Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cultural Heritage Artists Project: Janet Shafner

Janet Shafner, one of the contributors from New York, answers questions about the Cultural Heritage Artists project of the Orchard Street Shul.

How did you find out about the Orchard Street Shul project and what motivated you to participate?

I knew Cynthia Beth Rubin from the time, many years ago, when we both were teaching art at Connecticut College. Over the years, we have had occasional contact.

Last year, I wrote to tell her about a project I was involved with in NYC . It was something akin to the Orchard Street Shul Project, in which a number of artists were planning to show their work in the lower East Side Stanton Street Synagogue, which like the shul in New Haven, was decrepit and about to be rehabbed. The exhibition consisted of works by Jewish artists from the New York area, and panels and lectures to correlate with the show were being planned.

Cynthia, in turn, let me know about the New Haven project, and urged me to participate. Anytime a group of artists interested or working with Jewish themes gets together, I am interested.

For over 20 years I have been making multi-paneled paintings based on material from the Hebrew Bible and classic commentaries and their parallel with contemporary political and social issues. At first, I felt like I was mining a vein that was way off the path. It was almost universally considered "kitsch" to do art relating to Jewish subjects. Now, of course, it has become respectable, although Jewish subject matter is still considered transgressive by many museums, galleries and curators.

So, it is with great pleasure that I join with artists who are bringing this material into a contemporary context.

Can you explain your contribution to the project and its connection to the shul?

I visited the Orchard Street Shul and it was so reminiscent of other very old synagogues, all
deteriorating as the neighborhoods and the demographics shift. The images that were most insistent, for me, were the many piles of old sacred books, on benches and in bookcases. I took some photos and went home to find an image that would link the decaying books to a larger motif.

How does this work fit into the context of your other art work?

As I mentioned, most of my paintings done in the last 22 years have dealt with images relating to the Hebrew Bible, Midrash & Talmud. Almost all consist of a rectangular panel with one or more attached lunettes.

Although this piece is not textually inspired, it definitely relates to the Jewish tradition, and its physical structure of a lunette attached to a rectangular panel is the same.

I admire the reverence that is given to holy books, so that when they are unusable they are buried like, and with, the Jewish people. Zachor (remember) is a reference to those books and
also the passed life of the Orchard Street Shul. To bring the concept forward, the box marked "Shaimos" is placed below the piece so sacred books that can no longer be used, can be deposited there, awaiting proper burial.

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