Making art from the stuff of memories

Show features works based on life stories of Jewish women

March 28, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Neither one medium nor one dimension can contain the lives depicted in Weaving Women's Words: Baltimore Stories. The exhibition, which opens today at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, features a vibrant melange of installations, collages and canvases by 11 artists from around the country.

Their mixed-media works are inspired by the oral histories of 30 remarkable women whose experiences, memories and accomplishments in an eminent Jewish community span the 20th century.

In disparate pieces, the artists, all Jewish women themselves, are united by a profound sense of empathy with their subjects, most of whom they have never met.

Tammra Sigler's Neighborhoods Gameboard: Harmonious Cacophony Remembered portrays women in constant motion with energetic paint strokes, tinted images of local landmarks and fine pencil work that leads to sundry vanishing points.

In The Things We Carry, candlesticks and wine goblets rise from well-worn suitcases lined with family documents and old newspaper clippings. The series, created by Viviana Lombrozo, pays tribute to Jewish ancestors who fled their homes and came to a new country, where their daughters -- these very Baltimore women -- flourished.

Leaves tumbling from a tree in one of Rhoda London's collages, collectively titled Women of Consequence, commemorate a beloved oak grove firmly planted in one woman's memory of her childhood home.

There is "no way not to compare" these women to those who came before, says London, 69. Consider "the amazing amount of strength that Jewish women have had over the centuries, when the men went off to shul to learn and the women took care of business, [raised] a million children, cooked and cleaned and did the holidays," she says. "In a contemporary sense, these women are doing the same thing. They still hold it together."

Baltimore Stories is the culmination of a five-year oral history project initiated by the Boston-based Jewish Women's Archive. With the goal of recovering material typically overshadowed by history told through the lives of men, the archive has built an online research resource rich with oral histories, photographs, family documents and other memorabilia.

Over several years, three folklorists conducted extensive interviews with the women, both well-known and unknown, within and beyond their Baltimore communities.

All narrators were 75 years or older at the time they were interviewed. Community activist Shoshana Shoubin Cardin, state Sen. Rosalie Abrams and philanthropist Lois Blum Feinblatt told their stories, as did Micky Loveman, a locally renowned shoe salesperson, and Lillie Steinhorn, who recently retired at 89, after 65 years working for the federal government. Shirley Selis, a passionate ballet enthusiast and teacher, also shared her stories, as did the late artist Amalie Rothschild. A number of other contributors have since died.

The exhibition that grew out of the oral histories is loosely modeled on a previous Jewish Women's Archive show in Boston, says Jayne K. Guberman, a folklorist and project director for Weaving Women's Words. "We were committed to creating an exhibition that would showcase and highlight these women's lives and contributions. We didn't want to create oral histories that would simply sit in boxes in a library or archive where no one would know what these women had done."

With the involvement of community and advisory board members, as well as the Jewish Women's Archive staff, folklorists, narrators and artists, the ambitious project "was a balancing act all around," Guberman says. "No question, as a curatorial process, it was extremely complex."

She and others were sensitive to the narrators' privacy and modesty. They took pains to listen to them and respect their wishes, while encouraging them not to muffle their experiences for fear of offending anyone. As a result, the women have come "to understand through this process that their own lives, however they saw them, really did matter," Guberman says.

The exhibit's curator, Jill Vexler, applied her training as an anthropologist to find artists whose work was "more narrative than abstract" and to pair them with certain themes, such as industry, resilience and creativity, that emerged from the narratives.

"The challenge of this exhibition is that it is both an art exhibition and a study of the social history of women, Baltimore Jewish women, ... and the 'objects' of the exhibition are works of art that are inspired by the lives of these women," Vexler says by e-mail. She and others who determined exhibition content took their cues from "what we called the 'gems' -- sentences which really summed up a woman's life experiences, her feelings, her values."

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