Artistic canopy looms large at Brandeis Hillel Day School

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Stacy Speyer loves a good panel discussion.

Or, to be more precise, a discussion of panels: the 22 nylon panels — each representing a letter of the Hebrew alef-bet — she wove by hand for her latest, and perhaps greatest, work of art.

Speyer’s “Sukkat Shalom” (“Canopy of Peace”) was recently installed at Brandeis Hillel Day School. The piece includes those 22 cloth panels as well as a 17-foot “tree” made of woven copper thread and pipe.

In some panels, Speyer takes Hebrew letters and runs off in flights of fancy. The “gimel” resembles a series of linked circles. The “dalet” looks like an open door. The letter “pey” resembles a butterfly’s antenna (“parpar” is the Hebrew term).

Before she crafted the canopy, Speyer talked to Brandeis Hillel students, teachers, administrators and parents to find out what made the school a special place. “I started getting a picture in my head of a tree,” she says. “That’s how things start, a picture that doesn’t go away.”

From there she imagined a series of woven blue-and-green-toned panels suspended from the ceiling and hung around the tree. As the number of panels increased to 15, she figured, “Why not up it to 22 and make each a Hebrew letter?”

“I’ve been interested in the history of the alef-bet for a long time,” Speyer says. “I love this connection to the ancient. That’s part of my attraction to Judaism.”

Brandeis Hillel commissioned Speyer’s canopy to bring a splash of beauty to their San Francisco campus’ lobby. It is the first Jewish-themed work for the artist, who has a day job managing the weaving studio at Oakland’s California College of the Arts.

Brandeis Hillel parent Lisa Chanoff and her fellow art committee members first thought about commissioning an original artwork for the space more than three years ago. “We looked at sculpture, murals, quilting, all sorts of different things,” she recalls. “Then we started to think about textiles. We went to the CCA textile studios to see what was out there. We saw Stacey’s work and found it really appealing.”

“Originally they wanted some nice little piece on the wall,” says Speyer. “I remember saying, ‘Why on the wall? Could it be something like, say, floor to ceiling?'”

That’s where Speyer’s loom comes in.

The Chicago-area native knew she wanted to be an artist since childhood, though she didn’t start weaving until college. “I grew up in Northbrook,” she says. “There were a lot of Jews there. I was tripping over Jews, but I was one of those Jews interested in an individual path, which meant walking away from Judaism.”

It was only a temporary break, as today she has returned to her Jewish spiritual roots.

Speyer earned a bachelor of fine arts at the Kansas City Arts Institute, having mastered the art of the loom. Today, in her CCA studio, Speyer oversees 40 looms. “It’s a challenging crazy job,” she says.

In fact, things were so crazy she had to work nights for the better part of two years to complete the canopy. Because the piece was made of individual parts, Speyer didn’t even have a chance to see the piece assembled before the installation.

“Nothing was up until it got there,” she says. “I didn’t take the weaving off the loom until a few days before it was brought there.”

Needless to say, all were pleased.

“It was one of those wonderful moments,” says Chanoff of the unveiling. “It was a long project, everyone had worked very hard, and everyone is really happy with the piece. Also, it feeds into the experience when you learn the meaning of each panel.”

As for Speyer, she found the experience gratifying, both as an artist and as a Jew.

“I always wanted to make art,” she says, “and I knew I wanted to do large-scale pieces. I like the public art arena, making something that affects people’s lives.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.