Open Studios tour to feature group of East Bay Jewish artists

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Nine East Bay artists are uniting under the umbrella of their Jewish heritage to display their works in a single exhibit at this year's Pro Arts Open Studios.

The artists are representing JACOB (Jewish Arts Community of the Bay) at the popular yearly event, which takes place June 10-11 and 17-18 throughout Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond.

"We've exhibited before as individual artists," says JACOB board member Nancy Katz, "but this year we wanted to speak for our Jewish identity and to acknowledge our relationship with JACOB."

For these artists, JACOB provides a support network "and encourages the expression of our Jewish tradition in all forms — the visual arts, writing, music, theater and dance," she says. "We wanted the community to be aware of our organization and of our affiliation."

JACOB was founded in 1979 by a small group of artists seeking a forum for combining their work and Jewish community involvement. Today, the non-profit organization has more than 200 members and is a major resource for local, national and international agencies.

"There's a renaissance in all forms of Jewish art," says Katz. "The Open Studios gives others a chance to see the many dimensions of our work, within our own environment."

Katz is among the participants whose work expresses a personal connection to the history and teachings of Judaism.

She's best-known for her richly colored, hand-painted silk tallitot (prayer shawls). She also makes Torah covers, art curtains, chuppot (wedding canopies) and quilted wall hangings, all of which reflect the traditions of Jewish life in a modern light.

Katya Miller, a nationally-known jewelry designer, will exhibit a variety of gold and silver designs inspired by her visit to Israel 20 years ago.

"I spent a wonderful and memorable year in Israel," says Miller, "and since then, I've wanted to revive and re-create the many symbols of peace, healing and renewal that appear so beautifully throughout the region."

Her Hands of Peace and Healing and The Star Hand were inspired by the Middle Eastern Hand of Fatima, an early symbol of protection. They can be worn in the form of earrings, pendants and charm necklaces.

One of Miller's most popular pieces, The Jerusalem Peace Hand , is an open-handed hamsa amulet that features a Star of David, a crescent moon with star and a cross. A Hamsa is an ancient symbol that traditionally signified good luck by warding off evil. The design has been adopted as a symbol of the new Mideast peace process, and one of its wearers is Archbishop Dionysius Behnam Yacoub Jajjawi, leader of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.

Chandra Garsson's work explores the boundaries of art and Judaism through depictions of birth, growth, decay and death.

"My work is about the passage of time, in the spirit of the Kabbalah and all mystical tradition," says Garsson.

Through painting, drawing and sculpture, Garsson creates dramatic images of what she feels as a "Jewish woman who dares to be herself — very much in keeping with the Jewish rugged individualist."

Garsson has long been a student of Jewish writers and the Holocaust literature. She reveals an intense reaction to the scourge of bigotry in her work titled Golem, a Hebrew word meaning "the power to create a monster." The piece shows a multi-eyed human face that looks "like the Nazi monster that created the Holocaust," says Garsson. "The evil had many eyes with many hatreds."

Visitors to Garsson's studio will find themselves surrounded by a huge collage of her work — a three-dimensional installation reaching from floor to ceiling.

Other JACOB artists participating in the Open Studios tour are:

*Alan Leon, creator of colorful mezzuzot made of wood, semi-precious stones and "found objects." Leon's mezzuzot are noted for their archeological flavor and whimsical charm.

*Susan Brooks, jewelry designer and painter, who is showing her ornamental artworks in silver and gold, and paintings.

*Lila Wahrhaftig, whose work is inspired by nature and the Torah. Among her pieces on display will be intaglio prints and handmade paper objects.

*Helen Ann Licht, a Jewish artist whose paintings are inspired by the book of Genesis.

*Danielle Shelley, who specializes in oil paintings and drawings. Her latest work is titled Buddah's Sukkah.

*Pauletta Chanco, painter.