By Richard McBee
I first saw Esther Pam Zibell`s paintings on a beautiful, bright blue Spring day. Now that I think of it, it was much like the day depicted in The Visitor, a rather small painting she created in 1998. An ancient rough wall catches the same warm sunlight that nourishes an ebullient garden alongside. A tree in the foreground offers a cool shade for rest while a bearded stranger seems to beckon us into the doorway. If it is so comfortable outside, then why is he inviting us in? The blue doorway presents a visual conundrum. It is both the entranceway to the house and, because the sky is the exact same shade of blue, it is a portal to the sky above, perhaps even to the heavenly realms. It is an invitation by the artist to join her in exploration of her artistic vision.
For Zibell, it all began in her native Paris where as a child, she painted and drew with abandon. From an early age, she prized this special artistic gift and a very personal vision that she knew needed to be guarded. Purposefully, she never went to art school. She always loved and looked at paintings in galleries and museums, quickly falling in love with everything that explored the imagination with daring and wonder, especially the masters of the dream world, the Surrealists.
In 1984, she was married in Paris in the Synagogue of Rue Pavee. The Chuppah, a vision of her marriage, bears no direct relationship to the tall, light filled Art Nouveau interior of the 1914 synagogue in the once heavily Jewish Marais district. Rather, the painting is set in the supernal, supported by fluffy clouds and surrounded by the spectral images of rabbis, friends, relatives and, perhaps, generations of ancestors. A light of sanctity and peace emanates from the deep blues that dominate the celebration. The long lacy veil of the kallah, wonderfully white and pure, sweeps past the passive chosson, visually enveloping him in the embrace of their imminent marriage. This is a painting of love and devotion.
At a certain point in their young marriage, they attempted to live in Eretz Yisrael and chose the lofty heights of Safed as spiritually appropriate. Zibell hoped that she could open a gallery and exhibit her paintings. They were only able to stay two years, as the stress of making a living proved to be overwhelming. Nevertheless, much was gained in the magical light and atmosphere of that city. Tashlich is but one example of the many paintings she created in Safed. A modest piety pervades this painting as a late afternoon light illuminates the ritual. The scene is deceptively simple on this Rosh Hashanah afternoon. An entire kehilla of men and small boys are massed along the edge of a river or pond, separated from a smaller group of women and girls by a stately tree. The requisite fish obligingly await the crumbs that will symbolically cast away all sin. But it is the foreground that carries the weight of meaning in the painting.
In what must be another realm, young boys and girls occupy this side of the pond. They are standing in an idyllic field teeming with flowers, a kind of Gan Eden where the past, with its struggles and imperfections, has been cast off and the new year is full of all the hope and possibilities that only youth can envision.
The journey continues with Esther Pam Zibell immigrating to the United States with her growing family and relocating in Crown Heights. Just last year. she painted another aspect of her life in Crown Heights that may be one of the best paintings in the current retrospective exhibition. Displayed in the front window of the Chassidic Art Institute on Kingston Avenue, The Shabbos Fish has attracted a lot of attention. In a symbolic, visual language, Zibell explores the role of the Jewish woman that is crystallized in the cherished Shabbos preparations of every Friday. Each element of the painting carries its own symbolic weight. The stove is piping hot with Shabbos delicacies. On the sky blue wall are two pots framing our ideal Jewish woman as she emerges from behind a giant fish, ready to become part of the Shabbos celebration. The fish is emblematic of the fecundity of the holy Shabbos and the Jewish family that celebrates it. In this surreal-like painting reminiscent of Magritte, fruitfulness is further echoed by the two sprouting onions on the cabinet on the right.
The fish, the foundation of the painting, is brilliantly rendered with shimmering scales that reflect Shabbos candles, wine, kos (kiddush cup), and a Havdalah candle. The modestly dressed woman is of course, the center of this universe, as she is surrounded by a constellation of her own creativity. And above it all a perfectly white lace curtain floats with a mystical presence on a light blue wall, a transformation into sky and worlds beyond.
From these ethereal heights I return to the blue skies on this beautiful spring day and realize that Esther Pam Zibell`s journey from Paris to Safed to Crown Heights reveals a complete inner vision. She has reinterpreted the world around us allowing the most common events in our lives to reverberate with the joy of a family life immersed in Yiddishkeit. And most importantly as an artist, she has guarded her vision very well indeed.
