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Inspired by words of Torah and prayer

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Words @ Work exhibit speaks volumes


The main sanctuary walls at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights are bare, like a Torah scroll, unillustrated but filled with meaning. On any given Shabbat, these walls can serve as a virtual blank canvas onto which three young artists who pray there regularly might project their mental images, inspired by the words of Torah and prayer. Eventually, those inspired images of words are transferred into more conventional artistic media that are being shared in a group show at the Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park called Words @ Work.

Take Words With You” by Aaron Greenberg Silver

Noam Sienna is the newcomer to the Twin Cities, having been raised in Toronto to a family that is both rabbinic and artistic. It was his artist father who initially taught him calligraphy, but it wasn’t until he was well into his higher educational studies at Brandeis University that he started taking it seriously.

“My art has run parallel to my academic work,” he claims. Sienna currently is a graduate student in a joint program of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota. “They reinforce each other.”

Even more curiously, his foray into Jewish/Hebrew calligraphy developed concurrently with the study and practice of body-painting with henna. Is henna-painting Jewish?

“I spent a year in Israel conducting fieldwork with henna-using Jewish communities and analyzed my research in an award-winning honors thesis titled “Old Patterns, New Skin: Jewish Henna Ceremonies and the Politics of Heritage.”

Photos of his henna work have been exhibited at the University of Toronto. Words @ Work presents his calligraphy work on ketubot.

Another transplant to the Twin Cities who found a spiritual home at Beth Jacob is Aaron Silver from New Jersey who came here in 2009 after an educational and professional sojourn in New York City. He is enthusiastic about our quality of life here, especially as a great place to raise his two children.

While Silver works in many media, including watercolors, charcoals, and sculptures in clay and metal, his contribution to Words @ Work is in paper-cutting. His “day job” is website development; much of it is for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

“I started papercutting by taking a Jewish papercutting class by Deborah Ugoretz. I was 13, so it was a very long time ago. I first came into papercuts in a Jewish environment — not all of my papercuts are Jewish, but I don’t think my style has changed much over time,” he explains.

Silver says that his creations invite the viewer to see them and the ideas they present in new ways, extracting the essence of a scene or object to portray it unencumbered by extraneous material. Although his work ranges from the serious to the playful, most of his papercuts are inspired by Jewish texts, or occasionally Jewish general concepts. His favorite Jewish themes are the concept of tikkun olam, engaging directly with living texts and personal spirituality.

“I make things that are more structured like Jewish papercuts; like a round mizra — it has Jerusalem, it has the tree of life, it has lions, traditional Jewish symbols. I have done Jewish work that isn’t classically Jewish,” he adds.

Silver’s work has been exhibited in Brooklyn at the Park Slope Jewish Center and at the St. Paul JCC.

Demetrios Marcos Vital (you can call him D. Marcos) is the only Twin Cities native of a family that immigrated here from Patra, Greece. A University of Minnesota graduate, he learned safrut (the art and craft of being a sofer) in New York, working with Neil Yerman and renowned soferet Jen Taylor Friedman and others, later doing graduate studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He got his first taste for the art during high school when Mt. Zion brought a scribe in to restore the synagogue’s scrolls.

Vital’s recent calligraphic artwork is what he calls “off the beaten track,” that branches off from traditional artistic tracks of safrut. He uses letters and texts that connect the art with his personal and our shared Jewish history in an artistic context, combining Hebrew safrut traditions and texts with modern sources of inspiration.

Parts of those sources are found in modern science. In addition to his work as Outreach Coordinator for the U’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Congregational Educator at Beth Jacob, Vital is an accomplished scientific illustrator. Working with scientists in fields as varied as Anthropology and Entomology, he has been able to “research and bring methods and materials from many fields — chemistry, archaeology, natural history — into my art.”

Tychman-Shapiro Gallery Curator Robin Awend approached each of these artists separately with her idea for the show, not knowing their congregational commonality. Call it serendipity, or just proof that HaShem works in curious ways. In any case, it’s ours to enjoy.


Words @ Work runs from through March 26 at the Sabes JCC, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Rd., St. Louis Park.

(American Jewish World, 2.10.17)

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