Weber’s time honored tradition of students interviewing Jewish American Women and artistically portraying their lives, has gone off, once again, without a hitch. Since the year 2004, Weber students, taking this course, have been honored with the task to “identify and interview a Jewish woman 75 years or older, and then create a mixed-media work that reflects something they have learned about each woman’s life.” In 2006, the students participating in the program garnered national attention, as they celebrated five years of artwork with a day of learning, featuring guest speakers, at The Weber School. This year’s students are now getting ready to display this year’s pieces in a showcase on May 14th from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM.
In anticipation of the art exhibition, I sat down with 2004 Covenant Award recipient, Dean of Faculty, and Humanities Teacher, Barbara Rosenblit, to get her insight into the development of the project throughout the years, and why she chose this specific project for this year.
Ayelet: What was your original inspiration?
Ms. R: I was invited to a weekend retreat in Boston, about 20 years ago, when the Jewish Women’s Archive was just at the very beginning of its organizational work, and it really turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. I realized that there was a huge knowledge gap for me, when it came to my history and background and that really piqued my interest. I received a set of posters about Jewish women on the retreat, and began to use them as conversation starters, and while thinking about designing my curriculum. I began teaching an adult class called Famous Jewish Women You’ve Never Heard Of. Sheila Miller who I had worked with for 20 years, had the idea of having the adults interview less famous women that we had never heard of and to highlight their life through art. The results were so moving, and so stirring, and so remarkable, that we had an exhibition portraying the different containers that they had chosen to represent their selected women.
“One of the really important notions of my class is that you don’t have to be an artist to succeed in it. “
Ayelet: How has the project developed since its conception? What changes do you think have affected it most?
Ms. R: The shift from an elective oriented senior year to an AP oriented one has really changed the dynamic of my classroom. The second year we chose to design pocket books, with the project title “No Idle ‘PURS’uits.” We always loved the fun puns. We displayed that at The Breman Museum, and we had another exhibition day where we invited the women who were honored to come and have a panel discussion. We did this for five years, and both The JWA and The Covenant Foundation loved our work. They found it very inventive and meaningful, a permanent installation of lives; a way to really connect the interviewee to the interviewer on a personal level. After the fifth year we had a retrospective. We called it the “Day of Learning,” and invited three speakers, an 80 and 90 year old Sephardic women’s cooking group catered for us. One of the really important notions of my class is that you don’t have to be an artist to succeed in it.
Ayelet: What is so special about this particular project, and what does it mean to you?
Ms. R: We’ve never used photography before — this is a brand new exploration for Ms. Miller and me. I love the pun of “Still Life,” the fact that when you’re alive, no matter how old you are, you are still engaged. At the same time, memory can be wrapped up in objects. I like this particular course because, unlike any of the others, we first engaged in the act of understanding what our still life would be. We always went right from the story of the women to the art, but this time, by creating our own still life first, we got a chance to invite our own lives to be captured as part of the process. We chose photography because it is thoughtful and composed as other forms of art, but it is quicker and more efficient, and we were pressed for time. We try to fit the project to both the group and time, but we’ll see how it goes. I, for one, am excited to see how it all turns out.
Ayelet: Why is it important for people to come to your event?
Ms. R: I think everyone is touched, in some way, by the story of a long life. In that way it is meaningful for both adults and young people alike.
Ayelet: What is the most important thing people should know, that you learned from this experience? What did you take away?
Ms. R: I think something so simple as everyone you see, whether on the bus or in the grocery store, in the sea of faces, each person has an interesting story to tell. Another take away would be how powerful the impact of Jewish Women has been in the history of America.
“In the sea of faces, each person has an interesting story to tell. Another take away would be how powerful the impact of Jewish Women has been in the history of America.”
When asked about taking part in the project all these years, Ms. Sheila Miller, co-teacher and art facilitator of the program, replied; “I have always appreciated the value of intergenerational learning, which these projects promote. As an artist and art educator, I enjoy the challenge of helping students translate transcripts gleaned from their interviews into different art forms; shadow boxes, sculptural books, dresses, lamps and dinner settings to name a few. The idea of giving these personal stories a visual and tangible presence invites the idea of exhibition. This culminating “Vernissage” provides both the honorees and students an opportunity to shine.”
Ms. Sheila Miller followed up, with her reasoning behind choosing this specific project, reflecting that “in recent years a limited set of objects has become a popular way for museums and historians to tell vast histories. Some examples of these include, ‘The history of the world in 100 objects,’ from the British Museum or closer to home ‘Atlanta in 50 objects.”
Objects are imbued with memory, meaning and symbolism–so the theme of this year’s work, “a curated still life” added layers and depth to our honorees life stories, thereby complementing our interviewing process.
The program should be a great success. After all, the only way to really understand someone’s life is to sit and listen.