In the following interview, an artist who is also an observant Jew discusses his art–and Jewish art generally. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, Feb. 2005.
Painter, sculptor, ceremonial artist Tobi Kahn received his M.F.A. from Pratt Institute in New York. His work has been exhibited in over 40 solo exhibitions and 60 museum and group shows throughout the United States, as well as in Europe, Latin America, and Israel. Kahn has taught painting at the School of Visual Arts since 1985. He is co-founder, with Carol Brennglass Spinner, of Avoda Arts, which published Objects of the Spirit: Ritual and the Art of Tobi Kahn in 2004. Kahn and his wife, writer Nessa Rapoport, live in New York with their three children.
Kahn co-facilitates with Rabbi Leon Morris, director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-el in New York, an artists’ Beit Midrash at the Skirball Center. They spoke at Kahn’s studio where the artist’s projects-in-process attest to his unparalleled creative force and abundant energy.
What Is Jewish Art?
LEON MORRIS: You are a traditionally observant Jew who, as an artist, is translating the ritual of kaddish [the mourner’s prayer] into art.
TOBI KAHN: When my mother, Ellen Kahn, died last June, I decided that during my year as an avel [mourner] I would create works of art that relate to her life. I say kaddish three times a day because my rabbi, Saul Berman, told me it is my obligation as a Jew. But here in my studio I’m saying kaddish visually. English is my second language; art is my first.
YSAI, Sabbath Throne (1998), Acrylic on wood, leather and bronze, 70 x 21 x 29 inches
Since I was a child, I attended Jewish day schools and yeshivot. There I learned that a text reveals itself differently not only to different students but even to the same person, depending on age and experience. When you look at my work, you may see one element the first time; six months later, because you have changed, you will see the painting or sculpture differently. One day you could be falling in love. The next week, you’re very tired; it’s your birthday; you’ve just lost somebody. If you’re at your favorite beach, the sea and sky will look different each time you are there. That’s what I want for my work– not to be static.
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