Chassidic Art Institute — 375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11213; (718) 774 9149 Zev Markowitz, director. Noon-7 p.m. Sunday- Thursday until May 6, 2002.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. He is active in the American Guild of Judaic Art (jewishart.org) and the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue. Please feel free to e-mail him with comments at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2001, The Jewish Press Inc. (ISSN 0021-6674)
By: Menachem Wecker
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Painting Chassidic Women
The Art of Esther Pam Zibell
Closes January 24, 2007
CHAI - The Chassidic Art Institute
375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn
Gallery Hours: 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday to Thursday
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women serve very different roles, which lead them to frequent different spaces. Study halls and synagogues are often the domain of the men, whereas the women spend their time in the home. Painter Esther Zibell, whose work currently hangs at the Chassidic Art Institute, literally sheds light on this gender divergence.
The men in Zibells paintings are largely depicted in closed and dark spaces. Within these private, cold spaces, they often engage in ritual acts like blowing a shofar or bending over sacred texts in study. In Learning 1 (2003), a young boy with peyos studies a volume (perhaps the Talmud, judging from the scale) in an ill-lit blue and gray room. The space the young boy occupies does not welcome voyeurs; it is an insular, serious space only for the initiated.
Other learning scenes on Zibells website, http://www.estherzibellsart.com/, show equally cold, dark settings. Zibell suggests that the men she paints shrouded in darkness mirror, in a materiel and ocular way, the traditional male Chassidic garb.
While Chassidic women are often stereotypically thought of as quiet, colorless creatures, and domestic and drab in an airless kitchen, these women defy the contrived archetype in Zibells paintings. Against the backdrop of the male darkness, Zibells women are a welcome rush of color as they meander through flower gardens in spaces so wide and open that they appear endless.
Botanical Garden 2 (2003) is set, as the title suggests, in a garden with purple, yellow and white flowers. A Chassidic woman pushes a stroller as she walks, while a number of young children run ahead of her.
This painting, unlike some of the male-themed paintings, invites voyeurism and questioning. While Zibell thinks of the woman in Botanical Garden 2 as dreamy, the womans dull, downcast eyes suggest a sadness that is strikingly discordant with the bucolic, even idyllic scene. The inner life of this woman as she strolls through the garden that cannot help but represent another Garden, positioned as it is among so many other Jewish symbols is compelling and even poignant. She seems all but ready to scream, like the famous Edvard Munch subject. While religious life might largely take place in a dark shul for a Chassidic man, in these paintings, religious life unfolds for women in public, even secular spaces.
In this respect, Zibell has peeled back another layer of a widely held belief about Chassidic Jews that is not always accurate. While the roles of men and women in the Chassidic tradition are certainly clearly defined, women do not exist solely in the private sphere, in the same way that men do not always dominate in a public forum.
While Zibell does not recognize any kind of manifest sadness in the woman in the garden, she does capture the burden of a blessing in The Baal Habusta (2006), a portrait of a married young mother pushing a stroller. In the painting, the woman with downcast eyes pushes a pink-dressed infant through Israels stone streets, as a little boy withpeyos, a white button-down shirt, black pants, a large black yarmulke and a hint of white tzitzis clutches the right side of the stroller. A little girl with a red dress and white stockings clutches the left side. In an improbable positioning, the fourth child, appears to be riding on top of the stroller. The infant offers the only hint of a smile in the entire portrait.
This painting, which was inspired by a black and white newspaper photo, delves into a mundane moment a stroll. But viewed through the proper lens, or in the perfect light, this mundane moment can become poignant. Zibell, who is Lubavitch, sees the goal of her art, like her religious observance, as the elevation of the mundane to the spiritual by examining the divine sparks within these seemingly simple moments.
In Jewish Moments (2006) a painting that borrows elements of surrealism stands a man who wears a tallit and tefillin. The man occupies the central part of the painting, which is surrounded by a variety of religious objects and rituals such as Kiddush wine, a couple beneath a chuppah and a shofar.
But some of Zibells paintings address less cheerful experiences like absence and loneliness. Its Time to Go Home (2002) shows a woman waiting at a window. The womans face is partially shrouded by a white lacy curtain, reminiscent of a veil. Behind her, a white tablecloth covers a table unset, but for the challahs, the Kiddush cups and a pair of white Shabbat candles. While the woman in the painting might be waiting for her husband, Zibell explains that this painting, unlike the majority of her work, was painted with a specific purpose and meaning in mind. A narrative of sorts, the painting is the story of the artists plaintive hope for a friend who has yet to as the painting puts it go home.
