Art as Jewish life

Art as Jewish life

Frisch’s Ahuva Winslow teaches her students to look around them and inside themselves

Leora Barkai, second from left, designed the jewelry 
shown here; she is surrounded by friends in the art track.
Leora Barkai, second from left, designed the jewelry shown here; she is surrounded by friends in the art track.

To a visual artist, the ability to make art is the combination of very different skills. An artist has to be able to consider the world with an open mind and heart, filtered through education and worldview and talent and knowledge. The artist also has to have the skills of hand and eye necessary to translate the vision onto a page or chunk of stone or piece of metal or fabric or digital device.

An art teacher has to be able to teach both the technical skills and the openness of vision.

An art teacher at a Jewish day school has to be able to teach those things, and ideally also to situate them in a Jewish angle of vision that retains its openness and flexibility while being informed by Jewish values and guided by Jewish experience and understanding.

That’s what Ahuva Winslow, who now is 38, has been doing at the Frisch School in Paramus for the last 13 years. As she has clarified her vision for the school’s art program, it has grown in both scope and sophistication. Recently, her students exhibited their work; this week, she talked about it.

Ahuva Winslow, right, stands with senior Aviva Ramirez, a painter in the school’s arts track.

Ms. Winslow — who was Ahuva Mantell for much of her tenure at Frisch — grew up in Englewood, the daughter of artist and art curator Reba Wulkan and Dr. Akiva Wulkan, a physician who also is a lay chazzan at the family shul, Congregation Ahavath Torah. She went to the Ramaz School in Manhattan for high school, and then to Michlalah, a seminary for girls in Israel.

“Thank God, I always identified as an artist from childhood,” she said. “My parents encouraged it. They never said that this is not the right path for you.”

In fact, her mother said, it was because Ahuva had artistic talent and interests that were clear all her life, her parents chose to send her to Ramaz, where she would be encouraged. At the time, there were no day schools in Bergen County that offered art programs, but Ramaz, over the bridge and across the park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, did. (Later, Ahuva’s younger sister, Rachayl, who also loved art, went to Ramaz, but their younger brother, Ahron, who did not, went to Kushner.)

Fresh from those Orthodox educational experiences, which are at her core and define her, and always knowing that she wanted to be an artist, Ahuva decided that instead of a more conventional college, she’d go to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

It was a culture shock.

All the students’ work was on display at Frisch’s recent arts evening.

“I had applied to art schools and gotten into all of them before seminary, but I decided that I didn’t want to draw the human figure,” Ms. Winslow said. (That was because of the biblical prohibition against drawing human figures, which has been interpreted in various ways across the time and space of Jewish history.) “SVA said that it would work around my religious beliefs.” Now, she paints people frequently — one of her ongoing projects is reimagining biblical women as modern characters, showcasing their inner beings by thrusting them into the present — “but I don’t do nudes,” she said. Her work is driven by her religious beliefs. “I think it is hard to escape who you are as a person,” she said. “The art world reflects your identity.”

Ms. Wulkan got married during her junior year at SVA and had the first of her three children the year after that; the family lived in Washington Heights and then moved to Bergenfield. She taught at Yeshivat Noam right out of college — it was brand new then — and then she moved to Frisch. She’s been there ever since.

Jillan Schiff’s triptych shows Rahav’s journey from childhood innocence through darkness to earned redemption.

It is hard being an artist, a parent of three young children, and a teacher; while you never stop being creative — you never stop seeing the world through the eyes of an artist, because those are the only eyes you’ve got — sometimes you stop producing pieces of art, even if you’re still creating them in your head. But then you go back to it, with your manual skills perhaps rusty but your vision intact, maybe even enhanced by experience.

That’s what happened to Ms. Winslow.

She’s now divorced, remarried, and the mother of a blended family of seven children; her two oldest, 17-year-old Judah and 15-year-old Kayla, are at Frisch, and they both are artists.

Reba Wulkan’s grandson Judah Mantell guides her through the virtual reality project he created.

And she’s also in charge of an expanding arts program at the school that is giving students more and more opportunity to express themselves visually in a way that is deeply entwined with their core identity as Torah-observant Jews.

Ms. Winslow was not the first art teacher at Frisch, but when she got there, as its only art teacher, she found that there was no established program, and that her predecessor had not left the kind of documentation that gave her any sense of institutional history.

So she created the program herself, from the beginning. “I created a curriculum for 11th and 12th grade,” she said. “And I had to get accreditation for the advanced placement curriculum that I created — and I did. The application was accepted.” That is a big deal — a major accomplishment — for any teacher or program director.

“I have been teaching the same concepts for years, although I change the curriculum every year,” Ms. Winslow said. “Every year, I teach the elements and principles of design. That’s the foundation of every kind of art. It covers any kind of art anyone could go into. Over the years, the curriculum has changed, the kinds of media have changed, for technology has changed, and for that matter the kids have changed, but the foundation for the class has remained.”

Ahuva Winslow’s “Covered: Like a Crack on the Wall” explores the meaning of modesty and self-expression.

When she first got to Frisch, the school was in its old building. There was not a dedicated art room, so she had to keep her materials packed up before class and whisk them out of sight quickly as it ended. “When we moved into the new building, the administration asked me to design my own art room, and asked me what I wanted in it.

“That gave me the opportunity to increase the programming. I took a year to research what I wanted a four-year curriculum to look like.”

