"The madness of it! Those who were there will never forget it. The city went crazy with joy," writes Ursula Sternberg in her handmade artist's book, "Growing Up in Holland and Belgium."
Her watercolors, bleeding into her hand-written text, conjure up the jubilation of the liberation, flags flying at merry angles from the city's houses, American soldiers jauntily marching down streets recently vacated by Germans. "Girls all fell madly in love with soldiers," she adds, and though she found the American GI's "particularly attractive," she herself became enamored of a British officer.
Her book is made accordion-style, its single continuous piece of heavy paper folded into enough pages to recount one woman's whole life. It's a personal document, but like many of the 100 handmade books in the big exhibition now at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, it has a narrative that illuminates larger historical themes. Exhibiting books by some 90 different artists from around the world, Women of the Book: Jewish Artists, Jewish Themes takes on a few universal topics -- childhood, parental death -- but many of the works explore the Jewish experiences of diaspora, immigration and Holocaust.
Curated by an independent art-book expert, Judith Hoffberg, the traveling exhibition draws its title from a name given to the ancient Hebrews.
"One of the names for the Jewish people was Am Hasefer, which means the People of the Book," explains Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, the leader of a Reform congregation in Tucson. "It refers to the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible...The Jews were always a literate community in our 4000 years of history, literate in the Torah."
Aaron says the members of her congregation, along with many other contemporary Jews, are re-examining this tradition of literacy, and "trying to reconnect with the title, with our roots." Hoffberg gave the old name a female twist to honor what she calls the "unsung heroines" of bookmaking, and used the unbooklike Internet to find Jewish women artists working in the relatively uncelebrated art-book genre.
Sternberg's exuberant Brussels memoir, painted and penned some 55 years after the Liberation, is a lovely piece of work that closely adheres to the conventional idea of "book." So does Barbara Milman's "Warsaw," 1995, an extraordinary picture book that recounts the Nazi rounding up of Polish Jews into urban ghettoes. Milman's black and white linocuts are perfect little treasures, her simple lines and ominous shadows conjuring up the psychological terror wielded by the soldiers. Another searing Holocaust work, "Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, A Flame That Will Never Be Extinguished," by c.j. grossman, reconstructs the lost history of a Jewish woman artist who spent her time in the Terezin concentration camp helping kids do art. She and many of the children ultimately perished, but the children's art survived. grossman's fascinating book is illustrated with reproductions of the art.
Other women have compiled family histories in what amount to sophisticated scrapbooks, full of pictures and computer-printed oral histories. Less interesting as art objects, they serve the important function of preserving personal stories for future generations.
But many of the show's most inventive works have only the most marginal relationship to a book's usual compilation of pages, text and binding. There are "books" printed on matzohs (Barbara Drucker's "Evidence of Passover), fashioned out of amber cow gut (Lisa Kokin's "Six Books") and printed on Dad's linens (Tucsonan Gayle Wimmer's "My Father's Handkerchiefs"). Franca Sonnino has woven "Sefarim (Books)," 1996, out of cotton thread and wire. Their rectangular shape mimics a book's, but there are no words written on their gossamer pages. They're more like a memory of an ancient text that is no more, merged with a reference to the ancient women's work of weaving.
Alyssa C. Salomon's witty "Diaspora Menorah" has two bronze leaves that can be closed just like a book, the binding between them a delicate web of copper threads. But it's not a book, exactly, it's a tiny, portable menorah, ready to be folded up and carried off to a more welcoming land whenever an oppressor comes knocking in the night. This simple visual pun at once addresses the stark fact of the Jewish diaspora, while at the same time cheerfully declaring that Jewish culture is a moveable feast that can thrive wherever it has to. Miriam Schaer has had some fun with a villain who appeared in the earliest Jewish book. "Eve's Meditation" is not so much about Eve as it is about the snake who tempted her. A long sinewy snake slithers across the painted purple pages of this fine accordion book, adorned with plastic apples and shiny strings. Tucsonan Io Palmer's "Aunt Ruth" is a lively little clay piece that looks like a book but doesn't even open: it's fired shut, as mysterious, perhaps, as the auntie was to a little girl.
Handmade artist's books are delicate creatures, and the museum provides cotton gloves for those who want to spend time leafing through them. But some of the works are so fragile that even careful handling is too much. Viewers are forbidden to touch these, and they stand mute, partially opened on their pedestals, their stories untold. And that's too bad. Their hidden tales are tantalizing, and one wishes these artist's books would act as much like books as like art.
A series of free lectures and performances related to the exhibition are scheduled at the museum throughout the month. At 2 p.m. Sunday, January 9, the Arizona Jewish Theater presents the Israeli play Exile in Jerusalem, about the German poet Elsa Lasker-Schuler. Dr. Thomas Kovach and Kamakshi Murti of the UA German Studies Department give a pre-performance talk at 1 p.m. on Lasker-Schuler's life and work.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, January 11, Dr. Bella Vivante of the UA humanities program speaks on "Women Poets in the Bible." At 7 p.m. Tuesday, January 18, poet and UA writing professor Alison Hawthorne Deming gives a talk on "Poetry and the Art of the Book."
At 3 p.m. Tuesday, January 25, artist and UA professor Gayle Wimmer speaks about her recent art. Also on January 25 at 7 p.m., Dr. Esther Fuchs of the UA Judaic Studies lectures on Jewish women's studies.