Art of peace
Jewish texts inspire the universal messages in Toronto native’s paintings.
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Elyssa Wortzman had just arrived in Dayton in the fall of 2022 when she was invited to join the Women Strong Art Project.
“This group of women artists was looking for a Jewish artist to join their group,” the Toronto native says. “It’s an ethnically and racially diverse group. I thought this must be a sign of something.”
She and her husband, Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, made the move here from Canada for his position as Beth Abraham Synagogue’s new rabbi.
The idea behind Women Strong, Elyssa says, is to bring together women artists from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds.
“Not only to show (art) together, to share meals together, to share friendships together, and to see how that process could help to break down barriers and work as an interfaith organization,” she says. “And I thought that was fascinating. That sounded like a great social justice project, and it worked with my desire to meet artists in the city.”
Her first public exhibition with Women Strong was What ABOUT Hair in early 2023 at the Dayton Metro Library’s main library.
Women Strong’s newest exhibition, Elemental Love, will be on display at the Woodbourne Library in Centerville, Jan. 12-Feb. 21.
Elemental Love was first commissioned for an exhibit last October at the residence of University of Dayton President Eric Spina in conjunction with the university’s activities with the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Elyssa gave herself three weeks to study Jewish texts on the theme of peace to conceptualize the four paintings she would contribute to the exhibit. She put paint to canvas for two weeks.
“I’m very quick,” she says. “And once I start working on something, I’ll be like, yeah, don’t talk to me for two days. It comes out pretty quickly because I had conceptualized a lot of it before.”
She completed the paintings only a few days before the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and the resulting Israel-Hamas war. “It felt very uncomfortable as an artist to know that I had just created this. And now look what’s going on.”
Elyssa practiced law for a few years with a firm, but most of her career has been in the arts.
“I had just finished my degree in art history, and I loved art history, but I ended up in law school,” she says. “And my first year in law school was so visually anemic, I ended up going to France and studying (art) every summer during law school.”
She eventually earned her doctorate in Jewish spiritual direction from the Graduate Theological Foundation. Her scholarly work combines spiritual education with art.
She describes her approach to art as “spiritual conceptualism, with a focused coloring, philosophy, and the heart of an abstract expressionist. So if you put all that together, that’s how I see what I’m doing.”
“I’m really feeling very solid and comfortable about drawing on that cultural framework to inform the work that I’m doing artistically,” she says of her Elemental Love series. “Partly because of my husband’s influence and partly because Judaism is a text-based religion, I look for inspiration in Jewish texts.”
For this series, she looked at what Jewish tradition says about peace to find messages that engage her intellectually or visually.
With the first painting for Elemental Love, Elyssa relied on two texts she connected with: from the Psalms and from Sefer HaMiddot (The Book of Attributes) by Ukrainian Chasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov.
“I skimmed the text and said, ‘what are the words that are jumping out at me?’ I picked a few phrases from each of them. And I strung them together and created what looks like the page of a book — because remember, this is for the Literary Peace Prize.”
She imagined that in Judaism there is a book called the Book of Peace. “It doesn’t exist. This is just in my imagination. And in the book, one of the pages says, ‘Pursue peace. Peace is in my bones. Awe inspires prayers, bringing peace in all worlds.'”
Though these are distinct phrases from different sources, Elyssa melded them together into that phrase.
“In my spiritual direction practice, one of the main foundations is the idea of mindful witnessing of something,” she says. “I want the viewer to have this almost meditative engagement with the piece. And I think the color fields promote that kind of experience.”
This painting, Pursue Peace I, employs various shades of blue. Blue is the color Elyssa personally associates with peace. From a color theory perspective, blue creates a sense of calm, too. It’s also, she notes, the color of water, which can be relaxing.
“The underpainting here represents the state of peace — where these words are fulfilled — in this imaginary Book of Peace. But clearly, we’re not living in that messianic place where there is world peace on an individual or a collective level.”
For this reason, viewers can pull down a blind with a second painting, which is essentially the same painting, but seen through a misty veil. The word murky is painted on it.
“The idea is that when your ethical choices or your way of being in the world is morally or ethically murky, then that’s not going to lead to peace.”
Her inspiration for this second painting comes from Reb Nachman’s Sefer HaMiddot, where he writes, “Murky waters are a sign that there is no peace.”
“Meditating on this peaceful painting and being able to read those words is intended to bring you to an elevated soul state,” Elyssa says. “Or an elevated state of consciousness in which you can actually do something about the murky situation in the world. I strongly believe that art has the ability to push you, prompt you, in a way that engenders self-reflection.”
The 11 women of the Women Strong Art Project, including Elyssa, will create new works of art on the theme of peace for an exhibit at the Dayton International Peace Museum in March.
Elyssa says that since Oct. 7, about half of the women in the project have reached out to her to express their compassion and support.
“It’s been really heartening to see the responses, asking me how I’m doing, do I have family there, what’s going on? Telling me, some of them directly, that they support the cause. Others, ‘I’m really concerned about you,’ and that’s really nice to see.
“In their own lives, some of the members are very active in fights for racial justice and other things in the community. I honestly didn’t know what the reaction would be. I haven’t heard anything negative.”
The Women Strong Art Project exhibit Elemental Love, including works by Elyssa Wortzman, will be on display at the Woodbourne Library, 6060 Far Hills Ave., Centerville, Jan. 12-Feb. 21. The library will host a meet-the-artists art experience including a collage-making project on the topic of peace, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 6-7 p.m. For more information, go to wclibrary.info.