Friday, August 5, 2016

Showtime Part 2, On the Ground/Piece of the Month

I apply for and go to two types of shows.  One is the large scale national craft show, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft show which I will be participating in this fall.  To a show such as that I take a mixture of judaica and non-judaic metalwork, such as teapots, serving pieces and some small sculptures.  The other type of show I attend is geared to judaica.  These are shows sponsored by temples, synagogues or jewish organizations,  To these I take only judaica.  The show last week fell into this later category.

This show was a boutique at the national conference of a major jewish woman’s organization. Over 1000 attendees were expected.  This was an ideal show for me.  It had a targeted audience, was 3 days long, and located in a closed environment, a hotel.  Additionally it had reasonable fees (per table) plus a percentage of sales.  

I arrived the day before the boutique was to open and was ready to set up early the next morning.  I arranged my tables and began the process of unpacking and setting up my inventory.  For a show such as this I bring a variety of judaica - 40-50 mezzuzot in different sizes and finishes, kiddush cups with a wide price range, shabbos candlesticks, havdalah sets and individual pieces, menorahs and dreidels, a few hamsas and other judaic jewelry, yads, and a few specialty items such as tzedakah boxes, two handled hand washing pitchers and torah breast plates.  It takes a couple of hours to get everything unpacked and arranged.  At the same time I am talking with other vendors who I know as well as introducing myself to those I haven’t met.

After set up, I returned to my room, took a quick nap and changed clothes in anticipation of an early afternoon start.  As a vendor I can only ask that the show’s sponsor get the people to the door.  Getting attendees to look, engaging them, and ultimately to buy is uniquely my responsibility.  The afternoon session was characterized by people looking, asking questions and saying that it is early and they would be back.  

After a break for the organizations evening function the show reopened with a dessert bar in the area adjacent to the show.  That’s great.  It brings people into the boutique’s venue while they are having a positive experience.  Again traffic was strong. a few sales, lots of interest.

The next two days were characterized by short burst of activity and longer periods of slow, limited foot traffic.  This was a densely programmed conference.  Good for the organization and the attendees, not so good for me. 

In the late afternoon of the third day the boutique closed.  I packed up, took my boxes to the shipper.  After a shower and change I headed out to dinner with a law school classmate and his wife whom I hadn’t seen in 10-12 years.  Next morning, the airport and home.

Retail is the toughest part of being a metalsmith.  Being a closer is not something that comes easily to me.  Ultimately I did not do as well as I had expected.  At the same time a sale that fell through at the last moment would have changed the entire show’s complexion. 


This is my Mogan David Kiddush Cup.  I believe it is one of the best designed pieces I have made.  It is my best selling kiddush cup, sterling silver, approximately 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.25”. 

The piece begins as a 4” 20 gauge sterling silver disk which I have spun into a cup 2” tall and 2” wide at the top.  The piece is then forged into the triangular shape which forms the goblet of the piece.  I do this over a stake which I have modified to have a tapered flat surface which allows me to form the angles of the sides.  Once the cup is trued it is inverted onto a piece of flat 20 gauge sterling and its rim is scribed into the sterling.  That piece is cut out and cleaned up to form the base.

The cup is centered on the base and soldered with hard solder.  After pickling, three feet are added at the points of the base.  They are made with a Roper Whitney punch.  The small pieces are domed and a hole drilled in them to allow for air to escape during final soldering.  The feet are then sweat soldered onto the base.

Cleanup and polishing follow.  The last act, as always, is to place my mark and sterling stamp on the bottom of the piece.

You can see this piece and the rest of my judaica at  My non-judaic work is featured at  ENJOY!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Showtime, Part 1 - Getting Ready

There’s a bumper sticker I’ve seen over the years that relates to my current life.  It reads, “A bad day fishing is better than a great day at the office.”  For me fishing is the process of making.  I feel free, invigorated, excited in my studio - a bad piece is a learning moment, a good piece is satisfaction, a great piece is why I do this,  

The office is everything else, the paperwork, the shopping for materials and supplies, the sales process, talking to galleries, going to shows, the travel, the hotels, the list goes on.  None of that gives me the enjoyment that making does.  I’m getting ready to head off to a show in a couple of weeks, that means that making is taking a backseat to getting ready.  Here’s some of that process.

