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Waking life: Triple Art at UCLA a celebration through creation

The start of the new school year inevitably means a series of artistic journeys for visitors to UCLA Hillel. So it goes for the fall quarter, when Hillel’s annual Triple Art Exhibition takes visitors inside the mind and around the world.

At locations throughout Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts, guests experience the metaphysical landscapes of Judith Liebe, scenes of Eastern European life from the camera of Yale Strom, and Ann Krasner’s depictions of visionary Jewish artists of Russian descent who changed the world. 

The Triple Art Exhibition is not a theme exhibition, but the common denominator between these very different artists is not difficult to pinpoint, according to Hillel’s artistic director Perla Karney, who, with this exhibition, has displayed the works of 85 professional artists and hung more than 600 pieces of art by students in 12 years.

“All three of them have gone on a Jewish journey as artists,” said Karney, who followed the careers of the three artists and subsequently recruited them to display at Hillel. “They explore the Jewish identity, which is reflected in their art.”

“From the very beginning of the Jewish tradition, we recognize and record God affirming what’s good for us,” Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Hillel’s executive director, added. “Judaism embraces things like sexuality and food and art. What I see that is similar in all three of these exhibits tonight is that there’s an embrace of life.”

Gathering at Hillel for the exhibition’s opening, Strom, Liebe and Krasner gave presentations and discussed elements of their work. Liebe and Krasner are based in Los Angeles and Strom lives in San Diego, where he is an artist-in-residence in the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University. 

To assemble “Fragments,” Strom drew from his archive of photographs taken of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during the last 30 years. A klezmer musician, writer, playwright, filmmaker and photographer, Strom initially traveled throughout Eastern Europe in search of music. What he found were Jewish communities reminiscent of prewar shtetl life, prompting him to record what life had been like for Jewish communities and what it became after the Berlin Wall came down. The black-and-white images shot in the 1980s look like they captured community life of a far earlier time. 

“I wanted to meet survivors,” said Strom, whose works were previously displayed at the Anne Frank Center in Manhattan. “This was more than people just singing or playing me a tune. All the variances of life and culture somehow survived the Holocaust and Stalinist years. That really opened my eyes and imagination.” 

When he first went to the former Eastern Bloc and visited small communities, Strom discovered he possessed a unique item that facilitated his research: his violin. Residents would notice the violin and, given he had schlepped it all the way from America, ask Strom to play a tune. And he obliged.

“So I’d start to play, and they’d sing or they’d get an instrument or call other people and start to tell stories,” Strom recalled, “and I would eventually put the violin down and start to take pictures.” 

Liebe, another well-traveled artist and the daughter of a filmmaker and an actress, grew up in Germany and studied in Munich and Paris. The striking images in her exhibition “Far Away” line the staircase of the Dortort Center. Carrying titles such as “Desire” and “Utopia,” the works celebrate the artist’s sense of security.

“Growing up in Germany, I have not experienced safety at all times,” Liebe said. “The world around us is in turmoil, and peace seems far away. It is my strong desire through my art to remind us of the magnitude of this world and the peacefulness that is contained within it.” 

In “Jewish Visionaries in the Arts,” Krasner’s bustling cityscapes, elongated stick-like bodies and brash colors celebrate the accomplishments of immigrant artists like Marc Chagall, George Gershwin and Mark Rothko. Those artists were able to reach great heights for the same reasons that Krasner could — because they had talent and because their new homeland received them with open arms. 

Krasner’s 25 works include depictions of friends and family members as well as celebrated thinkers and artists. Many of the collage-like works include lengthy quotations from the subjects on their philosophies about life and art. 

“America was open to outsiders, and with its incredible growth of new competitive industries, Jewish immigrants were ready to jump in,” said Krasner, who came to California from Russia 27 years ago. “Their talent was more important than who they were at that time. All of this created amazing opportunities for Jewish immigrants to succeed.”

Krasner, who has degrees in mathematics and computer science, noted with some irony that she had never painted until her husband gave her a brush and canvas for her 30th birthday. Four months later, she was winning competitions and exhibiting around the world. 

Her work also examines immigrants pushing their children to achieve great heights. Krasner can relate. Her 15-year-old son, Benjamin, who performed at the opening, is an accomplished pianist who has already won several international competitions and studies at Cal State Northridge. 

The Triple Art Exhibition is on display through the end of December at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave. For more information, visit uclahillel.org.

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