Coming back to life with art
Synagogue in South Orange displays works by generations of women
Unity in diversity.
It’s a laudable goal, a healthy aspiration, and something toward which the exhibit called “Femin-Art: Breaking Boundaries Across Generations of Women Artist,” is beckoning.
The show is a multigenerational exhibit of work by women ranging in age from 23 to 91 — that’s what? Four generations? — in a variety of media, on display in celebration of March as Women’s History Month.
It’s at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, the synagogue in South Orange that brings together a diverse community to learn, worship, and grow together as Reform Jews and their supporters.
Lisa Suss and Felix Aarts, members of the synagogue and of its art committee, curated the show.
Ms. Suss of West Orange is the visual arts manager at the JCC MetroWest, where she supervises the Gaelen art gallery, among other responsibilities.
She and Mr. Aarts worked together closely to find the artists whose work is represented in the show.
“I’m very pleased with the variety in the show,” Ms. Suss said. “It includes all different kinds of artists and art — people who work abstractly and realistically and surrealistically, paintings, drawings, prints, all kinds of stuff.” There also are works in glass, ceramic, and fabric. “The strength of this show is that they’re all good artists. We chose them very carefully.”
The age range of the artists represented is important because it’s entirely organic, she said. “We started out by thinking, ‘Oh, this work is so good,’ and ‘Oh, this artist is so talented,’ and ‘How about this person?’ and ‘How about that person?’ and when we looked at the artists we were choosing, we realized that we had a significant age range.
“That’s when we realized that the show was multigenerational — and that’s a good thing.”
Even when visitors realize that the artists’ ages range so widely, they won’t be able to look at the art and figure out how old the artist was when she made it, Ms. Suss continued. “I think people might be surprised.”
She explained why there’s a gallery at the shul; it, too, grew organically, she said.
The original building is old, and it’s had quite a few additions. That means that not only are there central lobbies, but also there are many hallways; most of them are logical places to hang art. Before the pandemic, “we had a hanging system installed,” she said; as a curator, she knows how such systems work, and was able to oversee its choice and installation. “What we like about it is that it’s flexible,” she said. The hardware can stay out of sight at the top of the wall when it’s not being used, but it’s easy to pull down the cables to hang art when there’s a show being mounted.
“This show uses the entire art space,” she said. “It’s hallways, lobbies, all over the main floor of the temple.”
There’s another reason to have art shows at TSTI, a less practical, more emotional one, she added. “Sharey Tefilo is a great place. We like to make room for everybody’s strengths.” Many of its members are highly creative; the work in this show is not made by shul members, but the understanding of how important the arts are is institution-wide.
Felix Aarts of South Orange is a former professional ballet dancer turned photographer turned painter. “I danced internationally for 12 years, and then I found visual arts,” he said. “It happened gradually. I did stage photography, and then — you start throwing some paint on a canvas when you are gluing a photo, and then you do more and more, and then you paint every day, and then you get an apartment with a studio…” (Very “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and it makes sense — Mr. Aarts and his wife, Claudia, are the parents of young children.)
Eventually, he studied art in Oslo, where he was living at the time, for two years, and then went on to earn an MFA at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
He’s a founding member of the art committee at the synagogue; “my older daughter was in preschool there then, and now she’s turning 9, and her younger sister, who’s 3, is going to the school.
“It was important for me to participate in creating an environment for my children to grow up in that’s full of art.” He and his wife also collect art at their home and, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the content of the synagogue’s show, they specialize in art by women.
When the committee began its work, in 2018, “our goal was to do three or four shows a year,” Mr. Aarts said. “We did our first show in 2019 — and then the pandemic hit.”
That first show was work by African American artists from north Jersey. Armisey Smith, a Black artist and accomplished curator, oversaw the exhibit, and the committee’s commitment to showing serious artists’ work seriously was clear from the beginning.
Then the pandemic hit, and the show stayed up for far longer than anyone planned, although far fewer people than planned were able to see it. “Nobody could come to see it, or to take it down,” Mr. Aarts said.
“Then everyone started getting back to life,” he continued. “We revived the art committee and the gallery. The first show we did was virtual, inspired by how all of us were living virtually during the pandemic, and by TikTok.
“A lot of the other committee members are much older than I am, and one of them said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do something with TikTok? I’ve been doing them with my granddaughter….’
“So we asked people to submit videos and TikToks.”
Once the synagogue was able to reopen, “we did an exhibition focusing on family and community,” Mr. Aarts said.
“It was in three parts. One was art from temple members. We have a lot of creative people in our community — SOMA is known for that.” (That’s South Orange and Maplewood.)
“The second part was a project called ‘Pets Paint.’ We invited people to bring their pets. We put canvases on the floor, and they walked through it and left paw prints. We had dogs and maybe a cat and a guinea pig.
“And the third element was illustrations by Jeff Lindberg, a temple member who was working on an illustrated children’s book about Coney Island.” (The book was published last year; it’s called “Coney — A Trip to Luna Park.”)
“The show focused on family and community, because that’s what we missed and needed so much during the pandemic.”
Now, at least apparently post pandemic, the committee’s goal is to have two shows a year, in the spring and the fall, Mr. Aarts said.
Once the group picked women artists from north Jersey as the theme, it made sense for Ms. Suss and Mr. Aarts to be chosen to put it together; both of them stressed how easy it was for them to work together, and how much each of them benefited from the other’s expertise and friendship.
Mr. Aarts was particularly interested in the idea of art by older women, because “especially for artists who are slightly older, mid-60s and up, they can be forgotten in this digital world we live in. Everything is on Instagram and on the web. If they’re not, they can be forgotten. Some of these women have had real careers as artists, but maybe they’re not showing so much any more.”
Each artist in the show has her own hallway or other space; each one is showing four works. The glass and ceramics pieces are in a vitrine in the main lobby that used to be a gift shop. “The work in there is very visible — and it’s also safe when the preschool kids are all lining up there to go out,” Mr. Aarts said. “We want to be mindful of that as well.”
Who: The Gallery at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange
What: Holds an opening reception for its new show, “Femin-Art: Breaking Boundaries Across Generations of Women Artists”
Where: At the synagogue
When: On Sunday, March 12, from 2 to 4 p.m.
For more information: Go to tsti.org