Painting from the Soul: New Women Artists Group Explores Art Through a “Different Lens”

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In 2002, Ita Mond’s youngest child entered kindergarten, marking a significant milestone for him—and for his mother. Finding herself with some free time, Mond, a formerly active painter, decided to brush up on her brushstrokes and take some art classes. Eager to get back into the art world, she joined a few artists’ societies and won prizes for her “most Jewish” works in a number of juried shows. Mond longed to join other “landsmen” whose love for their heritage was evident in their craft. She explored Jewish art groups, but found their secular view of Judaism lacking. On the heels of this disappointment, she discovered that the answer to her creative quest was actually very close—literally. Mond found that her block boasted two other frum women artists: Shayna Heller and Bracha Melman. Mond and Heller held a powwow and determined that this providential phenomenon deserved acknowledgement. The women decided to form “From Under the Hat,” an Orthodox women artists group. The group composed a mission statement and began reaching out to fellow frum women artists. Five years and some gifted artists later, the group has held exhibitions in museums in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and is planning to appear in exhibits throughout the East Coast.

Currently, eight women belong to “From Under the Hat,” each of whom brings to the group a unique style and technique as well as a shared passion for Torah observance.

“We have come together to present a view of the world through a different lens,” reads the “From Under the Hat” mission statement. “The lens we see through is colored by our love and devotion to a life that is deeply spiritual, traditional and tied to the past.”

Below, we feature a few artists from “From Under the Hat.” For more information, email itamond [at] aol [dot] com or shaynaheller [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Debbie Hager-Katz: Inspiring Gratitude with Art
Debbie Hager-Katz sees painting as a visual proclamation of gratitude to Hashem. “Art is [in essence] appreciating the greatness and beauty of God’s creation,” she says. “King Solomon and King David wrote poems thanking the Almighty for what He gives us. This is a way for me to express my appreciation.” Indeed, visitors to “From Under the Hat” exhibitions are continually inspired by Hager-Katz’s visual expressions of praise.

Born in Belgium and raised in Israel and New York, Hager-Katz had exposure to art early. Her mother, herself an artist, and her father, a Judaica art collector, encouraged hager-Katz’s interest in color and provided the blooming artist with private art classes at the age of ten.

Currently a prolific painter, Hager-Katz, who lives in Maryland, works with oils on large canvases. Her use of vivid color reflects her passion for the beauty of God’s natural gifts. “I delight in the direct observation of nature,” says Hager-Katz. “I try to capture the strength of nature using bold strokes and vibrant colors.”

At the group’s first exhibition, held at the Ratner Museum in Bethesda, Maryland, Hager-Katz prepared twenty-three paintings. She sold nineteen of them.

Hager-Katz, who teaches limudei kodesh (Judaic studies) at an Orthodox Jewish day school in Rockville, makes a point of devoting at least four hours a week to her artwork.

“Color is about life,” says the artist. “The paintings bring joy to people and give them a positive outlook. To put the beauty of what God has created down on canvas is a way of not taking [these gifts] for granted.”

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Chedva Hershkowitz: Choosing the Colorful Life
Like her art, Chedva Hershkowitz’s life followed a uniquely colorful path. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, she attended religious girls schools, went to seminary in Israel, and then decided to pursue an art degree at Pratt Institute.

Even as a child, “I always loved painting,” she says. “I came home from preschool,”she recalls, “and told everyone that someday I would like to go to art school and become a great artist. My parents backed me a million percent.”

Pratt’s secular environment put Hershkowitz very much in the minority and presented her with some challenges. Due to the immodest nature of a number of the drawing and painting classes, Hershkowitz arranged for waivers and got permission to take independent studies.

Currently, Hershkowitz prefers working with acrylics, creating animated strokes that emphasize color and movement. She has always been intrigued by the relationship between music and painting; many of her pieces reflect her attempts to translate sound into color.

She also sees beauty in what others might consider mundane. “I find myself inspired by the details [in life] and turning [them] into a work of art,” she explains. “While peeling apples for kugel, I could notice one apple with colors merging exquisitely and it will spark an idea. I do [what is called] ‘abstract expressionism.’ [The subjects of] my paintings are not so much objects as ideas and emotions.” She also draws inspiration from pesukim in Tanach.

Busy creating vibrant paintings in her home studio in Lakewood, New Jersey, Hershkowitz also frequently paints murals in private homes. In addition, she teaches painting to young girls in the neighborhood, introducing them to the wonders of artistic expression. Constantly enchanted by “our beautiful world,” Hershkowitz is currently working on paintings depicting the largely unobserved life teeming under the sea.

True to the loud and clear calling she heard back in preschool, Hershkowitz continues to hone her God-given creative gifts. “[My art is] an inborn talent that keeps developing,” says Hershkowitz. “I still see myself as growing; I’m not a finished product.”

