Longtime comic JT Waldman illustrates windows at KI.
From the groundbreaking 1980s comic series, Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars to perennial favorites Archie and Jughead, Philadelphia resident Jeff Waldman fell in love with comics at a young age. Today, Waldman, a nationally recognized comics artist who has collaborated with the likes of Harvey Pekar, has taken his own work to an unusual venue: the Temple Judea Museum, located at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, will premiere his new exhibit, “Opening the Windows,” which will be unveiled Oct. 18.
In 1970, artist Jacob Landau was commissioned by KI to create 10 stained glass windows for its sanctuary, known collectively as “The Prophetic Quest,” each of which features a prophet or prophetic figure. After six months of research and five months of execution, Waldman has created his own artistic response and interpretation of Landau’s work.
According to the Jacob Landau archive at Drew University, Landau’s work expresses the self-inflicted human turmoil of the 20th century. Because he grew up during the Great Depression and was affected by the Holocaust, he often drew from biblical or literary sources, presenting topics in a way that “emphasized the possibilities of peace and greater understanding.”
Waldman said his work plays well against Landau’s because both of their work is line-based and rather dense. Landau also worked in comic book illustration and, like Waldman, gravitated to making visuals based on text.
“I love the idea that it’s a community of people engaging in different ideas, values and art, even more so comics, which is my wheelhouse,” Waldman said.
Waldman is a comic book creator and digital designer based in Philadelphia. He is best known for his graphic novel, Megillat Esther, published in 2005 by the Jewish Publication Society. In 2012, his collaboration with Harvey Pekar, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, reached the New York Times Best Seller List.
Waldman, 39, began reading comics at 5, and grew to like them more at sleepaway camp in Gettysburg, when he saw older kids reading them. At first, he only read at camp, but when school started, he would buy them at the local drug store in Whitemarsh and read at the pizza shop.
“I was the prototypical comic book geek,” he said. “My friends at my comic book store [Fat Jack’s Comicrypt] are my rabbis.”
His parents, Gene and Etta, liked that he was busy and staying out of trouble, but were concerned about how he could make a living off comic books.
“They clearly saw that I had a passion for it,” he said.
While comics are his passion, he hasn’t reached a level in the medium yet where they pay the bills. He works at Zivtech, a web development company in Center City.
The project began a few years ago when Temple Judea Museum curator/director Rita Poley asked Waldman to create an exhibition for the space.
For Waldman, who did a stint as a Hebrew school teacher at Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station in the early 2000s, this was a perfect opportunity to merge his love for Judaism and comics.
“I feel very comfortable working in any type of Jewish environment,” he said.
“The challenge was making something that site-specific.”
His preparation included research into Landau’s earlier work, the archives of the project, biblical and midrashic resources and discussions with KI Senior Rabbi Lance Sussman, Poley and Karen Shain Schloss, the museum chair.
“It’s basically a visual and textual midrash between a comic book,” Waldman said.
Displayed in the exhibition are Waldman’s original artwork and preparatory sketches, three of Landau’s sketches and examples of the various steps in Waldman’s journey to create it.
“I extracted images from the windows and made them more distinguishable so the viewer could discern meaning,” Waldman said. “I also added visual elements from related biblical text to the illustrations to help place the themes and ideas of the windows and the related biblical figure. Each illustration was kind of like a remix of the imagery in the windows.”
On Rosh Hashanah, the shul recognized him and people thanked him for his work. Poley, who witnessed the project from start to finish, was impressed by how Waldman interpreted Landau’s 1970s creation for a 21st-century audience.
“I always love to see artists process drawings and sketches,” Poley said. “So I was excited to share this behind-the-scenes look at this work with our viewers. To see it brought to fruition through the guide and the supporting exhibition is very gratifying.”
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