Familial ties on display
Paula Weiner, the daughter of artist Anita Kushner (1935-2011), has vivid memories growing up in an art-filled home.
She recalls that once, around the age of 14, she came home late and wanted to take a bath. But she couldn't because the bathtub was filled with soaking watercolor paper that needed to stay in the tub until the next day, when it would be properly prepared for painting.
“I was always competing with her artwork,” Weiner says. “I didn't have any siblings, but in a way I had lots and lots of siblings.”
Weiner estimates her mother created more than 5,000 artworks over the course of her lifetime.
“Even on her deathbed, she was drawing,” Weiner says. “She was consummate. She never stopped drawing, never stopped painting, making prints. ... She never stopped creating, ever.”
Weiner is presenting a selection of her mother's work along with her own in the exhibit “Drawn to Paint, Sculpting a Family,” at Spinning Plate Gallery in East Liberty. Weiner lives in one of the artist's lofts above the gallery.
It's not quite a retrospective. “There is just so much work of hers, I couldn't possibly display it all at once,” Weiner says.
During her lifetime, Kushner actively exhibited her pieces in more than 30 solo shows, and countless group exhibits, in museums and in galleries in the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel, where her work has been featured in the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Israeli Art, Museum of Modern Art in Haifa, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
According to Weiner, Kushner lived most of her adult life in Israel and was the only artist to have work on display at the home of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the historic signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
Kushner, who received her master of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, first moved to Haifa, Israel, in 1974 to establish the art education/administration program at University of Haifa.
While in Israel, Kushner became enamored with ethnographic subjects, often depicting the romance of the Middle East through the costumes and jewelry worn by the people of the region.
In the exhibit, works like the drawing “Treblinka, Israel” and the etching “Sa'ada, Moroccan Jewish Bride” allude to this.
Other subjects of interest include the natural landscape that surrounded her, as evidence by her Cloudscapes print series, as well as wolves and other wildlife.
Among those works, the large oil painting “Group of Seven” is a real stand out. It depicts a pack of angry wolves in bright slashes of blue and amber color. “She was obsessed with wolves, though I am not entirely sure why,“ Weiner says.
Now 58, Weiner says that when she was a teenager living with her mother in Israel, “She was more of an art mentor than a mother.”
Looking back on her youth, Weiner says she had always created art. But it wasn't until 2005 that she turned to making art in earnest.
Early success came in the form of acceptance in the 2005 Hoyt Mid Atlantic Juried Art Exhibition at the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts in New Castle. The juror for that exhibit was Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens. “He only chose artwork by 43 artists from over 400 who entered, and he actually chose to write about my piece in his juror's statement,” Weiner recalls proudly.
Plagens described her piece as “funny.” Appropriately enough, humor is a consistent underlying theme. Take for example the piece “Stepping Out,” which simply comprises a Barbie doll leg wedged into a clear Lucite shoe display stand. Or the piece “Teenager,” which comprises a crux of a tree turned upside down and wedged into two pickax heads, which function here, to utmost hilarity, as stand-ins for shoes.
Weiner says her sense of humor helped her get through her parents' divorce in 1969. Then 9, she says it was a “bitter divorce.”
Weiner tears up as she describes how her father, a Philadelphia jeweler, had to file for custody. “I was a pawn,” Weiner says. “That's why I always say I was abducted in regard to my mom taking me to Israel.”
Weiner and her mother returned to the United States in the 1980s, with Kushner briefly living in New York City. Afterward, she returned to Israel. But in 2005, Kushner was accepted into Westbeth Artists Community, a nearly 50-year-old subsidized artists' housing complex in Greenwich Village, which has been home to such legendary creative types as Diane Arbus, Merce Cunning, Robert De Niro Sr. and the actor Vin Diesel.
“Westbeth is a very influential place in New York. It's like this (Spinning Plate Lofts, where Weiner lives), but very hard to get into,” Weiner says.
The exhibit culminates with the painting “My Journey (Beit Shemesh).” Painted in 2004, this modernist-inspired landscape painting depicts a row of colorful houses perched on an abstracted hillside with a lake in the foreground. It's colorful rendition of the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, where Kushner once lived.
“It's about her life,” says Weiner. “It was as colorful as this painting.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.