Life of Jewish Art

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

Linda Stein's Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females


Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females

Tapestries and Sculpture by Linda Stein

Edited by Linda Stein; Foreword by Gloria Steinem

Review by Jenni L. Schlossman, Ph.D. 

The catalogue for the exhibition Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females, includes fourteen essays by the artist Linda Stein and others that discuss the art and activism seen in her ten tapestries depicting “Holocaust Heroes,” as well as sculptures that “address… victimization and masked self-effacement." (16)

This traveling exhibition is especially relevant because of the current political climate, where sitting at home and saying nothing about the injustices toward marginalized people in the US can be seen as being complicit in these actions.

Stein’s tapestries highlight ten Jewish and non-Jewish “Fierce Females" referencing them as "brave upstanders" declaring a distinct contrast to "bystanders" who stand by idly and do nothing "against bullying and bigotry, … persecution, sexual abuse, and harassment.” (16) Stein’s powerful tapestries are collaged images and texts about Anne Frank, Ruth Gruber, Vitka Kempner, Noor Inayat Khan, Zivia Lubetkin, Gertrud Luckner, Nadezhda Popova, Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, Hannah Senesh, and Nancy Wake.

These women contributed significantly during WWII, but other mostly male narratives have eclipsed their stories, and they need to be remembered as strong women who were not willing to be victims. Stein’s works of art bring up discussions of the "other" in our society, in order to help find solutions and actions to solve problems, and in this way, she becomes a "Brave Upstander" herself.

In the essay, “Forgotten Female Holocaust Heroes,” Eva Fogelman discusses how both men and women participated in WWII, but that it was the men who were honored for their bravery and sacrifice, while most women who participated weren't recognized. She discusses why that is the history we learn, and theorizes why the names of Jewish women in the resistance, except for a few, are forgotten. 

In the exhibition, a viewer can scan the large-scale tapestries and then focus on one at a time, while being surrounded by the auras of these brave women. In the catalogue, each hero’s story is told in an essay along with images of the tapestries. Some are personal stories, while others also provide insight into the women through historical research. Overall, these ordinary women did extraordinary things, and Stein provides their narrative in the tapestries using photographs and texts, but also contrasts the historical with figures from popular culture, her favorite being Wonder Woman.

Stein’s figurative narratives, supported by her background in abstract art, make the images especially powerful to a wide range of audiences, encouraging them to be “Upstanders” rather than bystanders in the fight to “never forget” the narratives of heroic Jewish and non-Jewish women.

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Evelyn Render Katz and J. K. Thorsen's works of art shown at the JCC in Omaha share a passion for Tikkun Olam, saving the planet. Both Evy and Julie use recycled materials as surfaces to paint on. Julie uses old copper roofing and brass kick plates from an old building that was being torn down. Evy also makes sculptures from objects that would otherwise be thrown away. She paints and then weaves old bicycle inner tubes through chicken wire fencing, creating beautiful decorative containers.Evelyn Render Katz

Evy's paintings, abstracted from a natural starting point, contain bright colors made with broad strokes that appear to be woven with each other. One painting, on an old cabinet door, represents Lot's wife, twisting and turning, losing her bodily integrity just before she is turned into a pillar of salt.

Evy's self-portrait explores her family's Levite heritage, in which she holds her hands in the priestly blessing gesture, which is interesting in itself, as women traditionally can't be priests. (Book of Numbers 6:22, "May Gd bless you and keep you...)  On her sweater is an outline of a dove, symbolizing her hope for peace in the Middle East, which is represented by the domes in the background.

Her 2-d paintings of her baskets capture the essence of the 3-d form where you can see both the inside and outside but also create a non-geometric pattern, reflecting the fact that the materials she draws from are not perfect. Layers of paint create a depth to the images, which look as though you are looking into deep space versus just seeing colors on a canvas.

J. K. Thorsen (Julie Kregness Thorsen) paints a number of studies "en plein aire" using whole oils on repurposed copper and brass. Not only is she recycling used material but she paints landscapes outside, in which she reflects the beauty of natural sunlight and reflections in an abstracted landscape.

Sycamore  Sweetpea Whole Oil 25in x 32in em
Julie's active engagement with nature reflects her environmental concerns. It's very important to her to be outside in gardens, parks, or wilderness, and her imagery reflects her concern for preserving the beauty and integrity of the earth.  Any time that it's possible, Julie rides her bicycle rather than driving. It is her used inner tube that Evy wove into her basket.

Julie uses "whole oils" in which she mixes walnut or unrefined linseed oil, natural oils, and and tried not to use synthetic, poisonous, toxic petrol based thinners as well.  Her images on copper or brass can't be overworked, because once the pigment is placed on the prepared metal, she leaves them alone, so the strokes show the artist's hand.  However, these might be sketches or finished works, but they are not done quickly. Each mark she makes is thought out beforehand.

Her larger landscapes on archival board almost always have a human element, to bring the landscape into focus and give it depth and scale. Greens indicate trees and grass, blues indicate sky and water, and other blocks of color show paths or gardens or flowers, but they are quite abstracted.

Both artists celebrate their positive outlook on life by choosing bright, luscious colors to draw in a viewer, but they also reflect a world that they want to help clean up and heal with their works of art.

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