade paper into organic shapes, gluing them together into what looks like a waterfall. Yes, this is paper saturated with tar, used for waterproofing roofs.  

However, the shapes represent globules of oil or pollutants sinking through "undulating underground terrain, … illustrating the groundwater reservoir and its porous contents."  The shapes attract and repel each other at the same time, pulled together by a chemical bond, but pushed away because water and oil don't mix.  Suzan's sculpture reveals the shape of what is hidden below the surface of the Earth in the land and the seas.  

Depicting what is hidden in the pores of the Earth, "Porosity" visualizes Suzan's understanding of Kabbalah.  While not outwardly showing Suzan's Jewish roots, her interest in the interconnectedness of opposites, and making works of art out of recycled objects, shows the principle of "hiddur mitzvah," making ordinary, everyday things beautiful.  

"Watered Down"
Norfolk Arts Center, Norfolk, Nebraska, and on Facebook
May 31-July 3, 2012
Sponsors: Alter Metal Recycling, The Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District, Karla Huse Visual Arts Endowment, Western Office Technologies

M'Dor L'Dor video directly relates to Shutan's Jewish roots:

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