Artists probe Judaism, Holocaust in East Bay art show

Of all the women in the history of humankind, no woman has so profoundly influenced the female mind as Eve, according to Oakland artist Chandra Garsson.

"The most important things about life that we don't talk about — mortality and sexuality — she wants to know. She really wants to eat that fruit," Garsson says.

But the act that cost Adam and Eve their immortality is about much more than sex and death, she contends; it's that Eve is arrogant enough to seek and obtain knowledge that was God's domain.

"This has affected Western civilization. A woman still suffers if she knows too much. I've felt it, so I thought I'd keep my mouth shut and make art about it," the artist says.

The story of Adam and Eve has so captivated Garsson that she has created a series of paintings to explore the significance of Eve's symbolic wanderings.

Her 10 paintings of oil and acrylic are among the works of three local Jewish artists — including Ruth Dosmar Sipper and Merl Ross — who have explored Jewish themes. Their work will be shown at the annual East Bay Open Studios exhibition Saturdays and Sundays, June 6 and 7 and June 13 and 14.

The main exhibit in Oakland will feature selected works of hundreds of San Leandro-, Oakland- and Berkeley-area visual artists, who also will open their studios and collections to the public.

Garsson says her Jewish identity informs all of her art, including the works that do not appear to be Jewish but rather something unleashed from the subconscious during a nightmare.

Her split-level warehouse is an eerie collection of fetal forms hung from eaves and rafters in filmy sacks, furniture inhabited by still more human and prehuman forms, random body parts, a platter of gold-laminated dentures, a baby being born from the seat of a chair.

"My art is the product of not only the fact that I'm Jewish and a woman who has grown up in California, but the product of the literature and history I've read," Garsson says.

The grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants who fled turn-of-the-century pogroms, Garsson says the Holocaust figures prominently in her work. Despite her art's ominous tone, she says it reflects an awe of life with its themes of birth, decay and death.

"There are artists that walk into my studio that laugh and see the humor and that I have a lot of fun with my play."

Garsson says her art reveals the spirit of Eve's original explorations.

"It's what makes people nervous — that a woman has dared to be this creative and destructive. It's disturbing. If I had been a man, people would have been less disturbed."

Jewish themes and artists have influenced Ruth Dosmar Sipper's art since she was a youth studying art in pre-state Israel. The German war refugee relocated in 1957 to the Bay Area, where she has worked as a full-time artist ever since.

Dosmar Sipper specializes in printmaking, sculpture, etchings and embossments, which is a method of making textured impressions in paper with a press.

Her subjects are expressionistic forms of people, scenes and objects, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or an abstracted "Shalom." She also crafts Judaica, such as mezuzot, from bronze and silver. Several of her metal sculptures years ago won a Most Likely to Succeed award at an Israeli 10th anniversary exhibition. Dosmar Sipper was given a cash award toward her next two bronze sculptures.

A 76-year-old cancer survivor, she does not work in her studio as much as she would like to. Doctor-ordered swimming and other calisthenics cut into her art schedule.

"You have to go to exercise or you shrink up," quips the 4-foot, 8-inch artist, who worries about tending to her Oakland home and garden.

Nevertheless, Dosmar Sipper feels that she's left her mark on the Bay Area art scene. She was pleasantly surprised to spot one of her works in a private home this year when she joined a group of people for a Passover seder.

The hostess of the seder, with whom Dosmar Sipper was not acquainted, had acquired the piece some 10 years ago, she told her.

While Merl Ross, 35, of Berkeley has not been on the scene quite as long, she has made her own mark. A master of fine arts graduate from U.C. Berkeley and part-time instructor at San Francisco's Academy of Art, Ross devotes most of her time to painting.

Her abstract paintings of acrylics and oils are vibrant with color. Most of her subjects are landscapes inspired from her first trip to Israel, she says.

"I was infatuated with the Land of Israel and its land formations. My work reflects lots of aerial views and narrow paths of land that wind through the wadis. Years later, these abstracted aerial images were the first things to come out in my exhibited work."

Ross, who grew up in San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, has shown her paintings at the gallery at Congregation Emanu-El and dozens of local solo and group exhibitions in the past decade.

Other art at the Pro Arts East Bay Open Studios exhibition includes painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, installation, photography, ceramics, metal casting, woodworking, furniture, jewelry and textiles.

The main exhibition is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays through June 14 at the Pro Arts Gallery, 461 Ninth St., Oakland. Artists' open studio hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Garsson's studio is at 4701 San Leandro St., No. 37, in Oakland. She is artist No. 41 on the Open Studios map and will be open for both weekends of the show. Dosmar Sipper's work will be exhibited at 2121 Bonair in Berkeley, also on both weekends. She is artist No. 271 on the map. Ross' studio is at 1581 LeRoy Ave., Studio 30, Berkeley, and will be open only June 13 and 14. Ross is artist No. 245 on the map. Information and Open Studios map: (510) 763-4361.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.