Life of Jewish Art

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

Ephraim Keyser , Sculptor and Teacher

In the United States, Teacher Appreciation Week is in the spring. This year May 5-9 is Teacher Appreciation Week, with Tuesday May 6 being designated as National Teacher Day. It is a fitting time to remember Ephraim Keyser, 1850-1937, whose long tenure as a teacher in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute (now The Maryland Institute College of Art or MICA) and the Rinehart School of Sculpture affected the lives and careers of many students.

KeyserpassportIn 1893 Keyser was hired to teach modeling in the Maryland Institute's day school. He also was an instructor in the Freehand Division of the night school. In October of 1900, a third teaching position was added, as Keyser became head of the Rinehart School of Sculpture, which was allied with the Maryland Institute and offered advanced instruction in sculpture. He remained head of the Rinehart School until 1923 but continued to give lectures there and in the day school of the Maryland Institute until shortly before his death.

We can learn about Keyser as a teacher by looking at some of his correspondence that survives and by reading statements about him from his students and contemporaries.

Keyser wanted his students to have the best possible opportunity to learn and tried to acquire proper aids for his classroom. Toward that end, he wrote to the chairman and trustees of the Rinehart Fund in a letter dated October 14, 1909, and asked for a skeleton. He notified them that, "a well articulated and mounted skeleton is a need greatly felt and it would add greatly to the efficiency of the class could one be obtained."  The trustees apparently did not purchase the skeleton that year because on October 14, 1910, he again pleaded to the chairman and trustees for a skeleton. "My work in the class is greatly handicapped by the lack of a well articulated skeleton so necessary to teach the structure of the figure and I earnestly request that one be obtained."

Keyser's concern for his students did not stop after they left his classroom.  In 1907 one of his sculpture students was awarded a Rinehart scholarship to study in Paris. Keyser, concerned that the student, who had never been away from home, would have difficulty adjusting to life in Paris, promptly wrote to his nephew, Leo Stein, asking Leo to look after the student.b2ap3_thumbnail_images.jpg

 Keyser was well regarded by his students as evidenced by the following quote from Isabelle Schultz Churchman in The Rinehart School 75th Anniversary Catalogue, 1896-1971, "Mr. Keyser considered anatomy as vital for both sculptors and painters and would give lectures on it to the whole Institute. The students would flock to hear him…His most popular lecture was the one on the face and head for he would demonstrate the facial expressions and even wiggle his ears, to the delight of all."

A lighthearted comment found in the 1908 yearbook of the Maryland Institute demonstrates esteem for Keyser. The unnamed wag reported in the yearbook that, "With that left paw Keyser could draw."

The September 17, 1924 Baltimore Sun reported on a dinner honoring Ephraim Keyser held at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  During the dinner, J. Maxwell Miller, another Baltimore sculptor and teacher gave a testimonial of his esteem for Mr. Keyser as a teacher. According to Miller, a young student obtained from Keyser, more than guidance in art, but a philosophy of life.

According to the February 21, 1937, Sun newspaper, a past student of Keyser's, Miss Valerie H. Walter,  wanted to honor  her late teacher and called a meeting of his former pupils to  plan a memorial exhibit.  The newspaper reported that Miss Walter had exhibited in New York, Rome, Paris, and London but had never found anything to equal the inspiration she derived from Ephraim Keyser.

Keyser's students are deceased themselves now. It is well that some of their written praise of their former teacher survives to validate the career of this fine educator. 

Photo Credit of Keyser: Jewish Museum of Maryland

Image: A monumental bronze figure of a cavalier

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Superheroes, Autobiography & Religion

This exhibition explores the theme of the superhero in large colorful figurative paintings observed from life. My family and I pose in costume, creating densely layered portraits and genre scenes using studio props. Drawing from Figurative Expressionism and Magic Realism, 1-Joe-El JORE-EL1I tried to create a visual narrative inspired from the ranks of "heroic "painting and high culture. There is a creative mix using Renaissance and Mannerist altarpiece compositions, Egyptian Fayun portraits, Roman frescos, Judaica and early 20th Century Expressionism.  But, my real love is comics.

My goal was to revisit the medium as a serious venue for autobiographical reflection, inherent expressivity and storytelling techniques.  By creating high art representations using popular images of the superhero, I am free to explore the medium to pose authentic questions about the self, identity and the possibility of transcendence in the modern world. Can people really evolve and change? What is real and what is the assumed identity? What is the role of the hero in contemporary life?  In working, I fully equated the power and prestige of comics with that of traditional European oil painting.

The exhibitions signature series Jo-El/Jore-EL presents self-portraits in a Superman Halloween suit (Image on right). The image of Superman is examined as iconography and commentary, related historically to the advent of comics as a mass medium in the 20th Century and as the beginning of the modern individual.  The painting, House of El, 2013 presents a double portrait of the artist, one in "civilian" clothes; the other in action gear, examining the roots of the Superman character within a multi-cultural context of Jewish, Christian and Pagan visual sources.

The exhibition culminates in a 16 foot mural modeled on 1950's Cinemascope movie screens. The large narrative work entitled, Superman in Exile, 2013 depicts a somewhat pensive superhero confronting the ovens of the Holocaust with the aid of magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini. Can Superman and Houdini transcend death? Superman and other superheroes are examined in light of Jewish artists and authors during the Great Depression on the eve of the Shoah.  Jerry Siegel , Joe Schuster, Walter Benjamin and Chaim Soutine all meet on the battlefield of narrative painting; a slug-fest of epic proportions!

Information on exhibit:

Jo-El/ Jore-El

Superheroes, Autobiography & Religion

The Art of Joel Silverstein

March 23-May 16, 2014

Hadas Gallery, Rohr Center

Pratt Institute; 541 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn, NY, 11205

Phone: 718.866.6815

Open by Appointment

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