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The Shul/Church Project: An Interview with Zoë Cohen

I don’t consider artistic creation to be any more spiritual than any other creative endeavor… cooking, writing, cleaning, singing, and child-rearing.

Ritualwell has launched a new series of interviews with Jewish artists on art and spirituality. Our second featured artist is Zoë Cohen, whose latest art show is “Zoë Cohen: Selections from the Shul/Church Project,” Congregation Or Hadash, Fort Washington, PA, November 1, 2016 – Jan 4, 2017. Join Zoë for a reception on Friday November 4: 6:30–7pm/8–9 pm. Gallery hours M–Th 9–5pm & Sun 10 am–noon. Call ahead for more info: 215-283-0276.

1. Al regel akhat, on one foot: Tell us about your latest Jewish art project.
My entire practice currently consists of works on paper, paper sculpture, and sound pieces, based on research into the history and current use of buildings built as synagogues in Eastern U.S. cities, that were then demolished, or are now Black Churches.

2. Describe your artistic process for this particular project.
I began the work of what is now The Shul/Church Project with an interest in the histories of some of the former synagogues in my neighborhood of West Philadelphia. I’ve worked with pattern and repetition in the past, and initially I was planning to work with architectural details and patterning found on the exterior of the buildings. But I became interested as well in the buildings themselves, and the church congregations that are using them. There are now a number of different works that I’ve made around these histories, and the larger idea of a building as a sanctuary, and of the meaning of re-purposing and dismantling such a space.

The Shul/Church Portraits is a series of sixteen watercolor images of former synagogue buildings that are now Black churches. In these portraits, I present the buildings without the religious iconography or text of either their former or current congregations. They are shown as neutral spaces, yet refer to a Jewish American architectural tradition, and are recognizable as landmarks of Christian faith in the contemporary landscape of their neighborhoods.

Our Sanctuary Laid Waste are two larger works on paper, depicting former synagogue/church buildings in the process of being demolished. I hope for these pieces to show the importance of the new use of the former synagogues that have been preserved. The private, enclosed space of worship is blasted open in these images, both with violent implications, but also allowing an invitation to enter.

The Fragment Sanctuaries are a series of very small sculptures made with the paper fragments cut from some of the larger papercut works.

The first sound piece I’ve made in this on-going project, This is Our Story, was made by layering and collaging sound recordings taken from three pairs of related synagogues and churches in Philadelphia. I became especially interested in the possibility of representing the use of the former synagogues by recording the sound of the people in the space. The recordings intentionally include the sounds of the congregants assembling before the service begins, in order to capture the ambient noise of people gathering together, greeting each other, existing in community.

3. What sources inspire you?
Traditional Jewish papercuts, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts from medieval Europe, the Black Lives Matter platform, Jewish anti-racism activists and groups, including Cherie Brown, IfNotNow, and JFREJ, and artists including Lee Bontecou, Janine Antoni, Anne Hamilton, Judy Chicago, Louise Bourgeouis, Ana Mendieta, and Eva Hesse.

4. Is the process of artistic creation one that you would consider to be spiritual? Why or why not?
I don’t always formulate it as such in my mind, but I do consider my process of making to be something to be preserved, kept apart from the rest of my daily endeavors, and it is a process in which I am challenged and priviliged to follow my own mind… Operating on the belief that everything in this world is holy, then yes! But I don’t consider artistic creation to be any more potentially spiritual than any other creative endeavor that a human being is invested in, committed to, and focused on: including cooking, writing, cleaning, singing, and child-rearing, for example.

5. How do you reinvigorate your process if you feel uninspired?
Look at art, read about art, research the histories I am interested in, read Jewish texts, talk to other humans.

6. What are your favorite materials to work with and why?
In my current work, I’m mainly focused on using paper and watercolor. I was trained as a painter with traditional oil painting methods, but I appreciate the lightness, immediacy, and ease of working with water media. Using paper is an intentional reference to a number of Jewish religious and cultural constructs. The historical importance of the book, the history of Jewish paper-cutting art, and the accessibility and commonality of paper as a material are all important to me. Similarly, I find watercolor compelling to use because of its liquid nature—I often find myself pulling water across the page, the flow and the temporality of this material I feel lends itself very well to the subject matter I am working with.

7. Why do think it is important to include Jewish subject matter in your art?
I actually don’t think of my work as “including Jewish subject matter,” but rather I feel that my work is exploring issues and questions that are of importance to me as a white Ashkenazi Jew in the Eastern U.S. I grew up in a majority white suburb of Boston, with little direct connection to the urban neighborhoods my family had lived in previously. My father was raised in Roxbury and Dorchester, neighborhoods that in the 1940s and 50s were predominantly Jewish, Italian, and Irish. Those neighborhoods, like many in Philadelphia, became majority black neighborhoods as white flight, upward mobility, and yes, racism, caused the Jewish community to leave cities all across the U.S. It is important to me to look straight at this history as a mistake, and I consider the lost possibilities for connection with black communities as one of the true tragedies of American Jewish history.

Image captions:
Pinn Memorial Baptist Church / former Har Zion Temple, 2251 N. 54th St, Wynnefield, Watercolor and Collage on Paper, 10×12″, 2016

Our Sanctuary Laid Waste – West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center / Philadelphia Baptist Church, Demolished – Ludlow St & Cobbs Creek Parkway, West Philadelphia, Watercolor and Collage on Cut Paper, 30×40″, 2016

Fragment Sanctuary 1, Watercolor on Cut Paper with Paper Mending Tissue, approx. 8x6x4″, 2016

Zoë Cohen is a visual artist who works conceptually in a wide range of materials and modalities. She received her BA in Fine Arts from Haverford College and her MFA from Brooklyn College. Zoë’s work has been exhibited at numerous venues in Philadelphia, New york, and Berlin, and is in the permanent collections of The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, The Philadelphia Cathedral, and the Museum of Art and Peace. Her residencies include The Vermont Studio Center and Philadelphia’s 40th Street AIR program, and she teaches at Tyler School of Art, Moore College of Art, and The University of the Arts. She was recently awarded the New Courtland Teaching Fellowship from the Center for Emerging Visual Artists. Zoë Cohen lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.


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