Monday, May 30, 2016

Myer Myers/Piece of the Month

Lets get onto to contemporary judaic metalsmithing in the United States.  The start is in New York in the mid-to—late 18th century.  Amongst America’s preeminent silversmiths was a jew, Myer Myers.  Many consider him on a par with Paul Revere.  Our interest is that he fabricated the first “home grown” pieces of judaica in America.  

About 10-12 years ago my wife need to attend a continuing education course on Cape Cod.  I thought this would give me a great opportunity to see the Myers’s rimonim at Touro Synagogue.  I called the synagogue and asked about any opportunities to see the pieces.  They informed me that the pieces were used during services and that would be my opportunity to view them.  We scheduled our trip to the cape so that we would spend Saturday in Newport so I could go to services and see the rimonim.  We went, it was an Orthodox congregation, I say by the bemah and my wife sat upstairs.  I was able to get a short glimpse of the pieces while they were on the bemah.

The following information comes from David Barquist’s seminal work on Myer Myers, Myer Myers, Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York, Yale University Art Gallery, 2001, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-09057-9.

There are six pieces of Myer Myers judaica known today.  These include five sets of rimonim or torah crowns and one circumcision shield.  Also, a drawing exists of a circumcision medal Myers engraved in 1784.

As many of you know prejudice precluded Jews from being involved in guilds in Europe from the middle ages on.  I don’t think you can say that such prejudice didn't exist in North America, however Myers was able to apprentice as a silversmith in New York and obtained freeman status in 1746.  He was the first Jew to train as a silversmith in New York as well as the first Jew to do so within the British Empire.  

Between his ascendency to freeman status and the Revolutionary War Myers established himself as one of America’s pre-eminent silversmiths.  In addition to the judaica he produced both before and after the war Myers was an active member of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York, the oldest synagogue in British North America.

Four pairs of torah crowns, the pair at Sheath Israel, two pairs at Tuoro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and a pair at Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia show similar traditional Sephardic design elements, particularly the three flattened spheres and the six bells per sphere.  The design is similar to rimonim found at Congregation Nidhe Isreal in Barbadosand dating to the early 18th century.  The design probably travelled through the merchants going between New York and Barbados.  

Three  of these sets are pre-Revolutionary war and are characterized by intricate piercing of the largest, center, flattened sphere.   The top and bottom spheres had engraved detail.  In the only known pair from Myers post-Revolutionary career the piercing had been replaced by additional engraving,

The fifth set, also at Mikveh Israel has Ashkenazy design influences. This pair has a spirally fluted bulbous shape giving way to a taper that ultimately leads to crowns atop the finials.  Bells are suspended from the beneath the shape’s bottom and from the taper/crown transition.

This is the first installment of a new feature, “Piece of the Month”.  In this part of the blog I will feature one of my pieces and provide insight into the design process and fabrication that went into its creation.

This month’s piece is the “Tree of Life Yad”.  It is sterling silver approximately 8 X .75”.  The design is intended to simulate a tree branch stemming from the pointer, touching the Torah, through the arm and into the heart and mind of the reader.

The piece is fabricated from 2 pieces of 16 gouge sterling which are rolled out to 20 gauge.   Two blanks, 8 x .75” are then cut from rolled out sheet.  One blank is then covered with adhesive paper, such as is used for address labels, and a tree branch design is sketched onto that piece.  The tree branch is then cut out and sweat soldered to the second, uncut blank using hard solder.  Fingers are sawed into the narrow part on the yad.  One is left out and the others are rolled under.  After cleanup the piece is made slightly convex to add strength and for visual interest.  The piece is then polished.  Finally a jump ring is attached to the yad  and a 20” sterling chains attached to the jump ring.

This piece and all others in this series are available through my website,

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Some thoughts on "What is Judaica?"

I’m going to try and clear up the issue of what is judaica, judaic art and jewish art.  This isn’t to presume that I have special knowledge, just that in my own mind I have a good idea what these items are and how I relate to them.  Lets start with the proverbial 500 pound canary, jewish art.  If we were to consider jewish art in the context of a venn diagram it would take up the whole page.  It is, no matter how you cut it, everything.  

I would certainly start any discussion of jewish art by including fine arts, those made by jews as well as that produced by non-jews but having a particularly jewish motif or theme.   To be “jewish art” there needs to be a nexus, whether through the artist or the material to the jewish experience.  Not all art, made by a jew should qualify as jewish art, nor should every depiction of an old testament scene, regardless of whether it was made by a jew or non-jew, be jewish art.  When I make a teapot I don’t think of that as a piece of jewish art, I think of it as a teapot.  When I make a kiddush cup, I think of that as a piece of jewish art. 

