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Visions of Jewry: Free art show depicts Jewish Heritage Month

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Artist Peter Olsen, left, and curator Benoit Menasche pause between two of Olsen's paintings from the biblical Book of Genesis.

Artist Peter Olsen, left, and curator Benoit Menasche pause between two of Olsen’s paintings from the biblical Book of Genesis.

By Jim Davis

Paint and marble, bronze and silver unite to tell the story of Jewry in “A Way of Life,” a new art exhibit for Jewish Heritage Month in Pembroke Pines.

The show’s 120 artworks show Jews praying, prophesying, warring and worshiping. They show God creating, judging, rescuing and revealing truth. And, the artists hope, they’ll instill a sense of history in people who see them.

“I want people to see the way of life for Jews, how and why they’ve survived,” curator Benoit Menasche says in an interview at Studio 18 in the Pines, the exhibition hall for the show. “It was the sense of family, of respect for life and for other people. They argued over the Torah and learned to work things out without killing. And they developed the idea of the mitzvah, doing a good deed every day.”

Benoit Menasche talks about his marble sculpture Tragedy.

Benoit Menasche talks about his marble sculpture Tragedy.

The exhibition, which ends May 28, boasts the works of 11 artists — Yaakov Heller, Shoni Labowitz, Norman Morgenstern, Irv Rudley, Joni Esser-Stuart, Ed Seeman, Peter Olsen, Carol Thaw, Edurne Uribe, Paul Vitello and Menasche himself — many of their pieces created just for this show.

Menasche, who contributed five marble and alabaster sculptures to the exhibit, has curated other shows for the City of Pembroke Pines over the last 18 years. So last year, when the city decided to declare May as Jewish Heritage Month, he offered to organize the exhibition.

As you enter the exhibition hall, you see stone and silver sculptures on pedestals, aligned like the bottom point in the Star of David. Among them are Menasche’s marble sculpture Tragedy, a tight knot of huddling humans, with two others protectively stretching their arms over them. Menasche made the sculpture after hearing of a suicide bombing on a bus in Jerusalem.

He calls attention to the two larger figures stretching their arms protectively over the others. “Their arms take the shape of crosses, as a symbol of Jesus,” he explains. “I thought, suppose you have two Jesuses? Their arms make an arc over the others, to keep the pain out.”

Also evocative is Menasche’s Ascension, a sculpture of Portuguese marble, which shows 12 people climbing a mountain.

“Some are climbing, one made it, one is falling off, one has given up, one is helping somebody, one is climbing over someone else,” he says. “They could be 12 characters, or they could be you at different times of your life.”

Sharing space in the anteroom are works of Yaacov Heller of Boca Raton, a favorite of Israeli presidents. One has an exuberant Elijah Rising to the Heaven in silver. In another, the young David brings down a silver-and-pewter Goliath.

On the rear wall are a painting and two sculpted columns by Rabbi Shoni Labowitz, cofounder of Temple Adath Or with her husband, Rabbi Phillip Labowitz. The columns, representing Torah scrolls, are lined with silhouetted hands that merge at the tops to form flamelike Torah crowns. Between the columns is her abstract painting Welcoming the Angels, the title drawn from the traditional Sabbath prayer.

Peter Olsen with his portrait of Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion.

Peter Olsen with his portrait of Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion.

About half of the artworks are by Peter Olsen of Fort Lauderdale, a Christian who has produced 2,000 paintings, drawings, woodworks and other artworks on biblical themes over the last four decades. His 56 pieces for Menasche’s exhibition are from his Old Testament collection; half have never been exhibited before.

“I’m not inspired by Shakespeare or Dante, or by J.K. Rowling — I’m inspired by holy writ,” Olsen says. “And I want people to appreciate Jewish history and its celebrations. They’re so rich.”

Menasche says he’s known Olsen for 20 years and always loved his work. “What Peter knows, a hundred rabbis couldn’t fit in their brains.”

Lining the left and right walls of the main area are the largest of Olsen’s canvases in the exhibit. On the left are scenes from Genesis 1 and 2; on the right, the Major Prophets such as Moses. They bear hallmarks of his style: big scenes, large and tiny human figures, descriptive words, sometimes lumpy texture to convey the illusion of solid objects.

More of his pictures lie in a hall to the right, showing minor prophets such as Hosea and Malachi and Jonah. On the opposing wall are 10 women of the Bible, including little-known characters like Abigail and Tamar. They’re all part of a collection of 200 women by Olsen.

Why women? “It was Sam’s idea,” Olsen says with a smile. That’s Sam as in Samantha, his wife, who works as his research assistant.

Stark art by Edurne Uribe tries to show the reaction of allied troops as they entered concentration camps.

Stark art by Edurne Uribe tries to show the reaction of allied troops as they entered concentration camps.

“When researching the men of the Bible, there always seems to be a woman,” says Samantha, who digs into old books like Jasher and Jubilees as well as the Bible. “So many women were instrumental in biblical history.”

The patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — are shown in pyrography, in which images are burned into slabs of wood, with pigments and etchings added. So are Jacob’s sons who sired the 12 tribes of Israel.

Digital art is here, too, illustrating eight Jewish holidays including Passover, Hanukkah, Sukkot, the Sabbath and others. The pictures, by Ed Seeman of Ocala, have explanations written by Menasche’s wife, Norma.

Perhaps the most disturbing section of the show is a Holocaust collection by Edurne Uribe of Weston, Fla. Three large, stark paintings express the shock of American soldiers as they entered the concentration camps, according to a text block by Uribe.

Also in the section, a nearly human size angel carries a dying woman clad in striped pajamas typical of concentration camp inmates — and herself carrying her dying child.

Perhaps as a palate cleanser, viewers can then see some oils by Norman Morgenstern on New York street life from a couple of generations ago. The pictures are done with a blend of photorealism and a slight yellowish tinge of nostalgia.

Contemporary individuals aren’t forgotten in the exhibit. One is Heller’s bust of Einstein, cast in bronze but blackened like iron. Another is Olsen’s heroic portrait of David Ben-Gurion, painted blue on blue.

Olsen offers one more hope for the exhibition: just for people to see actual physical images.

“I would like people to see artists, period,” he says. “Everything today is social media. People forget to see original artwork. That’s why I try to put some texture in the art.”

You can see more artworks from the exhibition on my Faith and Values page on Facebook.

All photos by Jim Davis.

If you go

Event: “Way of Life,” art exhibit for Jewish Heritage Month

Featuring: Paintings, sculptures, busts, statues on various facets of Jewish life, history and beliefs

Where: Studio 18 in the Pines, 1101 Poinciana Drive, Pembroke Pines, Fla.

When: 9-5 Monday through Saturday, ending May 28.

Cost: Free.

Info: Call 954-260-0167


Vivid picture of Genesis, chapter 2, by Peter Olsen.


Written by Jim Davis

May 21, 2015 at 5:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Great article and photos, Jim!


    Josie Brooket

    May 21, 2015 at 4:38 pm

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