After attending services at Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn with her sister, Brenda, last year, Lisa Belkin casually mentioned that she thought the sanctuary could use more art.
Normally, an observation like that would be good for a few minutes’ worth of conversation on the ride from synagogue back home. But for Belkin, a Canadian artist, it marked the beginning of a process that culminated in the unveiling of her latest work, “The Six Panels of Creation,” during a special reception at Or Shalom on Jan. 12.
“This was a real departure for me,” the 49-year-old artist said of the panels, each 8 feet high by 3 feet wide and running from Aleph (first day of creation: light) to Vav (sixth day of creation: Adam and Eve and land animals).
“I’m not a Judaica artist, and it’s not a theme in my work.” No problem: Frequent consultations with her rabbi in Winnipeg, Or Shalom president Fred Leibowitz and others in the Or Shalom community, in addition to her own background and research, ensured that she stayed on the right spiritual path for both her and the synagogue.
Not that she had reason to worry: She emphasized that Leibowitz and Or Shalom had given her “complete artistic freedom to do whatever I wanted to do,” a dictate that allowed her to create the massive installation that conveys the creation of the world in her self-described improvisational Abstract Expressionist style.
With every inch of every panel awash in meaning, design and color, one might think this was a project years in the making. “No,” Belkin said with a laugh during an interview while she was in town to unveil her work.
“It took me about three months. I worked seven hours a day on them, mostly on ladders” in order to reach the upper halves of the panels.
Before the unveiling, Belkin admitted to some trepidation as to how her work would be received by the congregation. Her vibrant, playful images included Adam and Eve lounging against a feline figure in the sixth panel; the letter Daled holding up celestial bodies in the fourth panel; and a beanstalk that could have come right out of a fairy tale in the third panel.
“But everyone who came up to me told me they loved it,” she enthused. It seems that the only question left unanswered before Belkin’s return to Winnipeg is just what kind of quid pro quo her sister is going to do. “We haven’t gotten into that yet,” Belkin said. “But I’m sure we can negotiate something.”