Turing Life Into Art

There are now more practicing professional women artists than ever before in the history of the world. We offer here a small American sampler, three Jewish women and their art


Ruth Weisberg feels the rush of time.

She has focused on her identity as a physically vulnerable, temporally bound individual, especially since she had cancer. She has moved through her personal memories to paint herself as a child playing “Indians” on the Indiana sand dunes, or to portray her own two children standing beside the elevated train she rode to attend art classes in downtown Chicago. She has also explored her Jewish history, creating images of her lost ancestors standing shadow-like before the Great Synagogue at Danzig or the empty striped uniform hanging outside German gas chambers.

Although Weisberg bases her compositions on traditional academic drawing, her shimmering curtains of light and the deep cavernous shadows give her paintings a poetic quality that is quite modern. Because Weisberg combines images from different places and times in single framed segments and juxtaposes scenes that are not logically or narratively linked, she eludes any linear or illustrative mode. Even as Weisberg insists on finding her own moment and her own space in time, her paintings become timeless. Her art is an impassioned attempt to forestall the inexorable movement of life toward death.

Weisberg has sought the meaning of life in the lessons of her ancient religion, and has found a mentor in Rabbi Laura Geller. Geller has worked to write the austere patriarchy out of Judaism and to incorporate a deity who can be called “She” With Geller, Weisberg has investigated the rituals and texts of her religious tradition, and has given months to her Torah-inspired masterwork, “The Scroll” A monumental 94 feet long, this work depicts a life’s journey blended with biblical and Jewish history. Weisberg’s sources are clearly autobiographical as well as theological: the artist appears with her friends and family throughout “The Scroll”

Developing the images for “The Scroll” and for related works has opened new pictorial frontiers for Weisberg. She finds herself in the role of pioneer: “I’m imaging: I’m making visual things that have been written about a lot, but no one has ever drawn’,’ explains Weisberg.

Weisberg studied art at the University of Michigan as well as in Perugia, Italy. Soon after moving to Los Angeles, she began teaching at the University of Southern California, where she is now one of the few women to hold the rank of full professor. “I feel nourished by teaching. I have a great sense of vocation about teaching, but now I have a sense of heightened conflict about timer admits Weisberg. “I want more time in my studio, which may mean less time in the classroom. Time turns out to be far more precious than any other thing”

by Betty Ann Brown


Works spanning 30 years fill Nancy Grossman’s loft on New York City’s Lower East Side. Abstract and figurative paintings, sculptures, drawings, collages and prints line the sprawling studio spaces. In her drawing room, there are thousands of photographs. “I use these photographs;’ she explains, “to see the figure, its compositions and gestures” Grossman adds,”My artworks sometimes take literally years to execute, thus many are in various stages of completion” Among them are several carved wooden sculpture heads that Grossman is making in an adjoining studio.

From all of Grossman’s artistic endeavors over the years, these sculpture heads have drawn the most attention. A 1969 home movie by Adger Cowans shows Grossman in her large woodshop making these sculptures. She is a small woman {then in her 20s) working like a blacksmith or a shoemaker with visible intensity — hammering nails through leather into wood, pouring liquid rubber into molds, rubbing paint into the soft black surfaces. “In the very long process of making a head sculpture, my work begins to change and embody a kind of spirit” notes Grossman. “Sculptures come to resemble people and people are attracted to this resemblance. They catch the spirit and make a connection”

Born in New York City, Grossman grew up in Oneonta, New York, on a dairy farm. Residing in a 130-year-old farmhouse with an extended family of eight adults and 16 children, she remembers farm life as “a launching pad which was a cacophony of humans and animals, wildness and woods” Her Jewish education — “I studied Hebrew, the Torah and Talmud with my religious father” — was another source for Grossman’s consciousness.

Male and female figures have been equally fascinating to Grossman. “I’m interested in the figure as a formal element and as the life force to evoke a primary feeling, whether it’s comfortable or not’,’ she says. However, Grossman’s work is not about women or men. Her figures are meant, rather, to evoke fundamental questions of human existence and expression — self and other, human limitation and potential, evolution. In her work, men and women are victims and survivors of personal and cultural aggression and repression, both internal and imposed.

In 1969 Grossman exhibited the first of her sculpture heads and quickly became both renowned and suspect for these black leather “personae” that felt uncannily lifelike. Their intensely focused features seemed to stare the viewer down. “Attractive, powerful and scary, they were loved and feared at the same time’,’ observes Grossman. Some people who bought the sculptures saw them as benign protectors, like totem animals or witches’ familiars — animal and spirit companions. For Grossman, as well, these personae can contain personal and social dichotomies, and can thus stand counterpoint — on “the other side of ‘the other'” — from cultural estrangement.

by Arlene Raven


In the summer of 1987, Kathryn Jacobi traveled with her new husband to meet his relatives in New England. One afternoon, while paging through a family album, she came upon a photograph that had a peculiar resonance for her. The photograph portrayed an elderly woman sweeping the snow off the front steps of her clapboard home. The woman bore an uncanny resemblance to Jacobi’s grandmother, whom she’d never met but known only through images in similar family albums. She also looked like Jacobi has always imagined she herself will look when she ages, so the photograph became a kind of projected self-portrait.

Jacobi brought the photograph back to her Los Angeles studio and began a series of paintings that explore the densely layered significance of that weathered but radiant image. “The woman sweeping became an almost perfect emblem of time’,’ explains Jacobi. “It struck me how sweeping off the encroaching snow became symbolic for holding back mortality. I started playing with the image and working with a number of settings for it and realized that while some of them did depict snow, in others I had started painting red — she was sweeping fire, too”

Time and mortality are the major themes in Jacobi’s work. “One of the important functions of the artist at this point in history is to create symbols of continuance. Religious messages have become unsatisfactory for most of us, leaving us with a void in our experience of life continuing… I think that is why images of children, images of people in general, are so compelling’,’ she says. Indeed, most of Jacobi’s paintings are portraits, images of her family, her mother, herself. They are haunting portrayals, fascinating yet frightening. Fragile, vulnerable individuals are suspended in dark, eerie spaces and captured in the smoky shadows of time.

She entitled a series of paintings of herself as a baby “Dwarf in a Tall Man’s Closet” “Each of us has an image of our secret selves, an image that has mythic proportions. I had always been empathetically connected with dwarfs; it was an image I’d always carried of myself. Then I found a photograph of myself in a family album. I was six months old and I had the dwarflike face proportions I’d always envisioned” Jacobi did a series of ten paintings, repeatedly trying to come to terms with that image of herself as a dwarf/ baby. In many of the paintings, she places herself in a closet with hanging shirts. The shirts imply the presence of her father with whom she had her strongest and earliest attachments. The dwarf/baby emerges from a shadowy haze to gaze at the viewer with wise and serious intent. It is clearly a creature from another time and space — and yet Jacobi is recognizable. Her self-portraits are an avenue for recognizing or “re-knowing” herself.

Jacobi says she began working with photographs, particularly from old family albums, in “an attempt to understand the passages of consciousness, memory and culture” Moved by the unsettling power of images from her” heritage, of a world that no longer exists — the Jewish culture of pre-Hitler Europe — she was driven to explore it through art. “My people’s history has been blown to smithereens” states Jacobi. “I could not and cannot come to terms with that idea. I am appalled that holocaust is a possibility of human behavior. I know that it exists as part of my own possibility of human behavior, but then, time can be a holocaust in itself”

by Betty Ann Brown