June 29, 2006
Artists Dream in a Golden Age
Sam Erenberg spends most of the day, nearly every day, alone in a 1,000-square-foot box.
"It's like a temple," the painter says of his artist's studio.
A lonely temple, that is.
"I'm the rabbi and congregation all in one," he says with a laugh.
Working as an artist can be isolating, especially in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. And what good is inspiration without community?
The Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California exists for artists like Erenberg. The group, consisting of about 30 members, constitutes one of the nation's first organized networks of Jewish artists. Its aims are twofold: to create a support system for local artists and to transform the way the Jewish community relates to art.
On a recent evening, Erenberg sat among other artists in a garage-turned-studio in Larchmont Village. He, for one, was happy for the company.
"This is my ad-hoc family," he said to the painters, photographers and sculptors who had gathered there for the group's monthly meeting.
The Artists Initiative emerged three years ago, when Amelia Xann of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles approached USC's Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Xann wanted to create a program to promote visual art by Jewish artists.
The organizations decided to found a group that would put on exhibitions, host a lecture series and provide a space for artists to explore the relationship between their Jewish identities and their art.
So, the Artists Initiative launched, with $40,000 in foundation grants for a speaker series and Web site.
The group staged its first exhibition in 2004 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "Too Jewish -- Not Jewish Enough" showcased paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, ceramics and digital work that incorporated Jewish themes or adhered to "a Jewish sensibility." (Art with a "Jewish sensibility," Erenberg explained, exhibits "a kind of longing, a feeling that you're connected to a long history.")
The second exhibition, "Makor/Source," concentrated on the sources of the artists' inspiration. The exhibit opened this year at the Hillel: Centers for Jewish Life, at USC and UCLA.
Members are planning a third exhibition, which will likely have a California theme, to open in the next year or so at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Art historian Matthew Baigell will curate the show.
Ruth Weisberg, a nationally recognized artist and the de facto leader of the group, said the initiative has ambitious goals.
"We really want to be another porthole, another entrance into Judaism," said Weisberg, who is dean of USC's Roski School of Fine Arts. "Younger people, especially, are often more at ease entering the Jewish community through cultural events than any other way."
Weisberg, who illustrated the Reform movement's new haggadah, said she hoped the group would also encourage Jewish artists to treat Jewish themes in their work.
"Many Jews who are involved in the art world keep their Judaism in one part of their life, and their cultural [expression] in another," she said. Jews may fear being categorized -- or even dismissed -- as Jewish, rather than mainstream, artists. But keeping art and religious identity separate "is, I think, unnecessary and not that productive."
Not all of the group's members agree.
"I'm here protesting," Channa Horwitz announced at the last meeting.
"I'm Jewish, and I'm an artist, but I'm not a Jewish artist," said Horwitz, who uses complex patterns and bright colors in her work. "I don't think art has anything to do with religion."
Horwitz's response reflects the diversity of the group, which includes Jews across the religious spectrum, from around the world, including the United States, Israel and Russia.
Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, members find value in the group.
"It's really great to sit in a room with people who get it," said Laurel Paley, whose use of Hebrew text in her art has been criticized as "obfuscation."
Members hope their network will become a model for communities across the country. To increase membership and public awareness, the group is updating its Web site. It has also applied for another foundation grant.
Should funding arrive in the fall, the artists hope to launch new projects. One idea they bandied about involves creating a Jewish community center for the arts, where the public can come not only to view art but also to create it.
As the artists speculated about the future, a sense of what could be -- if only they had the world as their canvas -- invigorated the group.
Exciting things happen when artists get together, said Bruria Finkel, a sculptor with works on display at the New Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
The Dadaists and Cubists of the 20th century began by meeting in groups, Finkel said. Now, with Jewish artists flourishing in the United States, especially on the West Coast, who knows what this group can accomplish?
"It's a golden age," she said.