Un-Orthodox Orthodox Art
by Yitzchok Moully
Jacqueline Nicholls is a fine artist in her words “…who uses art to explore traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways.” Jacqueline is an Orthodox woman living in London with lots of questions about her religion and its relationship with women. Perhaps it would be easy for her to write off Torah as not being up to date with current ideas of feminism, but not for Jacqueline, she is both a Torah observant Jew as well as a feminist, looking for ways to understanding the two together. Not looking to shy away from confrontation, Jacqueline has devoted a large body of her work to questioning the relationship of Torah and women, their role in Torah society, and to what she views as unanswered biblical quandaries that relate to women.
What struck me most about Jacqueline and her work was that while Jacqueline pushed the envelope -way past where I would push – she still had respect for the Torah and its truths. Perhaps she still has not found adequate answers to everything, but the process is real and personal as she strives to make sense of her heritage and the world around her.
Below is an open interview with Jacqueline providing a window into her world.
What was your relationship with creativity growing up?
I always drew, painted and made things. I had a great grandmother who was a very talented dressmaker and as a child whenever relatives saw my work they would talk about her. She died before I was born but I grew up hearing those stories and being inspired by her memory. When I was very little apparently I would get very upset that I was not allowed to draw on Shabbat. My mother was upset that I hated Shabbat for this and so she decided to let me draw, even though in every other way we were a Shabbat observant family.
What was your relationship with Judaism growing up?
I grew up in a traditional orthodox family. My family observed Shabbat and Kosher
I attended mainstream schools but went to Cheder (religious school), on Sunday morning and after school during the week. When I was older and wanted to study in a yeshiva for women in Israel (Nishmat), they were fully supportive.
In your bio you mention that you studied architecture and medical illustrator before you turned to fine art. What was it about fine art that drew you in?
I went to art school after architecture school to unlearn that way of drawing. While I was there I was not just learning a different approach to drawing but also thinking. Using art to explore and express different ideas. I had a tutor who was Jewish, but not religious or particularly learned, but he knew that I had spent time in traditional Jewish learning and also taught those texts, and he encouraged me to bring them into my art.
You challenge certain passages of the Torah, especially in relation to women.
When did these questions first arise?
What were you like as a teenager?
What was the nature of your questions then?
I have a younger brother. And I remember very clearly when he was born there was quite a bit of ‘finally a boy!’ being bantered around. (I also have an older sister) And despite various reassuring noises from my parents, the shock that a boy was what was really wanted never quite disappeared.
But there was no one moment when these questions first arrived. I was used to jew = male and all examples about Jewish identity were male and required me to abstract and translate into a female experience. There are certain things growing up you just accept until you can’t anymore. There are many times when I just knew, on an intuitive level, that my life would have just been easier if I had been born a boy not a girl.
Is there an answer to these questions?
How do you resolve on a personal level?
I don’t know if there is a way to answer the questions. The main thing is to keep questioning. Find people to learn from, and debate and talk to. The hardest thing is having these questions in isolation, that can be very lonely.
What area of Torah do you celebrate the most?
Both personally and in your work?
I’m not really sure how to answer that. I keep coming back to traditional learning and engagement with the text. It is a problematic relationship, and often it has been an argument rather than a conversation. But it is a relationship that I can’t walk away from and so go back to it again and again. The text is my intellectual heritage, Jewish history is my story and so I try to find a way
to engage with it in my own way, and be as honest and open as I can, aware of the incongruities.
You teach a Torah class; have your struggles impacted your students?
Does it impact their opinion of you in relationship to you leading the study?
I teach Tanach, (The Bible) and some more traditional Halacha shirim (Jewish law) to adults, I like to investigate how Halacha has evolved to contemporary practice. I sometimes tutor bat-mitzvah girls.
I see my role as a Jewish educator to open up the text to the students in order for them to have their own relationship with Torah. I try not to impose my questions onto the students, but encourage them to ask their questions and discover their answers. Obviously it is impossible for the teacher to totally remove oneself, but I’m not there to tell people what to do or how to think. They are adults and it is up to them how to, or whether to, translate what they are learning into their life and thinking.
I just want the students to be thoughtful and engaged and to have informed opinions.
When I am doing that type of teaching I don’t bring in my artwork, (although I often bring in other artists) and very possibly most of the students have no idea what type of art I actually do. The ones who do, appreciate that I am not going to give ‘easy’ answers, or ban any type of questioning, but be intellectually honest and not shy away from problematic texts.