As part of the umbrella which is jewish art there are at least two significant subsets relevant to this discussion, judaic art and judiaca.

Judaic art includes representations of ritual, scripture, or specific jewish themes.  As illustration, we have two pieces by jewish artists in my home.  One is a Ben Shahn print of Psalm 133, the other is a Marc Chagall poster from the Tel Aviv Museum.  I would classify the former, the Ben Shahn print, as judaic art - it is a visual interpretation of scripture.  The later, the Chagall poster, falls into the umbrella world of jewish art as there are no specific judaic references.

Judaica is a small subset within jewish art and does overlap in a few instances with judaic art.  I believe that to be Judaica, the item must focus on ritual; it is the items that are touched, used, participate in the daily life of the jewish people.  It is things like kiddush cups, torah crowns, ketubahs, seder plates.  The Szyk haggadah and ketubahs are examples of objects that, if one were given to shoehorning items into classifications would fit into both judaica and judaic art.  It is important to remember that non-jews make judaica just as jews make liturgical art for churches.

Finally, a few words on craft.  When I left my prior occupation, the law, it was to do something with my hands, to make utilitarian objects.  This is different from an artist whose work focuses on the conveyance of an image and drives the viewer to consider the image and its import.  That’s not to say that craftspeople don’t convey messages, the difference lies, I believe, in the purpose of the work.  For me that purpose is the functional utility of the object.  That the object also conveys a message is secondary. 

 What both ties these areas together and separates them is the fact that, as a general rule, both the craftsperson and the artist have an underlying appreciation and knowledge/comprehension of the skills involved in creating the end product.  Painters, sculptors knew and know the mechanics of their art, how to paint, ways to depict light, the nature of pigments.   That is little different than my knowledge of how silver responds to heat or how much I can push metals’ tensile parameters.

The history of judaica and the adornment of ritual objects starts with Exodus.  The role of precious materials and prescribed usages for the enhancement of the worship service has its origins in Exodus 25 where Moses calls upon the Israelites to make voluntary offerings of gold, silver, threads, stones, skins, incense for use in the tabernacle, the ark, candlesticks and so on.  I want to emphasize that this was a voluntary asking, not a levy (Ex. XXV.20).  Later Moses tells the Israelites that Bezalel a man filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, understanding, knowledge and workmanship will be in charge.  Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab oversaw the constructions that followed.  Exodus (ch XXVI-XXVIII) goes into great detail over the size, materials and manner of construction for these items.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My First Time

Welcome to my new blog, Jim Cohen Contemporary Judaic Metalsmith.  Doesn't exactly role off the tongue does it.

I'm a metalsmith specializing in judaica. I came to this point after a long career as an attorney in government service.  In the early nineties I realized I wasn't having any fun as an attorney and wanted to work with my hands.  I started taking classes at the Torpedo Factory, a community arts center in Alexandria, VA.  Those classes,  a couple of sessions at Penland, an apartment studio (shared with my wife who was writing her dissertation), gallery shows, some ACC shows led me to retire from the law and enter a MFA program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

At Madison I was very fortunate to study with two icons of the art metal community; Fred Fenster and Eleanor Moty.  I owe what I am and where I am to Fred and eleanor as well as the other instructors I've had,  my classmates, and others who ovr th past twenty years have looked at and critqued my work.  I hope my work honors them.

Here are some Jim Cohen, metalsmith, firsts.
-Making tubing at the Torpedo Factory, an early project, I was amazed.  I keep a piece of that tubing in my inventory to this day.
-My first craft show was ACC Atlanta in the mid nineties.  My memory of that show is smiling for three consecutive days and not selling a thing.  I didn't think the part of smiling for three days in those circumstances was possible.
-My first class at Madison.  It was like going from the low minors to the major leagues with nothing in between.  Quickly I was humbled, and humbled again.  It took me three tries to "successfully" complete the first project.
-My first big sale was a pewter coffee service.  The buyer didn't think it would pour well and she would buy it if it did.  I took the pot to the mens room, filled it up and it poured like a champ.  I took her check, she took her coffer service.
-Myfirst big jewelry sale.  At the Palm Beach show a woman saw a perfume bottle necklace (sterling/14KY) in the first 15 minutes of the show.  She liked it but wanted to look around.  Forty Fiveminutes she came back and we traded necklace and check.  I was excited, what a way to start a show.  My only sale of the weekend.  Did make a coupke of great trades though.

In the future I look forward to sharing my thoughts on judaica, my process, examples of other judaic metalsmiths whose work I admire.  Let me know your thoughts.