Interview by Reena Baras
Yehudis Barmatz-Harris is a Jewish Art Salon fellow and member of the religious women artist group “Studio of Her Own.” Her artwork is inspired by Hassidic, Kabbalistic and Biblical sources. Her art explores her personal identity as a Female Hassidic Jewish artist, using common everyday items and materials to infer references that are more abstract. Her personal working philosophy and approach to the arts in the community is motivated by a belief in the creative arts process as bringing people together through providing identity, healing, soul searching and reflection. This philosophy is expressed in her own personal works. Yehudis Barmatz-Harris is an artist and practicing therapist, and contributing Jewish arts writer living in central Israel.
CAIJ: Can you describe yourself as an artist and what materials you tend to lean towards using?
Yehudis: As a multimedia artist, I use installation, video, photographs, and sculptural assemblages to reflect on the meaning of the mundane. I choose materials no one else looks at: dust, unwanted papers, water, materials left over from rituals such as melted down candles and ashes, broken vessels, voices, shadows. I integrate these materials with imagery from the daily urban and natural environment, such as window screens, metal cables, bike wheels, images of trees.
I consider the life cycle of nature and material. My works are born out of the American environmental, ecofeminist and process art movements, alongside other contemporary artists using recycled mediums. I am also informed by my own culture, deriving symbolism and meaning about the feminine essence as rooted in Jewish thought.
The domestic domain is stigmatized as a burdensome requirement of daily living. Such a perspective degrades motherhood as stripped of free choice, as she becomes deeply immersed in the basic physical essentials, to birth, to wash, to feed, to wipe the mess. However, the home is what runs constantly in every human’s unconscious. As a Mother, a Jewish Hassidic Woman, I reassess cast off materials in the home as symbol, ritual, and essential being, to evaluate the devalued, through researching the emotional and spiritual meanings of basic matters.
CAIJ: Will you tell us about one of your more recent projects?
Yehudis: The Etz-Chaim event is a unique site specific art project born through the collaboration of Studio of Her Own’s group of artists in their studio Alliance House, together with colleagues from New Spirit at Alliance House.
Jaffa Street is characterized by its buildings, landmarks to the history of the developing city. Two of these buildings, Eitz Haim School and Alliance House, mark a history unique to Jerusalem. They were built as Jerusalem’s first-ever educational institutions and stood for the opposing philosophies that were a makeup for the new Jerusalem, a city now becoming the capital of a New Jewish State.
Eitz Haim School was one of the first attempts at institutionalizing ultra-orthodox religious study. Originally, Jerusalemite ultra-orthodox parents home-schooled their children, using respected and learned tutors. As Jerusalem became established as a city, and the enticing secular lifestyle threatened the continuation of the community, the teachers realized that children of all means need an education, to retain the teachings of their fathers and maintain tradition.
They established one of the first ever Jewish Religious Learning institutions for children in Jerusalem. Behind the Eitz Haim complex, the tall building of Alliance House stood symbolically, proudly providing the first ever secular education, in the Land of Israel. Today, both buildings stand abandoned on Jaffa St., as the institutions’ philosophies’ have branched into many different centers and Jerusalem transformed from being Two opposing communities with Two opposing schools into a city of multiple centers.
Once, these two structures were full spaces, buzzing with activity. Later they cleared out, empty and waiting for demolition, yet seeped with memories and scattered with artifacts commemorating what once was. The Alliance house, meanwhile, got temporarily taken over by New Spirit, until demolition date, and is meanwhile filled, by people and activities. Eitz Chaim, remains an empty space. In Hassidic thought, “a clear space” symbolizes potential. It is this potential that, as a group of artists, we will utilize.
CAIJ: Wow, what a fascinating description… how does one support themselves as an artist, what resources are available specifically in the Jerusalem area?
Yehudis: Non-profits can give supports for profits and usually a stipend for materials. I fortunately have a 9-5 job in addition to this, working as an art therapist as one of my main sources of income. That said, I was more freed up to be more authentic and build my work because I was dealing with a lot less pressure to constantly look for funding. Stability is such an important thing to have in life. I also took a free business course through MATI, which helped me learn important tools on how to market myself, and people that run young independent businesses. What I’ve typically found, is that when starting off, you make your money “around” your art , not through it. As an instillation artist, most things are put up for an exhibit, and then put away. It’s very important to stand your ground.
CAIJ: Why leave New York, and come to Israel to do art?
Yehudis: I was in Pratt institute, and then I stayed in the Brooklyn area and started working for an independent curator in the Manhattan area. And I got to know the Chelsea Gallery like the back of my hand… and for me picking up and leaving was hard because of that. I felt like my work at Pratt institute lost its cultural flavor. I found that the more I reconnect with myself emotionally, and to my culture, the more it enlivens my work. It feels more authentic to me in that way. While I was in Pratt, I learned how to connect to the material, but not to my culture. The soul was missing so I felt like it was an important step for me to come back here to Israel. I figured temporarily, just to reconnect a bit to the thoughts and philosophies here, and along the way I met my husband and stayed.
Yehudis Barmatz-Harris (b. 1985) born in Boston, Massachusetts, lives and works in Central Israel. She has a BFA in sculpture from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn (2008) and an Art Therapy certification from Seminar Hakibbutzim, Tel Aviv (2013) and is an MA candidate at ASA college (Leslie). Yehudis works in her personal artspace in her Moshav, developing artwork and being active in women issues in the Jewish Arts. She is a volunteer reporter on Israeli religious artists primarily as contributor to Jewish Art Now.
About the author: Born and raised in Silver Spring, MD, Reena Baras moved to Jerusalem in 2015. Reena studied for her BA in early childhood and special education from Montgomery College in Maryland and works as a resource teacher, swim instructor, and freelance artist. In the fall, Reena plans to complete her BA in Liberal Arts at Tel Aviv University.Reena is a contributing journalist for CAIJ.co.