The members of Jewish Artists Collective Chicago write about our stories, struggles, experiences, and musings, and how they inspire us to create contemporary Jewish art.

An Artist and the Mishkan

By Ellen Holtzblatt

In Parashat T’rumah, God directs the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a portable sanctuary. I wonder about the Mishkan, and whether it can be thought of as art as well as a sacred space? Can it be contemplated as one would view other works of art? In considering the narratives that come before this parasha, specifically Revelation in Yitro followed by the recitation of laws in Mishpatim, why is the artistry and beauty of the Mishkan told to us at this point in the timeline? What does this have to do with witnessing the awesome intensity of Revelation?

I also question how neatly the creative process is portrayed. This is not so much a question as an expression of utter disbelief. God seems to know exactly what materials, measurements, and colors are needed to create the Mishkan, before any physical labor has taken place. This is very different from the creative process as I personally experience it. I am a messy painter. My first memory of this was in kindergarten. I was having fun painting at the easel, exploring color and making marks. That changed when I accidentally splashed paint on a classmate. His name was George, but some of the children called him Georgie Porjy. George was very angry at me. I remember him fuming with his blue eyes and practically white blond hair. Our teacher tried to calm him down and told him that it was an accident. But George was still upset, and he waited for me on my walk home after school. He wanted to get me, to defend himself against the splattering paint on his clothes. I remember running past him and not stopping until I was home, safe and out of breath. I was only 6 years old, but I received a valuable lesson that day. I learned that art is both wonderful and dangerous. Art can exhilarate. Art can offend.

In his book What Painting Is, James Elkins writes, “It is important never to forget how crazy painting is.” He continues, “Working in a studio means leaving the clean world of normal life and moving into a shadowy domain where everything bears the marks of the singular obsession. Outside the studio, furniture is clean and comfortable; inside, it is old and unpleasant. Outside, walls are monochrome or pleasantly patterned in wallpaper; inside, they are scarred with meaningless graffiti. Outside, floors can be mopped and vacuumed; inside, they build up layers of crusted paint that can only be scraped away or torn up with the floor itself. The studio is a necessary insanity.”

In my current studio practice, the messiness is all self-inflicted. I move paint around with brushes, rags and my hands. Painting is concurrently an act of creation and destruction. Sometimes, when communication breaks down between me and the canvas, I use the rags to wipe off my work, leaving behind images that fade away like ghosts. There are days, when I am my harshest critic, that I lie in wait for myself like George did 60 years ago. Art remains a contradictory practice - simultaneously fulfilling and precarious.

Various people, places and events have inspired the imagery found in my art. For example, my father died on my 50th birthday. I am thinking more about him these days because I recently turned 65. I have memories that lead me, year after year, back to that hospital room 15 years ago. The truth about a birthday is that it is just a day like any other day. Anything can happen. I was born on my birthday. My husband, Alan, and I started dating on my birthday. My father died on my birthday.

On the day that my father died, one of the most profound experiences in my life became somewhat matter-of-fact as I went into business mode. I called the funeral home to make arrangements, waited in his room as one by one everyone else left - Alan to pick up the kids from school, my sister to take my mother home. I stayed with him until they came for his body. I drove to my parent’s home and ate birthday cake. Then there was the funeral, eulogy and preparing for shiva. My sister and I went shopping for paper goods. We ordered trays as my mother crumpled under the weight of it all. These are the routine and material needs that follow the fire and smoke, the ground shaking, monumental events in our lives.

Unlike the literal depiction of creation in the Tanach, I cannot make art through the act of uttering words. I am unable to separate the waters above and below in a single day. After my father died I thought about painting him for several years before I finally did. Time passed, and I gathered the earthly materials that I needed to begin work on new paintings - stretchers, linen, paint and brushes. Under the umbrella of a series that I titled Yizkor, I painted my father as a younger man. I painted him as he was on his wedding day. I painted him sitting alone on a vast lawn. And I painted him with his arm around my mother as she held my brother as a baby. I sought to connect to the man who was strong, curious, and interested. I painted someone who felt sensations, life, and love - not my last memories of a man who did not want to die, but finally had enough and relented to the inevitable.

In a sense, witnessing my father dying was Revelation. I was altered by the experience. Taking care of business, the day to day things that we do for ourselves and others - the funeral, shiva, attending to the financial situation, and keeping my mother safe - paralleled the mundane but necessary recitation of laws in Mishpatim. The process of working on the series Yizkor, painting memories that I did not even know I had, was my Mishkan. Art connected my father’s death, this transcendent experience, into the human and physical plane. For me, paint was the material that recreated my beyond-the-known-universe-experience here on earth.

We all go through earth shattering, life changing, mind blowing events - the birth of a child or a grandchild, the death of someone we love, a miscarriage, an isolating pandemic. These moments, which become the basic building blocks of our lives, are jarring connections to the universe beyond our personal and very limited borders. But waking our consciousness can also be more ordinary: savoring a cup of coffee in the morning; seeing a hummingbird and thinking that you did not know that hummingbirds hung out in West Rogers Park; walking past tornado ravaged trees after the storm; a friend trusting you with their vulnerabilities as they let down their barriers and share their thoughts and feelings; the warm sun; our prairie garden; new snow; cuddling with my dog Yoshi. Anything and everything can bring us deeper into ourselves and the universe, as long as we take notice. I paint and draw because this is the act that makes all of these worlds available to me. Art is not my happiness, but it is my sanctuary.

As far as we know, the biblical Mishkan does not exist in our linear time. So what can we, in the present, understand to be the significance of the Mishkan - a physical, albeit transient, structure? For now, the pandemic has compelled my congregation to assemble and to realize the sacred in a virtual space. I can relate as an artist. I have always made art, but have not always had a designated studio. There were times in my past when my dining room table was my studio. My sketchbook was my studio. And when I did not have either a place or the time, my mind was my studio. James Elkins writes, “For painters the studio is the Prison House, and paints are the fluids that circulate inside it. Alchemy’s lessons here is that everything actually takes place within the body. The insanity of the studio is that it is not architecture - it is not made of wood and cement - but it is nothing other than the inside of the body.”

Above image: Ellen Holtzblatt's studio

Below image: Ellen Holtzblatt, In the Refuge of the Most High, oil on linen, 42" x 60"