Life of Jewish Art

Comments and discussion about the role of Jewish visual arts in Jewish civilization.

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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Our Newest DVD: Art of High Holidays

I am delighted that the latest JAE DVD, THE ART OF THE HIGH HOLIDAYS, is now available in the JAE website Bookstore and on  This DVD is a fully narrated one-hour program that brings Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur to life through art.

The presentation offers a chronological and topical overview of visual art objects and their symbolism related to these two holidays, with 60 art selections, ranging from more than 1,000 years old to contributions from some of our best contemporary Jewish artists. The artworks reflect historical Jewish experience in specific times and places.

The program begins with Before Creation and is followed by a 20th c. abstract painting titled, The Name (HaShem).  The Biblical sequence continues with The Command and two versions of Creation.  Another abstract painting, The Way (Halachah), moves us into the Jewish world and leads to the Beresh'it frontispiece of the 13th century Shocken Bible.  A synagogue stained glass wall in Chicago captures the light of God’s command in Genesis 1:3.  Other views of Creation appear from the Sarajevo Haggadah, an etching and a contemporary silverpoint, of gold leaf, and acrylic.Jews Praying on Kol Nidre -- Gottlieb

Two mid-20th c. paintings reflect two different visual interpretations to the Sh’ma (Listen!) prayer.  An early 20th c. Polish/German/Israeli painter documented Jewish men on their way to Selichot prayers, while a late 19th c. French Sephardi Jewish artist recorded the experience of the The Amida or Silent Prayer.

The artworks are organized by liturgy, as the Bet Alpha mosaic (6th c.) shows The Akeda or Binding of Isaac, from Genesis 22.  The custom of Tashlich (Casting Off of Sins) is portrayed in a 16th c, woodcut, a 19th c., engraving, and a 21st c. sculptural vessel.  Another custom, Kapporot, is related to atonement on Yom Kippur and is depicted in a 16th c. woodcut, two mid- 20th c. expressionist sculptures, and a late 20th c. naïve painting.

Shabbat Shuvah/The Sabbath of Return or Shabbat Teshuvah/The Sabbath of Repentance is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  In Europe, rabbis did not give sermons regularly but often gave a sermon about repentance on that occasion. An 18th c. woodcut in a Minhogimbukh (Book of Customs) depicts just such an event.

An illumination from a 14th c. Mahzor (Holiday Prayer Book) used the two Hebrew letters that spell Kol, for the Kol Nidre (All Vows) service.  A contemporary papercut on this same theme is a special phenomenon.  An etching, and two paintings show different Frontispiece of Illuminated Transcriptaspects of Yom Kippur.

The technique of micrography was used to relate the story of Jonah in a 13th c. manuscript.

Two woodcuts and two paintings follow a series of Shofars from different times and places.

The program ends with a L’Dor V’Dor (One generation to another) tallit (Prayer Shawl) and Kippa (headcover) and an abstract painting, Onement, capturing a sense of equilibrium, balance, and peace.


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