Developing Jewish Artists

Rebecca Guber

Artists shape the world we live in now, and help us understand worlds that came before. Art allows us to be curious, shift perspectives, and broaden our awareness. Artists are the documenters and storytellers of our Jewish heritage, and we need to find ways to encourage and cultivate the next generation of artists of our community.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of artists in different disciplines to help them develop sustainable and successful careers as professional artists. This has included over 350 artists who are engaged with the Jewish cultural world. I try to work with them in a fertile period, a few years out of art school, when the right tools can help their careers catapult forward.


Those of us in the professional art field rarely think of the early life stages of an artist, and the key ways that the talent they hold can be nourished and supported, building to the confidence that makes art-making their life’s work. There is rich dialogue about the way that arts education impacts brain development and learning, but little is known about the path from a talented childhood doodler or drum banger, to a breakout gallery show or concert for an emerging artist. Many well-known artists have glimmers of their talent in their early work; Picasso’s Bullfight and Pigeons (age 9) clearly holds the bones of his energetic later styles. When we consider childhood development, there is the balance between innate characteristics and complex external factors. For each artist, the journey is strange and idiosyncratic, but three impactful circumstances were common to my numerous conversations with professional artists in our community:

•     Having a mentor-teacher
•     Exposure to high-level, interesting and meaningful art
•     Being in a community of artistic practice


Several artists shared details with me about these pivotal moments.  Poet Leah Falk sees a turning point in her artistic development when she was part of competitive vocational program in a Pennsylvania high school and studied with Deborah Burnham, a poet. She describes her experience:

At the program for the arts, where I studied poetry, I was lucky enough to find myself in Deborah (Deb) Burnham’s classroom. Deb was a lover of Robert Frost’s longer poems, an earnest lecturer and workshop leader who was occasionally given to girlish hilarity in solidarity with her students. From the start, she encouraged us to spend long sections of class (which we had five hours a day) in the hallways by the radiators, sprawled over our notebooks, writing. When discussing our work, she was generous, but not in the way some adults are generous to teenagers, that is to say because their work doesn’t matter in the adult world. She taught us as if something depended on those five weeks, possibly our health, possibly our whole lives. It mattered less that she praised our work than that she read it closely, multiple times, and gave us books she knew we wouldn’t understand right away, but that would percolate slowly.


As Leah describes her experience, she mentions several characteristics of her mentor that came out in other conversations about the most meaningful teachers, including the capacity to treat the students seriously as artists-in-training. This characteristic is what transforms the relationship from instruction to mentorship. Leah’s mentor, Deborah Burnham, also brought the young artists poetry and books that challenged them and exposed them to work that could inspire and engage their creative curiosity.


In a similar vein, playwright Dan Fishback shared the following: 

My high school art teacher, Ruth Fishman, treated all of her students like serious conceptual artists. For someone like me, who felt stifled and restless, this changed everything. Because she took me seriously, I felt liberated to finally take myself seriously—to forget about high school trivialities and imagine a world of ideas that was so much bigger than the parochial world in which I lived. By giving me permission to feel like an artist, Mrs. Fishman gave me permission to imagine a bigger life, a better life, and a life that I am—20 years later—still living.


Dan’s story begins to pull out the third key strand, that there is a deeply communal process being explained in these stories, with teachers creating a sanctuary for the students, in all of their innate eccentricities, to be taken seriously and engage with other people involved in creative practice. Artists often self-define as outsiders, and are rarely the most socially comfortable and integrated people in any environment. In the uncomfortable terrain of adolescence, this can be a hard place to exist.


Musician and poet Alicia Jo Rabins discussed her mentor:

My art teacher Teresa McDaniel Shovlin created an oasis for the weirdos and freaks—a place where we felt completely at home and where what we talked about had a connection to the outside world (practicing artists whose work we looked at). It made school make sense as a place to come to, rather than feeling completely alienating.


So where do these stories take us? Jewish day schools can be places that can build up the next generation of Jewish artists—people who have deep Jewish knowledge, and are creatively innovative. Arts teachers need not only to encourage creative thinking, but to mentor their students as if they were professional artists-in-training. We must expose students to real art and living artists. If the art teachers themselves are not practicing professional artists, bringing others into the school environment is crucial. Schedule a performance or artist talk, or even bring in an artist-in-residence, and provide opportunities for the most interested students to engage with them. There must be more than just time to ask questions, but a commitment to creating a space for the most talented and engaged students to hear about the life of a practicing artist, in all its challenges and joy.


There are many opportunities to integrate provocative and challenging art into the curriculum in other areas. Contemporary artists are creatively exploring the Holocaust, Israeli history, the Haggadah, and other topics that are already part of your curriculum. My organization, Asylum Arts, has over 350 contemporary Jewish artists in network whose work explores diverse topics.


Building community is something that Jewish institutions take very seriously, and budding artists are a valued sub-group. They may not always feel comfortable within the larger group, but they also need to be in a community of practice. Where might creative spaces be built where they can do this together, hopefully with an artist as role model?


Jewish day schools pass on the wealth of Jewish knowledge to the next generation, and we need to ensure that some of our students are prepared to be artists, to continue the sharing of ideas with the broader community. I am deeply drawn to my Jewish heritage, and much of what has always made me feel most connected and exciting is the diversity and relevance of Jewish culture. Educators know that we must pay attention to the ways we share knowledge and ideas. Artists are vital not only for telling our stories, but also for creating meaning. We have an obligation to support them to ensure the relevance of Jewish ideas for the future.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016