JCCs new lobby serving double duty as art gallery

Perish the thought that visitors would simply pass through the new lobby of the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center.

The entry is a destination of its own with this month's unveiling of an art gallery designed to house everything from treasures of the Jewish art world to creations by local preschoolers.

The gallery is the first of its kind for the Jewish community in Contra Costa County. "It provides an opportunity to showcase art that's not normally seen in this community," said JCC executive director Joshua Malks.

The centerpiece of an airy new lobby at the Walnut Creek facility, the gallery will be open for public viewing on Sunday, April 26 with a show of oil paintings by Ruth Askren of Los Angeles and Judaica sculptures by the Rosenthal Collection of Maryland. The previous evening, a sneak preview will be offered to ticketholders who attend a JCC party to celebrate the opening and honor its past and current presidents. Tickets to the event are $100 per person.

All work displayed at the gallery will either be by Jewish artists or have a Jewish theme. Exhibits likely will rotate every month to six weeks.

"The idea, of course, is to build an awareness and appreciation in the community for Jewish art," said Andrea Harris, who heads the gallery's art committee.

She hopes to attract both local amateur artists and those whose works are known internationally. The gallery eventually may borrow pieces from other galleries and museums, such as the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. Organizers also hope to attract traveling exhibits of Jewish work.

Other plans for the gallery include art contests for children and adults. Harris would like to display work from the center's preschool and from youth programs at area synagogues. "I think appreciation for art goes across the spectrum," she said.

Demonstrations by artists and docent tours also are under discussion.

The opening show features paintings of "luscious" fruits and vegetables by Askren, a former ironworker and silversmith who started painting seven years ago. She says her work reflects "the richness, the passion of life and how wonderful it is to be alive." She also will show a series of bridge pictures that have "sort of moody colors" in contrast to the vivid food paintings.

Askren, who plans to attend the opening, said she turned to painting from jewelry work because "I really wanted to open up and enlarge my statement." She was an ironworker 20 years ago, but now the only welding she does is "for fun." She's currently working on a 10-foot snail in her backyard.

Also slated for the opening show are seder plates, Shabbat candlesticks, mezuzot and other Judaica made of glass and metal from the Rosenthal Collection of artists in Kensington, Md. "I try to blur the line between art and function," said artist Gary Rosenthal. "The goal is to create a piece that's pretty enough to leave out year-round."

Besides the gallery, the new entry at the JCC includes a gift shop and membership desk. All told, the JCC spent $1.3 million sprucing up its home of the last quarter century. A former elementary school, the center had been spread into three separate buildings that now are linked by the lobby.

"The lobby not only unites the building, but gives a real sense of unity to the center" and its employees, Malks said. "It's really magical."

Out back, another transformation is under way with the near completion of a $5.2 million gym. Set to open just a week after the gallery, the gym will be run by both the city of Walnut Creek and the JCC.

To mark the new era at the center, a party called "Hats Off!" will honor the JCC's current president, Hope Cohen, and past presidents Joan Gordon, Roy Kaplan, Stuart Weinstein, Stanley Felix, Gordon A. Berke, Steven D. Hallert, Phil Ross and Barry Slavin. The evening begins at 6 p.m. with cocktails in the art gallery, moves to the auditorium for dinner and ends with dessert and dancing in the lobby of the new gym.

"It celebrates all the new things the JCC has to offer," says recreation coordinator Tamar Wex.

For information on the party, call Laura West at the JCC, (510) 938-7800.