The process of getting ready for the next show begins when I get home from the last show.  I review inventory and make lists of items that need to be replaced, new items that I want to make, following-up on inquiries and leads.  My inventory usually arrives a few days after I get home and I open the shipping containers and make sure things came through all right.  Hopefully this does not add to my “to do” list.  

I check out the logistics of the next show.  Usually I shop for airfares after getting accepted and  finding a reasonable hotel.  I hope it is within walking distance of the site as I don’t want to add the expense of a rental car.  I establish a ship by date, allowing at least five work days for unexpected shipping delays.

As the next show comes closer a sense of excitement begins to grow at the same time a sense of anxiety grows alongside.  I scurry to finish items, the shipping date for my inventory always comes too soon and invariably earlier than I thought it would. 

Prior to shipping comes the “polishing party”.  Silver and copper tarnish.  This is a result of exposure to the environment, particularly from touching.  Obviously selling my work is made harder when the pieces are dirty and tarnished.  About once a year I polish all of the silver and copper in my inventory.  (Note:  while the pieces are exposed at shows, they are wrapped in acid free aper which decreases tarnishing the rest of the year.)

My wife dubbed this experience the “polishing party”.  She looks forward to it much more than I.  I bring all my inventory into the kitchen with silver and copper cleaners and set to work.  Each piece is cleaned, dried/polished and repackaged.  I do the cleaning and my wife does the drying and polishing.  When all is done, a big sigh is had by all.

The final step is packing my inventory.  Each piece has its own box.  Pieces are grouped by type, i.e. kiddush cups, havdalah, candlesticks, etc. and the placed within a corrugated box.  There are then placed into larger shipping boxes.  I try to put the heavy items in the shipping box first, while at the same time keeping an even height across the box.  I try to get everything into two boxes, one large, one smaller.  This week there is a 22 x 22x18” and a 18 x18 x 15”.  The sizes will vary due to the inventory I ship.  

When the boxes are sealed and the shipping documents prepared its off the the shipper and adios to the work until I get to the shows location.  I monitor the shipments through use of tracking numbers and when they arrive I breathe a sigh of relief.  I have never lost a shipment (I do carry insurance) but a return shipment of goods from a museum gift shop never appeared on my doorstep.  The loss of inventory and the reimbursement were frustrating, but not nearly as much as the loss of a couple of really good, “museum quality” pieces.  

Next weekend I head off to my show and the next blog will discuss being on the floor and  the selling experience as well as having a new piece of the month.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Piece of the month - Circumcision Shield

Piece of the Month - Circumcision Shield

As mentioned earlier there are six examples of  judaica made colonial metalsmith Myer Myers.  These are five sets of rimonim (torah crowns) and one circumcision shield.  This month’s “Piece of the Month” is my take on Myer Myers circumcision shield.  Traditionally, the mohel would take a male infant’s foreskin, pull it through the slit and then, with a double edge knife, slice the foreskin off.

The first question one might ask is why would I make such an item?  Could I improve upon its utility?  Am I a masochist?  Is there a market for this item?  No to all of the above.  The answer is no more complicated than how would I make this traditional tool my own.

Here’s a photo of Myers’ circumsicion shield.

The piece is silver, 2.625 x 1.5” and weighs 18 dwt. (Barquist, Myer Myers, p. 152)  Myers’ mark is centrally located on the piece.

While Myers shape was typical of the period, I used it as a jumping off point for my piece.  I kept the same rough dimensions but moved away from the curved nature of Myers work to a design with which I was more comfortable. 

