Hillel Smith Coming To Transform The St. Paul JCC

Hillel Smith’s art doesn’t have a “type.” While his pieces may follow similar threads, each piece of art tends to be different. So, when he paints a mural on the outside of the St. Paul JCC next month, it will be something that is unique – something designed especially for the J that encompasses their values and their mission.

The common threads of my art, Smith said, “are more minimalist, bright colors, geometric shapes, and texts. But, beyond that, I like trying different things.”

He added, “I know people who have made impressive careers out of the same thing. I like the challenge of doing something new every time.”

Smith will be in St. Paul working on his mural from July 8-11 on the exterior brick wall facing St. Paul Avenue. This project was made possible with support from the Howard B. & Ruth F. Brin Jewish Arts Endowment, a fund of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Foundation.

This section of the brick had been marred by anti-Semitic graffiti,” said Robyn Awend, the JCCs Cultural Arts Director. “We thought that installing a mural that speaks to our core value of Kehillah (community) in this place is the perfect way to face down the ugliness of hatred.” She added, “We’re working pretty closely together and appreciate Hillel’s collaborative spirit.”

“This isn’t a piece for me,” he said. “I’m doing it for the J and I want to work closely with the JCC to create the right design for the space.”

Smith’s process is the same whether it’s a mural in Israel or Los Angeles or St. Paul, and it starts with making sure that what he is going to do fits the environment.

“It’s always important that whatever I do fits the space well, and reflects the values of the organization,” he said. “I’ve had several great conversations with Robyn and the JCC to understand their values and what they want to express.”

Awend first met Smith at an international artists retreat and immediately connected. The Sabes JCC brought him in for an exhibition of his work several years ago, so he is not new to the Twin Cities Jewish community.

“It is so exciting that we received a grant to bring him back,” she said. “He’s young, and energetic, and unbelievably prolific.”

Smith’s visit will kick off with an exhibit at the St. Paul JCC of his Parshat Poster Project, which will be on display from July 10-August 30. There will be a reception and artist talk on July 11 starting at 6 p.m.

The Parshat Posters are accompanied by translations of the Biblical verses that they illustrate. This exhibition features 54 Hebrew typographic posters artistically highlighting the parshat hashavua (weekly Torah portion). Smith said he loves the medium of posters, and had been creating them since he was a student at Penn — including tour posters for comedian/actor Patton Oswalt.

“It’s so much about creating a mood and story in an image, and lots will use a minimalist aesthetic with cool typography. It brings together a lot of the loves that I have,” he said.

Smith had done an animated Omer-counting project, a daily series. “One thing I learned through that work is that doing one thing every day is exhausting. What could I do that wasn’t daily? So I merged concert posters with something every week like the Torah portion, without the pressure of doing a daily series.”

Smith said the Genesis and Exodus portions were a little easier. After that, he said, it became Torah learning for him.

“I would sit, read the text, and try to think about how to tell the story in ways that were interesting and could bring the viewer in,” he said. “I hope to convey the process of putting this together to inspire. Torah learning is not out of reach, and any person who wants to can open the book, read, and create with their own interpretation. It’s learning on our own terms, and we all have the freedom and obligation to do it.”