From the small religious village of Beit Yatir, just south of Jerusalem, to the far more secular beach city of Santa Monica, Judith Margolis made quite a journey to become Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) artist-in-residence. When she accepted the college’s invitation, one of the commitments Margolis made was to work with rabbinical students, as well as create a painting for the school’s permanent art collection.
During the two and a half months she spent as artist-in-residence, Margolis met weekly with HUC-JIR students, faculty and staff, working with them through drawing, painting, writing and creating collages with materials in her studio. Margolis, who is returning to Israel on Sunday, said she has connected with faculty members, some of who had not done any art for several years. One staff member thanked the artist for re-introducing her to the art world and said it had prompted her to convert a room in her house into an art studio.
Working in a Santa Monica studio space, Margolis derived inspiration from long bike rides along the beach. She incorporated into her work items she found locally, including Trader Joe’s grocery bags and a Metropolitan Museum of Art magazine she found on a sidewalk.
Themes of burning bushes, as well as depictions of houses, staircases leading to the heavens and three-dimensional cubes, can often be found in Margolis’ work.
Margolis has a history in Southern California, having taught art classes at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley for many years. HUC-JIR was familiar with her work from her participation in a conference put on by the school’s Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.
She was the only non-U.S. resident who applied for this year’s residency. Margolis was eagerly offered the spot for her ability to collaborate with students not familiar with the art-making process and also because she is an observant Jew who embraces the secular art world and her work is heavily involved with gender issues.
Margolis created one of the paintings featured as the centerpiece of the exhibit, “Simple Twist of Fate,” on view at HUC-JIR in the Mercaz space until May 15, after she received news in 2002 that her 24-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.
That same day, she learned that some of her family members had been in a cafe in Israel during a terrorist attack but were safe because they had been sitting on the patio outside. “You never know when terror is going to strike,” she said.
In the painting—a reaction to the two events—a bewildered-looking woman is seen falling backward in her chair. In front of the young woman, a hand is outstretched, reaching for a die-like cube. The cube, Margolis said, represents the act of casting dice and the idea of fate and “luck of the draw.”
“What makes one person get hurt and the other one not?” Margolis asked.
After spending six months helping her daughter through chemotherapy, Margolis added to the piece, inserting along the borders the words: “surprise, shock, terror, upsetness, wounded, remarkable things, rescue and overturned fortune.”
Her title, “Simple Twist of Fate,” taken from the title of a Bob Dylan song, is not only the name of Margolis’ exhibition at HUC-JIR, it is also an idea she often struggles with. A twist of fate isn’t always so simple, she said. “The name is kind of tongue-in-cheek.”
Margolis lost her husband, David, to cancer two and a half years ago, but his memory continues to inspire her. In one work, made shortly after his death, a woman is snuggled up under the covers in bed, shown against a backdrop of the moon and a sky filled with darkness, depicted by heavy, black pen markings. “Learning to live alone with only the moon for company” is written below the image of the woman. Margolis finds comfort in the open window looking out at the shining moon, which she said gives her a hopeful glimpse into the future.
For the final HUC-JIR piece, Margolis used a sketch of a black puppet, a depiction of an item from her childhood that she stumbled upon during a visit to her sister-in-law’s home. Holding the puppet, draped in a long red dress, she thought of the aphorism from Song of Songs, “I am black and comely.”
Margolis revels in linking things from her childhood to her present, because she finds that elements from childhood can be significant in adulthood.
The black puppet was one of the first things Margolis pointed out to a visitor to her 18th Street Arts Center studio. The loose puppet strings represent what may or may not be holding us up and dictating our actions, she explained.
The black doll is headed toward a multicolored house that seems to be on fire, with red, yellow and blue paint shooting up into the sky. For the artist, this resembles earth, water, wind and fire and embodies the message that everything starts from the home.
For her own home, Margolis is creating a quilt sewn from her husband’s T-shirts, wedding tie and other pieces of clothing. The vibrant colors and careful stitching reflect the attention to detail, care and love that she incorporates into all of her work.
Margolis was recently commissioned by Philip Miller, a Los Angeles resident who was a close friend of her husband and is a patron of her work, to do a painting featuring David. The work-in-progress includes letters from a Ouija board, and David standing under an arch with his tallit draped over his head, holding a siddur and praying. Although it is difficult and sad for the widow to work on the piece, she said she wants it to remain hopeful.
Although not all of her pieces relate specifically to Judaism, many are relevant to Jewish concerns, questioning divine guidance. Coincidentally, some HUC-JIR students created artwork having to do with health concerns, and Margolis, who has had many close to her fall ill, remains fascinated by how people deal with health traumas through art.
In Israel, in addition to painting and drawing, Margolis designs books, under the label Bright Idea Books, and is the artistic editor of Nashim, a journal of Jewish women’s studies and gender issues, published twice yearly.