Life of Jewish Art

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

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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Life or Theatre?: The works by Charlotte Salomon

Charlotte Salomon’s life circumstances could be described as dramatic, tragic and heroic.  As a German-Jewish artist, she grew up in privileged in Berlin studying art and listening to opera, but suffered greatly as a result of her mother’s early death.Charlotte Salomon
On the brink of WWII, Charlotte and her father and stepmother left Germany for southern France. It was there that Charlotte witnessed the suicide of her grandmother and where the buried secrets of her family history, and her mother’s suicide, were finally revealed to her. It was at this point that Charlotte, in her early 20s, decided to paint about her life, marry and start a family.  In a time frame of two years, between 1941 and 1943, and living under enormous constraints of wartime, Charlotte, with a feverish intensity, created an extraordinary work: a compilation of over 1,000 gouache paintings in a form of a ‘play,’ with characters based upon her own life and dreams.

charlotte Salomon Life or Theatre? is a visual autobiography and narrative that is infused with hope, joy and sorrow. It is a personal, heroic, and historical work because it uniquely chronicles one woman’s life experiences during the Nazi occupation. Luckily, Charlotte gave her paintings to the village doctor prior to her deportation to Auschwitz, who preserved them, and later presented them to Charlotte’s parents who survived incarceration. Her works are now in the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. While Charlotte did not survive, her works continue to live in their raw and poetic beauty.

For more information see:
Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. Paintings can be viewed on the museum’s web site:

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