As you can see my design is much simpler.  The piece is made from 14 gauge (,064”) sterling.  Technically there were not many challenges to this piece.  The most important being that the inside of the slit was rounded and assuring that there were no sharp edges.  (No need to create the possibility of extra pain.)  The former was accomplished through the use of crocus tape and then buffing with hard felt points.

A few editorial notes.  I am working on a bibliography of post WWII judaica (metal and others) which I will share initial findings in the near future.  The next blog, mid-July will deal with the issue of preparing to take the show on the road as I get ready to attend the 2016 Hadassah National Convention Boutique at the end of July..

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Introduction to Post WWII Judaic Metalsmithing

As has been well documented there was an explosion in the craft community post WWII.  Craft programs sprung up in major state universities across the country.  In the mid - 50s a parallel movement as pretains to judaic metalworking was undergoing its own spike through the creation of the Tobe Pascher workshop at the Jewish Museum in New York.  This workshop is now the 92 St Y’s program in Judaica Metalsmithing.  

The Tobe Pascher Workshop began in 1956.  It was then that Ludwig Wolpert, a German silversmith who emigrated to Palestine in 1935, agreed to come and head the program at the Jewish Museum.  Wolpert had established himself as professor of Metalwork at the New Bezalel School forArts and Crafts in Jerusalem.  There, bringing a bauhaus aesthetic, he taught the next generation of Israeli silversmiths and craftsmen.  The cleanliness and purity of form he brought, as well as the importance of educating jewish metalsmiths, is reflected in the works of two artistsans, Bernie Bernstein and Harold Rabinowitz.

Both Bernstein and Rabinowitz studied at the Tobe Pascher workshop, they are today’s heirs to the educational mantle of the workshop through the teaching of the Judaica Metalsmithing class at the 92d St. Y in New York.  As such they have influenced more than one generation of judaica metalsmiths.  The career of both men was that of educator, Bernstein at CCNY and Rabinowitz in the public school system. 

Bernstein carries on the modernism of his mentor Wolpert through work that can be characterized as having serene lines accompanied by a graceful dignity.  In one kiddush cup, a simple cylindrical form sits upon a medallion with the word “Shabbat” in a stylized hebrew calligraphy.  The piece combines beauty and dignity with a modernist design to convey the timeliness of the cup’s purpose.  A second piece, a Seder Plate, is starkly modern.  Made from a found half inch aluminum bar, Bernstein cut cross-lap joints to form the base and used cups from a Chinatown restaurant supply house.  While the use of recycled materials is consistent with Bernstein personal philosophy, it predates the popularity of such work in the general metalsmithing community.

First a student and then a Fellow at the Tobe Pascher workshop and now one of the teachers at its successor, Harold Rabinowitz’s work is more lyrical than Bernstein.  He seems to incorporate movement in all of its workings.  A characteristic of the Tobe Pascher workshop seen in Rabinowitz’s work is the use of calligraphy.  In one torah crown, the base contains a quotation, in a stylized block hebrew from the Zohar, “Blessed is your crown and your place.”  Rabinowitz’s metalwork only deals with judaica and synagogue related commissions.  He did work in other judaic mediums, for example, designing synagogue bemahs.

It does not appear that, while there were talented jewish silversmiths on the west coast, anything comparable to the Tobe Pascher workshop evolved.  Perhaps the best known of these metalsmiths was Victor Ries.  Ries, like Wolpert, was an emigre coming to the United  States preceding WWII from Israel to which he had emigrated in the thirties.  Ries was also an educator, arriving in the Bay Area to assume a position at Pond Hill School.  After leaving the school he established a practice which included both large scale sculptures and installations as well as items for home use.

I have not been able to find much on Victor Ries, who lived and practiced until the age of 106.  Bill Chayes, a documentary film maker produced a movie on his life entitled, “Metal Man:  The Life of Victor Ries”.  From that I hope to pursue some leads but am ask that anyone knowing information regarding this giant oil our field contact me.

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.