Your work is very raw, it is personal and real; how does it feel to put yourself out through your work?
When I am making my work it is a way for me to grapple with certain ideas, and emotions. To make something and then be able to say ‘yes, that is how it is.’ it’s a cathartic process and it is very personal. After it is made I do worry about it going public and feels horribly exposing. But I have noticed, especially with the more deeply personal pieces that they resonate with whoever is viewing them, and it then becomes about what has stirred up in them. My personal narratives that inspired such pieces are not always relevant for the viewer to know, just that they recognize that the art comes from an emotionally authentic place.
What body of work do you think had the biggest impact on others?
The paper-cuts have had a lot of attention. But the one piece that I think speaks to many people is a small, quiet piece, called ‘maybe this month.’ It is a fabric piece, with that phrase embroidered in white on 15 white cotton bedikah cloths that are sewn together in red thread. It is about infertility and my experience of building hope when preparing to go to the mikveh. It took a long time before I was ready for that piece to be seen by others. It was featured in Zeek on-line, and from there several blogs and other websites linked to it. Although it has only once been exhibited publicly, I often meet women, and men, who say that they have seen that piece and they recognize and it emotionally resonates with them.
How has your work impacted or enhanced the dialogue?
One male rabbi who writes on-line about infertility and Halacha (Jewish law) linked to the ‘maybe this month’ piece with a humble recognition that he does not and cannot know how the niddah (menstrual) cycle can impact on women. The paper-cuts also encourage debate and recognition that a women’s perspective on these texts, and how they impact real women’s lives, has been missing in the conversation. For too long women in Judaism have been objects.
Your descriptions accompanying your work are as compelling as the work itself. Does the work always follow the concept or does it change?
I start off each piece with an idea, which develops as I make the piece. There is something about the way our minds work when hands are busy, especially when making meticulous detailed work. And the initial concept is deepened and developed in the process of making.
You use many different mediums to convey your message, which do you find conveys your ideas best?
I tend to change the medium depending on the particular project I am doing. The black and white contrast and act of cutting fitted what I was trying to do with the misogynist texts in the ladies guild collection. I am currently working on a series of multi-layered embroideries about women in the Talmud. I like the ambiguity that you can achieve with these layers of transparent fabric and lace-like embroidery that echo the experience of engaging with Talmudic text. It’s playing with mesechet meaning tractate of Talmud, but also Mesechet means a woven web.
Describe your recent project; gather the broken
This year I am counting the omer (counting the days in the build up to Shaviot; Holiday of the giving of the Torah) by doing a daily drawing that is interpreted/commentated on by my friend and Rebbi, Amichai Lau-Lavie. Going from Pesach to Shavuot by acknowledging each day and what is broken in our daily lives. Perfection is fairly sterile, creativity and new life begins with engaging with the flaws. not in a rush to fix, but to see the beauty and meaning in how life really is – flawed, broken, and imperfect. Inspired by the daily drawings I am embarking on a much more ambitious project. I will be starting a new project on August 3 called draw Yomi. It is following the seven and a half year daf yomi cycle, – that begins again this August – (learning one page of Talmud a day) I aim to learn and draw from the daf every day, yes, lets see how disciplined I can be.
What are you currently working on?
I have a solo show at the JCC Manhattan, coming up in September; I will be exhibiting all my recent projects including my latest; Ghosts & Shadows: the women who haunt the Talmud, a series of embroideries inspired by various anonymous women in the Talmud, and I will also be exhibiting the Gather the Broken Omer drawings, and the Kittel Collection. The Kittel Collection is an on-going series of clothing pieces that explore the different ways clothing is used as a vehicle for meaning and identity within our tradition and literature. The kittel is a simple, white, garment used as a burial shroud. There are customs for men to wear a kittel on Seder night; on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I am using the leitmotif of a kittel, playing with it, as it is clothing in its essence, as a basic form on which to project these different ideas of clothing.
How would you define Jewish art?
Jewish art is not just an expression of Jewish experience, for me it has to have an intellectual and emotional engagement with the ideas, or else it is just illustration, which is nice but why make it?
What are you adding to the conversation? What is this piece of art revealing to you that can only be said in this art piece by you? With all your life experiences, torah insights and your unique combination of abilities?
Jacqueline’s work can be seen on her website www.jacquelinenicholls.com and on display at a solo show at the JCC Manhattan, beginning September 1st.