Jewish Arts Lab, Or Why I'm A Jewish Artist

shana charcoalThis is a guest post by Shana Cohen.
At our recent Laboratory last Thursday, I asked the participants to write a six-word memoir on being a Jewish Artist.  There was one that really stood out to me: “Artist everywhere, Jew not always present.”
I thought that these six words encapsulated the purpose of why the Sabes JCC decided to start this project. Art is everywhere, but what is so special or unique about Jewish art and artists? That is exactly what this monthly series will try to answer between now and August, when the Laboratory will conclude its first year.
The Jewish Artist Laboratory is a new arts initiative through the Sabes JCC featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through unconventional study and art making sessions. The Laboratory meets twice monthly promoting ongoing dialogue, and providing a platform for artwork through its many stages.
I decided to become a part of the Jewish Artist Laboratory because I see it as a way to merge my sometimes conflicting identities into a cohesive spiritual whole, combining Jewish values and artistic expression.  I’ve been looking for a community with which to share artistic ideas that will reflect back a Jewish lens and narrative. I am an expressionistic painter, DJ, and writer with a body of autobiographical work. The charcoal painting above is one I made in 2010; it’s of my father smoking a cigar. My father is a perfect mix of Jerry Garcia and Fidel Castro with a personality like Jerry Seinfeld. His favorite pastime is smoking cigars on the deck of his home on Christmas Lake in Excelsior.
Growing up on Christmas Lake and attending Excelsior public schools gave me personal racial awareness of being Jewish at a very young age. Minnesota has a reputation for being predominantly racially homogenous.  In 2000, the US Census Bureau recorded that 94.4 % of the population in my hometown was White, Non-Hispanic. Just to put this in context, Minnetonka had close to 50,000 people, with a yearly average household income of about 70,000 dollars. The public elementary school I attended was made up of blonde hair, blue eyed, white, Protestant children.
In a sea of white Scandinavians, my physical attributes and features always stuck out, and I was made fun of. I can recall multiple accounts on the bus ride home from school being called ugly and fat. I was called many names and teased for having Semitic features like a large nose.
shana and beccaThe icing on the cake was in third grade when our class had to perform a musical about Christopher Columbus. I was cast as the black Jamaican narrator because, as my music teacher said, “You are basically black.”
I tell this story because being Jewish in Minnesota for me, was being different. I have always felt different. Maybe it’s because I am Jewish? Maybe it’s because I see the world through an artistic lens? When I studied art in school, I always found myself drawn to painters such as Soutine, Chagall, and Modigliani; and only later found out that they were all Jewish artists. Even if the subject of their work was not necessarily Jewish, I became inspired knowing that these artists shared the same racial and cultural identity as me.
The Artist Laboratory is an opportunity for me and other Jewish artists to contribute to a body of work that is both innovative and reflective of the kind of cultural and spiritual Judaism that can engage the Jewish Community. The aim of my project is to write about community collaboration that promotes Arts in the Twin Cities; to reflect the climate of living both artistically and Jewishly in the Twin Cities.
Became an artist, born a Jew.
The Artists’ Laboratory is made possible through a generous grant from The Covenant Foundation. The Sabes Jewish Community Center, Minneapolis, along with The Harry & Rose Samson Jewish Community Center, Milwaukee, and University of Wisconsin Hillel, and Madison, Wisconsin have collaborated to create this unique artistic initiative. You can learn more about the initiative here:
Shana Cohen is a spunky and outgoing 30 year old from the Twin Cities. She loves the local art scene, live music, and biking around the lakes.  She recently became engaged to her partner, Becca, who is the love of her life and looks forward to marrying her legally in 2014!