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Ita Mond: Painting Jewish Struggle Through the Eyes of Hope
Ita Mond, co-founder of “From Under the Hat,” firmly believes that in order for an artist to develop her craft and create dynamic pieces, she must pursue it constantly. “Like the turtle that came in first, one needs to work hard and steady,” says Mond. Growing up in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, Mond pursued her interest in art at a young age and continued to develop her unique ability to create images on canvases that are at once vivid and evocative. After honing her talents at Brooklyn College and Pratt Institute, she married and put canvas and paint away to devote her creative energies to raising her growing family. Twenty-five years later, Mond picked up where she left off, producing painting after painting from her home studio in Silver Spring, Maryland, and sharing the results with the public.

While Mond’s training is in oil painting, she recently began working in watercolor. “It took me a bit [of time] to harness [watercolors] technically,” says Mond, whose drawings tend to be realistic and precise, although sometimes surrealistic. Mond keeps a book in which she records her thoughts and ideas for future paintings; she also keeps a camera handy to capture ideas throughout the day.

Mond, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, often paints images that reflect the resolute hope of Holocaust victims amid the horror. “People often ask me, ‘Isn’t [focusing on the Holocaust] gruesome? Doesn’t it make you depressed?’” relates Mond. “In fact, the message of my art is one of optimism. I have a series that depicts all the seasons of nature and in the background of each [I’ve painted] a symbol of a concentration camp. The world went on and the seasons were waiting for the Jews when it was all over. If Jewish people can rebuild after the Holocaust, people can rebuild from anything.”

When she’s not producing beautifully haunting images in her studio or investing in quality time with her family, Mond teaches painting to a group of local women. “I’m training them for “From Under the Hat,” she says. “They are well on their way.” Mond is also working on initiating an art class in a Jewish high school for girls in her area. She views this as a valuable outlet for young Jewish girls who want to cultivate their creative talents.

“Jewish women possess a binah yetarah [an extra faculty of wisdom] and a unique outlook on the world,” she says. “My very identity is intimately tied to the fact that I am Jewish. [As frum female painters], our love and involvement in Yiddishkeit comes through in everything we do. Whether we paint nature or abstract, it’s still “Ma rabu ma’asechah Hashem.”

More information about Mond’s artwork can be found at www.itamond.com.

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Shayna Heller: My Computer/My Canvas
Unlike the other members of “From Under the Hat,” co-founder Shayna Heller works with digital paint, opting for technology’s offerings in the field of fine arts. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Heller attended Boston University School of Visual Arts, where she majored in graphic design. In the field for thirty years, Heller currently manages a creative graphic arts team at an international research corporation. Since her job responsibilities leave her with minimal hands-on artistic opportunities, Heller had always planned to go back to painting once she retired.

In 2003, when Heller, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, faced and overcame a serious illness, she hastened those plans. With the encouragement of Ita Mond, her friend and neighbor, she picked up her paintbrush—an electronic one—and produced images from her heart. Painting directly onto her touch-screen monitor, Heller applies digital paint—that is, she uses the computer to simulate real strokes. The results resemble watercolor or oil paintings. “[Digital painting] affords me a complete virtual studio with a palette that never dries … and an endless supply of canvas and paper,” says Heller, who applies traditional art techniques on the computer and adds the finishing touches by hand.

Heller equates art with tefillah. “There’s always this internal prayer one says, but doesn’t articulate,” she explains. “I’m moved by the emotion of Jewish-tradition ‘Kodak moments’ and hope to capture them and share them so that the viewer can feel the same.”

Heller’s subjects are often captured in moments of joy, celebration, encouragement or peace. She frequently creates a thematic series of paintings, such as her wedding celebration collection, which includes the badeken (veiling the bride), the bride being escorted to the chuppah, simchat chatan v’kallah and a spontaneous l’chaim. “For me, [painting these images] gives me the sense of hiddur mitzvah [beautifying the mitzvah],” she says. “We’re opening a window to a world for others to see our perspective on Jewish life…. It often surprises non-religious visitors who come to our shows. They ask us: ‘People still do these customs?’ Art shouldn’t be done just for art’s sake or just for oneself; it’s a sharing experience. It’s an artist’s responsibility to think about that.”

For frum women artists, “From Under the Hat” is a perfect vehicle for sharing art with the greater community. “Each of us brings her own perspective,” says Heller. “[The group] has become a great alliance; we support one another and help each other grow in our talents.” The group also actively encourages the next generation of frum women artists. Heller mentors young people who have chosen to go into the field, including those in her own home. Her seventeen-year-old daughter has expressed a strong interest in pursuing art. “She’s looking into attending a seminary in Israel that provides an art program,” says Heller. “To be able to have [art] as a medium of discussion has [engendered] a real closeness; she shows me her sketchbook and I show her mine. It’s been wonderful.”

Heller reports that young, developing frum female artists in the community have attended the group’s exhibitions. “They want to know when they can join [the group],” says Heller. Although the majority of the artists reside in the Maryland area, Heller reports that frum artists are contacting the group from different parts of the country. “Eventually we want to have a virtual studio online as a form of exchange,” she says. “[With] everyone [contributing] their strengths and ideas [we’ll] become stronger and better.”

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Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2007.

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