Judaism and Art Intersect as Meta-Language

“Tzfat” is one of several paintings in Ruth Feldman’s exhibit, which will be on display at Gratz College. | Ruth Feldman Art © 2018

When it comes to counting the omer, Ruth Feldman isn’t so concerned with numbers.

Instead, she focuses on the growth of self rather than the growth of barley.

Feldman, who lives in Lower Merion, paints acrylic and oil abstracts of nature and landscapes. Her paintings explore physical and spiritual growth.

Curated by Bryant Girsch, her solo exhibit, called Counting the Omer, will be on display at the Gratz College Leona P. Kramer Gallery from April 15 to May 30. Feldman will lead the artist’s reception April 15 at 1:30 p.m.

“I paint from my soul,” she explains on her website. “I believe that creativity is a spiritual response to living in the natural world. I paint not what I see, but rather what I don’t see — I try to paint what I feel. I study traditional Jewish texts and my art is my personal interpretative and expressive response to what I am learning. I have worked to align the artistic and spiritual dimensions of my life.”

As such, in her exhibit, Feldman said she’s not trying to measure the size of wheat. “We’re measuring time,” she said. “Time is allusive. Spiritual time — you can’t draw it. You can’t see it. And so in Judaism, in order to sanctify or mark time, our tradition refers us to the natural world.”

Counting the omer already has a natural element, she continued, and the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot represent spiritual growth.

Some of the paintings in the collection, like Lag B’Omer or The 48th Day, depict “paintings of energy, of fire, of anticipation.”

“I’m after capturing a spiritual energy, a life energy. And even if you didn’t know anything about the omer, they’re beautiful,” she said.

Feldman — also a graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy (today’s Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy) — has only been painting professionally for the past 10 years. After she retired as director of early childhood education for the JCCs of North America, she reinvented herself.

“I looked at painting as the next stage of my life,” said Feldman, who belongs to Lower Merion Synagogue. Whether working in early childhood education or the art world, she said she’s always tried to translate Jewish ideas in ways that young children could grasp.

She dug deeper into her Jewish learning as a result, and used painting as a meta-language to interpret her studies.

Take the Hallel Psalms read through Passover, as well as on other holidays. “We talk about how the mountains skip or dance like gazelles or rams. Now I’m not really interested in [painting] mountains, gazelle or rams, but I am interested in what did the psalmist mean when the mountains skipped like rams? I’m interested in painting the skipping,” she explained. “I try to go to that place and paint that.”

She’s painted in different parts of the world, too, like Israel.

“I was in Tzfat for 10 days this summer, and I did a lot of paintings of the landscapes. Also the water in Netanya. But it’s the idea of feeling, what was going on in Tzfat at the time of the writing of the mishnah?” she questioned.

Two paintings in the show are also landscapes she made while in Ireland, which she said is important when thinking outside the box of a “Jewish painting.”

“It is not just about the beauty of the land of Israel,” she added. “For me, as a ‘Jewish painter,’ it’s seeing God’s creations everywhere — and trust me, the Emerald Isle is spectacular.”

Her paintings tackle a surface level for others to enter, as someone from a different part of the world may see a completely different message in her works, which Feldman encourages. She wants her paintings to become a palate and springboard for the viewer’s imagination.

“The more you know about the mishnah, the more the paintings allude to that,” she added. “But it doesn’t have to be.”

She hopes people capture and see “the magnificence of creation” in her exhibit.

“I hope that people will look at the paintings and have an opportunity to step back, to see them as meditation, to give their minds an opportunity to rest, to stop using the words and just look at the color,” she said.

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  1. Wonderful article; the artist explains her art with so many great descriptions
    that do not sound like clichees but are instead enlightening. And the paintgs really speak to me.

    Thank you!


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