Textile artist Catherine Stern (Photo/Rosaura Sandoval)
Textile artist Catherine Stern (Photo/Rosaura Sandoval)

Putting a silky finish on spiritual text-iles

Few people actually make a living at art, says Catherine Stern. But making a more meaningful life through art — that is something she can do.

“I’m often inspired by words from Jewish prayers, stories and text, and pair them with images, from many sources,” says Stern, an East Bay textile artist whose work is being shown at the Osher Marin JCC through the end of the year. “The words lead me to research, to read and listen, and finally to dream until the pieces tell me what they want to become.”

The exhibit, “Sh’ma: Stories in Silk,” features hand-dyed silk pieces that she has imprinted with images and text from the biblical Song of Songs and other passages of sacred text. Inspired by the luminosity of ancient glass — another art medium Stern has explored — the work also incorporates visual elements from Islamic design and tile work, and pays homage to the Gustav Klimt decorative aesthetic with her use of gold.

The baobab tree, seen here in one of Catherine Stern's pieces, is known as a tree of life — perhaps the Tree of Life? — in Africa
The baobab tree, seen here in one of Catherine Stern’s pieces, is known as a tree of life — perhaps the Tree of Life? — in Africa

Stern’s path to spiritually derived art was not predictable. Born in New York, she had very little in the way of Jewish education. Her family moved to Palo Alto when she was small. But when she returned to New York as an adult, she joined a Reform temple in Brooklyn Heights, which opened her eyes to Jewish texts and traditions as a source of inspiration, with help from “a wonderful young rabbi, Richard Jacobs,” today president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“There we were in Brooklyn, the trash cans overflowing, and he said that every day we are starting at the beginning again in the Garden of Eden. He said, ‘If you make it, then it will be,’” she recalls.

Stern’s interest in textiles began early in life, long before her creative turn toward spiritual text and images. In high school, she got her hands on a loom and decided to study textile art and woodworking at San Francisco State, where she began her experimentation with hand-dyed silk.

Artwork by Catherine Stern
Artwork by Catherine Stern

“In many ways, I used cloth like I would paint a watercolor,” Stern says. “I loved the translucence of silk — almost like ancient glass.”

Over the years, she restored antiques, became a spinner and weaver and art photographer. For a time she worked in New York’s garment district. But due to economic necessity, “I found myself in real estate — though I still had a loom in my living room.”

Years later and back in the Bay Area, Stern is a realtor in Berkeley whose art is a labor of love and, one could say, a spiritual practice.

“Sh’ma: Stories in Silk” had its origins in 2005 when some of her flower photographs were in a group art show at the Marin JCC, where she is a longtime member. One photo in particular, a close-up of light falling across a white tulip, reminded Stern of a tallit, a thought she shared with Marsha Falk, the artist, poet and Jewish scholar. Falk suggested that Stern look to midrash and the Song of Songs for a title that conveyed what the photo meant to her. Ultimately, Stern found the phrase “He wrapped himself in a robe of light and it began to shine” as a name for the photo, “and with that, the focus of my work took a new direction.”

Artwork by Catherine Stern
Artwork by Catherine Stern

Sometimes she combines words from Jewish texts with images from other cultures. The Song of Songs mentions many creatures, such as gazelles and doves, that are also depicted in the art and artifacts of the Muslim world. “I went looking for them in Islamic tiles as a way of melding the two peoples together,” she says.

She also incorporates elements of the Hebrew alphabet in her designs. “Each letter conveys myriad meanings and resonates power. I’ve chosen words of love, of compassion, of inclusiveness and oneness.”

Though she no longer weaves or spins her own fibers, Stern hand dyes the silk fabric and paints on it. The new exhibit features more than 20 of her textile artworks.

As an artist attempting to touch the sacred, “I don’t have to know all the answers,” Stern says. “I’m calling this an invitation to explore the stories, to ask where they come from and what they mean for you.”

A reception for “Sh’ma: Stories in Silk” will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7, with Q&A, live music and light refreshments. Exhibit through Jan. 1, 2019. At Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free, RSVP requested. marinjcc.org/events

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.