At first glance, a video about hidden gelatin in vitamin D3 capsules has nothing to do with the rise of subway graffiti in New York or the lost-then-found Birds’ Head Haggadah.
As mishmashed as the topics seem, the respective videos share a grid on Isabella Segalovich’s TikTok page, which has amassed more than 163,000 followers and 5.2 million views since Segalovich made the account a year-and-a-half ago.
Segalovich, 25, is a Jewish graphic design artist and freelance writer in South Philadelphia with an interest in art history. But like many young people entering the professional world in a pandemic, she found refuge — and a platform — on the video app.
“I was living alone during the continuing pandemic, and so I was really just extremely bored, scrolling on TikTok through 2020,” Segalovich said. “Then, in early 2021, I started posting a couple of videos of my artwork and multimedia stuff.”
At first, people on the app were put off by Segalovich’s eccentric videos on sprawling topics. It wasn’t until she uploaded a series of videos about jewel-adorned skeletons in Germany and Austria that she found her footing.
“The third one of those videos kind of blew up and got 13,000 likes, and I was like, ‘What the what! Sixty-five thousand people saw my face? That’s ridiculous,’” Segalovich said.
With hundreds of one-to-five minute videos uploaded, Segalovich has become a TikTok microcelebrity in the world of art history.
Though her TikToks are a combination of musings, public service announcements and do-it-yourself scholarship, Segalovich has an overarching interest in “anti-authoritarian folk art history.” Rather than looking at art through the lens of one artist creating a new style or format, Segalovich focuses on art and art traditions made in community and passed down through generations.
Jewish art scholarship fits into this philosophy, as Jewish tradition and architecture is built on folk traditions and community spaces. But like most things Jewish, it is fraught with differing points of view.
“One of the things that a lot of people say is, you know, there is no such thing as Jewish architecture; there’s no such thing as, like, defining a building as being inherently Jewish,” Segalovich said. “What I think is more specific and maybe a little bit better for me is to say that there are many types of Jewish architecture; there are many different types of Jewish art.”
Segalovich’s research has led her to explore early 20th-century American modernist synagogues that favor large, sweeping shapes; Yemenite and Sephardi synagogues with ornate ritual art; and Eastern European shtetl synagogues with detailed murals.
“We have the principle of hiddur mitzvah, which is making your original art as beautiful as you possibly can and kind of enhancing the mitzvah [of religious celebrations],” Segalovich said. “That has obviously been taken in different directions by different communities at different times.”
Raised in New Haven, Connecticut, Segalovich developed a love for art and art history after her godfather gifted her “The Styles of Ornament” by Alexander Speltz, a 1959 tome of more than 3,765 illustrations.
“I was just super, just completely obsessed with these drawings,” she said.
Segalovich got her bachelor’s in fine arts and minored in visual studies (an application of art history) from Haverford College in 2019, writing her thesis on ornaments in Central and Eastern Europe and studying abroad in Croatia, Bulgaria and Hungary, among other Central European countries. She planted roots in Philadelphia after graduating.
The city is home to its own brand of ornamentation that embodies Segalovich’s interests: graffiti.
“Graffiti is as old as art in itself,” she said.
Art historians consider cave paintings and drawings to be the first graffiti, but the folk art form had its modern genesis in Philadelphia, where artist Cornbread and a group of friends began tagging their names — spray-painting initials and nicknames on bridges and buildings — across the city in the 1960s. The “Wicked” graffiti style was born, easily recognizable by its flowing letters but individualized across different artists.
It’s a way of envisioning art more expansively, as a community project rather than an institution’s invention.
“That’s what’s really interesting to me … art that is created by communities and architecture that’s created by communities and stuff that is, in some way, ground-up as opposed to being top-down,” Segalovich said.