The lives of Chassidic women, which are often viewed as mundane and quiet, are elevated in Zibells art to a magnificence that remains modest. In the same way that the Jewish tradition elevates the basest acts into holy actions accompanied by liturgy, blessing or prayer, Zibell looks to the moments in gardens or in study halls that possess sacred sparks. Jewish life is made up of that which takes the mundane and makes divine out of it. This is the purpose of why we were created. My hope would be that through the mundane, some mystical feeling will come out, says Zibell.
The small, one room gallery in the Chassidic Art Institute, located in the heart of Brooklyns Crown Heights, seems a perfect home for this exhibit. Galleries are often cut off from the world, and viewers feel they have left life to engage high Art. Good shows often present to viewers new ways to see the world.
Leaving Zibells show, viewers see women outside pushing strollers and holding sticky hands. They also see the black-suited, white-shirted men whose peyos rise in the wind. One can only wish that the people who perpetuate the stereotypes would walk into the gallery and study Zibells work carefully.
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Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Miriam Cohen is majoring in English at Touro College. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2007, The Jewish Press Inc.
As far back as Esther Pam Zibell can remember, she's always been drawing. Although the artist, now in her 50s, grew up in the vibrant art world of France, she decided not to attend art school in order to "keep something very fresh" in her paintings," she says.
Zibell instead found strength in paving her own path when it comes to her artwork. She admits that attending art school might have taught her valuable techniques, but she always preferred a personal, albeit more difficult, approach. In fact, it is her life and its surroundings, including the presence of fellow artists and Chassidic neighbors, that continue to inspire and influence her work.In her earlier days, surrealist painters such as Henri Matisse and Amedeo Modigliani were role models. From the age of 15, she loved the art of Modigliani, an Italian-born Jewish painter from the early 20th-century who spent part of his career in Paris. And although Zibell has developed a very different method from Modigiliani, she says some of her paintings still bear a slight hint of his style in the long shape of her characters' faces.
She began to exhibit her own surrealist oil paintings in Paris during the 1970s and 80s.
When she became an Orthodox Jew almost 30 years ago, she turned to Jewish and Chassidic life as inspiration for her art. She focused first on universal, biblical themes, such as the creation of the world. When Zibell became a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch two years later, she says, she turned to portraying "every day Jewish life as is, [and] to feel the soul behind it, not just plain reality."
"When you become religious, you have to find yourself again," she says in reflection. "You find out you can really be yourself, you don't have to paint a certain way."
She soon discovered that imagination and creativity could be consistent with religious life.
Chassidic women appear as strong and central characters in her paintings: In "Mazel Tov" (2002, oil on canvas), a Chassidic bride and groom stand close to each other under a wedding canopy; they're surrounded by flowers beneath a dark sky as silhouettes of ancestors watch the ceremony. A violinist at the forefront plays music. The bride, who is illuminated in white, is a powerful focal point of the painting.
Zibell, though, gives men and women an equal spotlight by portraying each involved in their unique roles. She draws men involved in prayer and learning, and women at home preparing for Shabbat or taking walks with their children.
"[I am] always influenced by where I am living," says Zibell. And with Paris, Montreal, Israel and New York on the map of places she's lived, Zibell has a wealth of experiences from which to draw inspiration.
Finding religious life in Paris "too scattered," she says, she left Paris with her family and moved to Montreal, Canada, in 1986 for its concentrated Chassidic community. While living in Montreal, she began exhibiting her work locally.
After living in Montreal for seven years, she went to Sefad, Israel, in 1993. She says living there for two years deeply impacted her art. She exhibited her colorful paintings, themselves inspired by life in the mystical city, at her own gallery.
But the financial burden of living as an artist in Israel proved to be too great. She returned to Montreal, where she remained until deciding to move to Crown Heights nine years ago.
Although relatively new to Crown Heights as a community member, Zibell was no stranger to the area. She had made frequent trips into Crown Heights during the years she lived in Montreal in order to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory; she had always longed to settle there.
Her artistic fame in the neighborhood came when she had her first show at the local Chassidic Art Institute in 2002. The gallery featured some of her more recent paintings at an exhibition in January.
In Crown Heights, she began painting Chassidic life as she observed it on the bustling streets. Holiday rituals, synagogue scenes and family strolls at the neighboring Brooklyn Botanic Garden all made their way to her canvasses, where they have remained.
Her studio, which is the front room of her house, overlooks a wide, shady block. It also doubles as a spare bedroom that stores paintings that haven't found a spot on walls already covered by her vibrant art.
The painting she is now working on is the first in a series depicting the story of the biblical heroine Ruth.
"It's a way of showing ancient life in Israel," says Zibell. "It can push my imagination for color and landscape."
