A Natural History

It is a rainy day at the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts gallery on La Brea, but Ruth Weisberg, the artist and art educator, is gazing at a painting where it is perpetually summer.

In her recent oil painting, “Natural History,” otherworldly sunlight illuminates taxidermied monkeys that stare from behind the glass of a natural history exhibit. In the eerie light, the dead primates appear to come to life.

In another piece, “Glade,” stuffed deer seem to travel into the golden light, and perhaps into the great beyond, on taxidermy stands that look like vessels.

For Weisberg, dean of the USC School of Fine Arts, the “Natural History” series began with an unexpected “epiphany” in the summer of 1994.

At the time, she was visiting Vienna with her adult daughter, Alicia, who one day diverted her mother from entering the grand fine arts museum in the center of town. “She dragged me across the lawn to the museum of natural history,” recalls Weisberg, looking professorial in a tweed jacket and a long black skirt.

While the fine art museum was “gilded, lovely and crowded,” the natural history museum, located in an identical building, was deserted, neglected and old-fashioned. Upstairs, in the Hall of Primates, the overhead lights were turned off because the museum was trying to save money, officials said. But the sunlight streaming in through the large, arched windows had an odd effect on the preserved animals neatly arranged in dusty cases.

“It was a hall of ghosts, but with the light, there was a moment of transformation,” Weisberg says. “I knew the animals were not alive, but nevertheless I felt their presence as if they were alive. It was an uncanny experience and, at the same time, hopeful, because the animals seemed to live, again, in my gaze.”

It was not the first time Weisberg, 56, has been riveted by issues of life and death, survival and extinction. Since her early 20s, when she avidly read about the lost Jewish communities of Europe, her work has often explored themes of remembrance and, directly or indirectly, the Shoah.

She has painted the great synagogue of Danzig, which was destroyed in the Holocaust; and small girls playing on the muddy streets of a shtetl that did not exist after World War II. “I have felt that my life was a resting place for their souls,” Weisberg says. “As an artist, I have been able to make them come alive again, if only on the canvas.”

Weisberg grew up in an artistic and politically liberal household in the Chicago Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park. Her mother, a national board member of Women’s American ORT, ran political campaigns for the Reform Democrats. Her father, an architect, began taking Ruth to galleries and artist’s studios when she was as young as 3. Idyllic family summers were spent among artists, musicians and activists at the Indiana Wilson Sand Dunes, a socialist colony of cottages that had neither plumbing nor electricity.

By the age of 6, Weisberg was taking drawing classes at the Chicago Art Institute; by 18, she was studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy. Two-and-a-half years later, she returned to the University of Michigan, where, she says, she “became a feminist not only from conviction but from experience.”

“All the women who wanted to go on to graduate school were systematically discouraged,” she recalls. “Our professors told us, ‘for our own good,’ that no university art department would ever hire a woman.” Weisberg persevered, and her figurative, narrative work unapologetically broached subjects that were both feminist and Jewish.

Her first major Jewish project, “Shtetl: A Journey and a Memorial,” began in 1969 as she browsed through a family bookshelf and pulled out a thick, black volume, a yizkor book that had belonged to her grandmother. The memorial book, dedicated to her family’s lost Polish shtetl, “was moving but homely, with text and black and white photos of people who had died in the Holocaust,” Weisberg recalls. “I rifled through the pages and I cried. Suddenly, I had a very strong impulse to do my own book on the subject.”

Ancestors wearing turn-of-the-century garb stream through another piece, “The Scroll,” which the artist conceived during an encounter with a serious illness in the 1980s. In the 94-foot-long piece, which includes a feminist riff on Michelangelo, Creation occurs as an angel touches the upper lip of an unborn soul, depicted as an infant.

“Sisters and Brothers” (1994), consists of 14, six-foot-tall paintings, housed inside a two-tiered, octagonal structure, that explore the parallel stories and sibling rivalries of Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah.

And Weisberg’s “Separating the Waters” series, completed after her intense study of the first lines of Genesis (and now at the Rutberg gallery), depicts a nude woman serenely floating in water, as if in her own amniotic fluid. “All my work is deeply influenced by midrash,” says the artist, who is a member of the New Temple Emanuel Minyan.

Weisberg is not only an artist whose paintings, prints and drawings are in the collections of the Chicago Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and other museums. She is a prominent academic and the first woman artist ever to have served as president of the College Art Association, which recently granted her the 1999 Distinguished Teaching of Art Award.

But no, Weisberg says, she did not join the USC faculty in 1970 simply to earn a living. “I did so because I love to teach, and because it’s so rewarding to pass on what you know to students,” says the artist, who was appointed dean of USC’s School of Fine Arts in 1995.

“People don’t realize how creative it is to be a dean,” Weisberg adds. “They assume you’re just a paper-pusher. But actually, you’re concerned with the role the artist is going to play in society in the next quarter century, and with what your students will need to learn to become important members of an extremely visual, global culture.”

Weisberg, who has chaired the USC Hillel board, is also a founding board member of USC’s new Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life, an interdisciplinary center that will explore the role Jews have played in shaping the culture of the American West.

The idea first emerged during informal conversations among USC’s Jewish deans and professors, who constitute one-third of the total faculty, Weisberg says. “We realized that many of us were involved in Jewish projects and research, and that we needed an institute to forward those activities as part of the university.”

Today, the artist chairs the institute’s Nemer lecture committee, which will bring speakers such as Tom Freudenheim of the controversial Berlin Holocaust museum to speak at USC this year. Under her guidance, Weisberg says, the institute will not only study Jewish artists, architects and designers, but also the Jewish arts patron. “Jews on the West Coast have served on museum boards and as gallery curators; they have commissioned artworks and buildings,” she says. Norton Simon was Jewish; and so is Eli Broad, who is helping to spearhead the drive to expand the Music Center. “Jewish patronage of the arts is an as-yet untold story,” Weisberg says, “and a very important role that American Jews have played in the West.”

To inquire about Ruth Weisberg’s work on display at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Inc., 357 N. La Brea Ave., call (323) 938-5222.