April 18th, 2007 by Menachem Wecker
Iconia and Jewess are teaming up to present interviews with the artists of the Jewish Women’s Art Association (JWAN) who participated in the show “Words Within.” I’ve been covering this in a five-part series in the Jewish Press, which I’ve been posting here. Here is Jewess’ first post on the matter, well worth reading. I will be posting my own interview questions as an update.
Sherry Autor is an artist and practicing psychologist, with a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art (where I studied for a few years) and psychology degrees from Columbia and Harvard. She recently completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, and is on the Steering Committee of the Boston Chapter of the Women’s Caucus for Art.
RHF & MW: Do you consider yourself a Jewish artist? A Jewish woman artist? A woman artist? If yes, please elaborate. If not, why not?
SA: I consider myself a Jewish artist, a Jewish woman artist, and a woman artist. How could I not? All of those labels relate to me, but so do others — maybe just Artist, Massachusetts Artist, American Artist, modern, post-modern. I am also a Psychologist — in clinical practice — I practiced in the Psychiatry Dept of the Massachusetts General Hospital for many years and am still in private clinical practice. So those categories fit who I am and from the place I work, but they are not exclusive of other categories.
RHF: How do your work as a clinical psychologist and your artwork coincide? Do you ever do art therapy with your patients?
SA: Both psychotherapy and art-making (as I practice them) are about exploration and process. Although both begin with ideas, problems, and perhaps goals, all of these may change as the process goes along. From my perspective, both are about trying new approaches, about increasing one’s options, re-framing the assumptions with which I began, seeing possibilities where they weren’t seen before, discovering what is getting in the way and eliminating obstacles. Both are about discovering new possibilities.
RHF: You said in a preliminary interview that you think of your audience as being “larger than the community sympathetic to Jewish women’s art.” How big is that community, and why is reaching the audience beyond it important?
SA: It seems to me that the reason that Torah is so central in our tradition is because it teaches us as human beings about our world and about how to live in the world. It speaks about human frailties and human relationships, about family, marriage, friendship, and about humanity’s relationship to the planet on which we all dwell. These universal issues are the inspiration for my work. I think of my work as midrashim in response to passages of Torah, but the Torah itself as universal. It is important to me that its message be shared with a wide community.
…Works of visual art are not just images. They contain ideas and have meaning and thus can engage the viewer in considering these ideas and meaning from the artist’s perspective. This is what I seek to do in reaching out to a wider audience.
RHF: Do you think, as a woman, you’ve experienced more or less encouragement from the Jewish world to pursue your artwork than a Jewish man would?
SA: I’m not sure how to answer this question….I would have to guess or invent a reply rather than report something I know about.
MW: What sort of work was your piece on searching for Eden?
SA: The opening chapters of the Book of Genesis have inspired many of the series I have done. I did three series on Eden: “The Sorrows of Eve,” “Memories of the Garden” and “Search for Eden.”
The “Search for Eden” was based on multiple readings and discussion of the passage in which humanity is given stewardship of the planet with its fauna and flora. The sacred text tells us that G-d planted a garden in Eden and set the humans there “to work it and to watch it.” Ch.2-15; Schocken Bible. What, I wondered, were we being told to do? What are we doing?
I went to the rainforest to explore this concern and to understand at first hand the ecosystem of the rainforest, and of the “Garden” in which we all dwell. The works I made based on this were an urgent plea for all of us to preserve our planet, this “Garden” upon which we are dependent for our survival.
MW: How does the notion of leaving home relate to the heart and the floral background in your work?
SA: Home is central to most people’s sense of safety and comfort, a refuge from the uncertainties of the larger world. It is a place many of us make our own by filling the spaces with objects and decorations that reflect who we are and what is important to us to look at and use on a daily basis. We make it our own. Home also contains feelings and memories, the result of the lived experience within its spaces.
The floral background in my painting references the personal decoration of the home. The background contains fruit as well as flowers and thus refers to the nourishment of home. Heart is a metaphor for the strong emotional hold that home has and how difficult leaving home can be.
MW: To what extent is the narrative about leaving home based on autobiographical information?
SA: The narrative about leaving home does refer to my personal experience of relocating from a home I lived in for many years. The experience of having to leave the home I loved led to my documenting the entire process — the spaces — filled and emptied, the objects, the process of packing, of taking things to Good Will, the progressive emptying of rooms on the day of moving, with hundreds of photographs. In making work based on home, I “rescued” and preserved fragments of the home I left behind.
Home is particularly central in Jewish observance–and that too is part of the inspiration for the piece, Heart and Home. What of home do we leave behind and what do we take with us–what of our home is part of who we are–these are questions I have been examining for myself in creating this series. As I wrote about in my artist’s statement for the show: “In many of the most important texts in the Torah, a geographical relocation is a key part of a spiritual awakening — my piece is not only about Home, but also about leaving home — a life-changing journey.”