Painting With Purpose
When asked why she never attempted to paint the Rebbe, the painter responds that she doesn't believe any artist can fully capture the Rebbe's powerful gaze.
"When you paint a portrait, there's always a little bit of yourself in it, so there is always something missing," she explains. "There was something going on in the Rebbe's eyes that no painting can ever satisfy."
Instead, she makes collages using photographs of the Rebbe. A collage in her dining room displays a picture of hundreds of sheep moving toward the direction of a photo of the Rebbe, a metaphor of the many people who flocked to him.
She tells a story of the first time she saw a photograph of the Rebbe, before she came to Lubavitch. She says she always tried imaging what Moses looked like, but couldn't until she came across the Rebbe's photo.
"That was before I even learned [the Kabbalistic teaching] that every generation has its own Moshe Rabbeinu," she says.
"Becoming religious made me realize how G‑d is behind everything; G‑d guides my hand in art," she continues. "I always ask G‑d when I begin a painting that it should help someone do teshuvah or enjoy Jewish life some more."Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center · Under the auspices of the Lubavitch World Headquarters
Paintings by Esther Zibell
Inspired by life and events in the Jewish community of Brooklyn, the paintings in this exhibition reflect the diversity of the borough. Esther Zibell has painted scenes of daily life as well as scenes of events, the ceremonies and traditions that break up our day-to-day routines. The scenes of Jewish traditions performed in Brooklyn -- although they have been performed for thousands of years and in thousands of places -- blend with scenes of daily life which are specific to our beloved borough and enjoyed by the entire diversity including those in Brooklyn's Jewish community. Whether portraying Kaparot or a walk through Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Zibell blends expressionism and imagination, re-interpreting the world around her and capturing the "soul" of the moment. These paintings hang side by side much like events of both great and small importance happen side by side in life. It is the artist's hope that her paintings "...could give the general public a better and more meaningful perspective in how they view my community, through the colorful look of an insider."Esther Pam Zibell is a mostly self-taught artist using oil on canvas to create her paintings. She was born in France and was always drawing and painting even as a very young child. Zibell has lived and exhibited her work internationally in Paris and the Cote D'Azur in France; Montreal, Canada; and Safed, Israel before settling in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn, New York where she now resides. Zibell currently attends the Art Students League of New York. Her paintings have also been featured in Match and Marry, a 2007 movie by Suzannah Warlick and in Coming Home a book by Miriam Jaskierowicz Arman.
By Richard McBee
Finally it’s Pesach and spring ushers it in with blooming ﬂowers, mild breezes and the relaxation of chol hamoed and spring weekends. What a wonderful time to take in some of the myriad cultural offerings New York (and other places) have to offer. The following is a somewhat random selection of galleries and museums that explore Jewish art and culture in general.
Perfect for the season is Archie Rand’s HadGadya, a radical series of ten large paintings on the famous Passover song, envisioning the song as an extended riff on Jewish art and faith, until May 8at The Gershman Y, Philadelphia, Penn. (www.ger-shmanY.org). Nearby the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art (www.rodephshalom.org/community/mu-seum – 215-627-6747) is featuring photographer Ahron D. Weiner’s Next Year in Uman: A Journey to theUkraine. This selection from his six-year project of documenting the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov expertly captures the essence and grit of Jewish piety, festivities and communal experience (until August 15).
Closer to home the Chassidic Art Institute (718-774-9149) is offering two exhibitions this spring. A group show of Soviet émigré artists will run until April 28. It features Hendel Lieberman, who be-came the “grandfather” of the burgeoning chassidic Art movement more than 35 years ago, and other émigré painters like Zalman Kleinman, Victor Shaul, Samuel Rothbort, Michael Gleizer and M. Axelrod. From May 15 until June 22 the prominent artist Mark Bronshtein will show works at CHAI that reﬂect the hope and optimism found in daily Jewish life.
The Brooklyn Central Library, Youth Wing (718-230-2100) is featuring a selection of the works of Esther P. Zibell, “Jewish Life in Crown Heights and Elsewhere.” This survey (also at estherzibellsart.com) offers a sentimental, witty and intimate glimpse of Orthodox life around the world. One of my favorite examples is Safed’s Cats depicting no less than13 black cats hungrily watching a Hasid barbequing by the moonlight in his Safed backyard. Unique of its kind.
Samuel Bak has been known for most of his long career as a Holocaust artist, concentrating on his experiences as a child in the Vilna ghetto and post-war traumas. This exhibition at the QCC Art Gallery (www.qcc.cuny.edu.artgallery), Icons of Loss: The Art of Samuel Bak, explores two potent symbols of that history...
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