It is now four years since the art program took the shape it’s in now; this year’s seniors are the first to have begun it in ninth grade. Ms. Winslow now has an assistant teacher, Mira Levy, “who was my student, and now she has a degree in fine arts from Mason Gross School of the Arts in Rutgers, and we teach together now.” It is thrillingly gratifying for Ms. Winslow to be able to say that.

Sophia Malovany’s work uses a broken mirror with flowers to symbolize Rachav’s evolution from prostitute to heroine; from destruction back to life.

And the school’s principal, Rabbi Eli Ciner, “used to be a colleague of mine.” She has found him supportive all along, “and when he became principal, the seed that would build the arts program, and make it unique to the school, was able to grow,” she said.

Frisch now has an arts track and a music track (and an engineering track as well); students apply for acceptance to them. “In the fine arts track we do everything — drawing and painting and sculpture and silk screening and sewing and ceramics and jewelry design,” she said. And there’s more. “We do 2-D and 3-D art.” They do installation art and experiential art and virtual reality art and multisensory art. If it’s art, they do it. “The program has really expanded,” Ms. Winslow understated.

Frisch offers arts electives for students who are not in the arts track; often the musicians and the visual artists are talented in both areas. This way, their choice of one over the other is made less stark. Also, “we do have an overlap between artists and poets and writers,” she said. “We do a lot of interdisciplinary stuff in Judaic and secular studies. That is the beauty of working together.”

In the arts electives, “The goal is to do more fine-art related work one semester, and more mixed media the second semester,” she said. That’s for the first two years. “Then by junior year, they know what they like and what they don’t like. If they had never had a chance to try, they never would have known.”

Ahuva Winslow’s “Creation: Separation,” made in 2017, is a reflection, based on the opening of Genesis, of “the borders of identity and the struggles presented to her in life as an Orthodox Jewish woman artist.”

The fact that Frisch is a Jewish school, and its students live in a Jewish world, with Jewish values and references, is an integral part of the art program.

Ms. Winslow’s newest class — “it is my baby, and I love it,” she said — draws on her own work in biblical portraiture. It is an artists’ beit midrash, where a close study of text informs the art. She has had students study the stories of Jonah; of Rahav, whose decision to hide the Israelite spies saved their lives — and arguably the nation’s — and who overcame the perceived sordidness of her life; and the complicated figure of the prophet and strongman Samson. Students are making graphic novels of Samson’s life.

“We are analyzing his character,” Ms. Winslow said. “He is complex. We have open discussions, and with Samson I had so many students questioning why he was a judge to begin with. What does it mean?”

One of the ways the students puzzle through the characters is through “sketch noting,” she said; it is a technique useful for all classes, not only or even specifically art classes. “I teach them how to take notes in sketch-noting format. It’s not words — not only words — but also images and charting and making inferences.

“In text noting, your notebook is not lined. It is blank. And it doesn’t have to move from left to right. You can think and highlight and make correlations and draw something so you know what it looks like.” It does not demand only linear, sequential thinking, but allows multidirectional connections to be made.

Lavi Friedman’s piece for the biblical portraits class, made of cardboard, fabric, and yarn, is another look at Rahav’s transition from sinner to savior.

“It means that they already are thinking visually,” Ms. Winslow said. “They are thinking about the analysis in a different way. It means that often they go back to the text to rethink it, because now there is a new element involved.”

The artists’ beit midrash addresses prayer, putting it into visual form, closely studying texts and translating it into images. “We study tefillah once a week, along with skills,” Ms. Winslow said. Each grade takes on a different part of the prayer service; this year, the ninth grade looked at birchot hashachar, the morning blessings, which reacquaint a newly awakened person with the joys and blessings and realities of the world. The tenth grade interprets pesukei d’zimrah, the verses of praise and acknowledgement that follow the birchot hashachar. During their junior year, the students study the Shema and the blessings that surround it, which are at the heart of any service; seniors take on the Shemoneh Esrei, the Amidah, the 18 blessings that are the service’s soul.

The students display their work in Frisch’s annual evening of the arts. “We exhibit everything,” Ms. Winslow said. “We include 2-D and 3-D works, drawings and paintings, and installation work.”

Raquel Kohn’s self portrait is acrylic painted onto a textured surface.

The Frisch arts program is an integral part of the school’s mission, providing multiple avenues for our students to pursue their passions and develop their talents in the visual arts,” Rabbi Eli Ciner, the school’s principal, wrote in an email. “Under the direction and mentorship of our outstanding visual arts program director, Ahuva Winslow, our students are able to hone their skills in painting, digital media, sculpture and design, and have access to materials and technology in our fab lab. Moreover, our students learn to be critical and sensitive interpreters of art, enhancing their understanding of the world around them.

“Frisch appreciates that the visual arts constitute not just a hobby, but, for many students, is a vital medium for the expression of self and of spirituality. In addition, there is a rich history of art within Judaism, and by combining standard art classes with courses that focus on narratives and themes in Jewish foundational texts, our program allows our students to be part of this tradition.” Ms. Wulkan loves having a daughter who is an artist. “We have so much in common,” she said. “We enjoy the same things, and we see the world visually in the same way.”

Ms. Winslow’s goal is not to have all her students see the world in the same way, but it is for all of them to see the world; to look around them, to connect what they see with what they know, both Jewishly and otherwise, and to use all that knowledge and experience to broaden and enlighten their worlds.

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