Jane Trigère: Women of the Balcony
On view October 30, 2011 – February 5, 2012
Jane Trigère and Susan Chevlowe, Director, Derfner Judaica Museum
Susan Chevlowe: What brought you to Congregation Ohav Sholaum and what did you first encounter there? Can you describe how it looked inside and what went through your mind?
Jane Trigère: I arrived at the closed synagogue ostensibly to pick up books with my husband, Ken Schoen, who is a Judaica book dealer. After doing that, we looked around the abandoned shul. What remained was an air of suspense. Talleisim [prayer shawls] were draped over benches as if their owners were returning any moment. We asked, what was going to happen to all the stuff left behind? Take what you want, was the unexpected answer. I started folding the talleisim and filling large plastic bags. I would eventually wash, repair and return them to active duty. When I climbed upstairs to the women’s balcony, I was in another world. Above the fray of the men’s space was the stadium-style u shaped seating for the women. Where downstairs seemed sad and neglected, upstairs felt “populated” and orderly – rows of modest, multicolored cushions remained on the benches marking the places of their absent owners.
SC: Once you discovered the cushions, what was the process that led to the creation of your installation, Women of the Balcony?
JT: I snapped a photo and then tossed the cushions over the balcony and took them home to western Massachusetts. Sitting outdoors, I tore open the cushions and removed old stuffing and feathers. I felt like a textile archaeologist peeling back layers of stories with each fabric. The fabric remnants came from the bottom of the sewing shelf, but now they revealed the modest lives and choices of refugee women who were themselves remnants of a once vibrant German Jewish culture. A textile curator from Historic Deerfield came to identify the fabrics for me: 1960s upholstery fabric covered a 1950s kitchen curtain, which covered a 1940s patterned dress silk, and on and on.
Once the fabrics were cleaned and stacked, they waited for me for months until the ideas came. Then they came suddenly in images and there were too many for one solution. I understood that there would be several independent responses that could live side by side.
I had written a letter to the editor of the The Jewish Week in May of 2006 about my discovery. It was then that people started writing to me, telling me about the cushions… how one never moved a cushion even if the owner had died. Imagine that! The cushions that marked their place in life now became their markers in death.
SC: The individual panels and the three-dimensional assemblage construct a symbolic narrative. What is the story they tell? And what do some of the symbols mean?
JT: The cushion fabric represented all that is feminine in the otherwise very masculine space of the synagogue.
The first persistent image I had was the vanishing perspective of the benches with their lined-up cushions. This I recreated using all or most of the salvaged fabrics. Women of the Balcony 1 was the result. I saw that I had formed a tallis with traditional stripes, but they were tilted toward the center forming a triangle – the ancient symbol for woman. The idea of tallis as canvas grew and I intentionally decided that some form of ritual fringes was needed. This was a rational exploration: If the men’s braided fringes on the four corners are about remembering the mitzvoth [commandments], then what braided items exist in an Orthodox woman’s life that linked also to mitzvoth? The braid of hair that is cut off before the wedding; the weekly challah that is separated and a part burned in memory of the rituals in the time of the Temple; an umbilical cord to symbolize the mitzvah of procreation and the laws concerning purity; and, lastly, to set the standard, a traditionally braided fringe with a non-traditional blood-red thread instead of a blue one.
Women of the Balcony 2 is two small panels that represent two world views. The top one shows a tallis bag made from one of the textiles – the feminine. It holds and protects the black and white tallis, which represents the masculine. A key hangs from the zipper pull. I found hundreds of these keys in a small closet in the balcony and took a few. They were for the men’s small storage lockers in front of each seat.
The bottom panel has the masculine tallis protectively holding a pillow from the same feminine textile as above. Many brass name tags with the names of men are lined up on one side. That is how the men’s seats were marked. Amusingly, a cuff link competes with a ritual fringe for the same eyelet.
Together the two panels represent the intertwined and interdependent male and female worlds – downstairs and upstairs. Movement flows between them that is logical, yet subtle.
Women of the Balcony 3 is less literal, more impressionistic. The panel is ten feet tall. One must tilt the head up to see it just as the men tilted their heads up to see their wives, sisters, girlfriends, daughters. Upstairs, the colorful textiles bloom, and downstairs, the black stripes of the talleisim are like stems. They are completely interdependent and yet so very different from each other.
The last piece came to me much later. I had so little of the fabric left. The idea for making it into hair came when I was thinking about what is the most feminine thing about a woman’s body when she is dressed. Hair! It is so overtly expressive of all that is female that some cultures require women to cover it. In my collection of “possibly-useful-stuff,” I had many display heads. The rest followed naturally. Because I was concerned that my sculpted hair might read as hats, I added hats…but also because many orthodox women wear hats to cover their hair.
All four of the pieces are created in black and white and the color comes from the cushion fabrics. So when I came to the women’s faces, I had to wait again for inspiration. I searched for monochrome solutions that were not literal or realistic. I finally came to a rational and meaningful solution: pages from Fanny Neuda’s Tehinnes – prayers for women written in the vernacular German. The titles of the prayers are pasted across their lips. The heads are all altered sculpturally; there are no generic German-Jewish women. But they are all covered with their prayers. The fabric of the mechitza and of the tall panel is parachute “silk.” We can all construct meaning for that, I suppose, but the truth is that I simply had a large bolt of this flowing and evocative material left over from making my own huppah [wedding canopy].
SC: Your “self portrait” is conspicuous in Women of the Balcony 1. Giving yourself such prominence opens up a space that I think allows other viewers entrée. They are invited to place themselves among the women whose presence is conjured up by the work, though they may be strangers to this particular community. Do you agree?
JT: I had not thought of it that way. I am glad that viewers have that entrée. Again, here, I want to admit that I did not originally mean to make a portrait of myself. But when it was apparently so, I understood that my unconscious had stepped in. I am the descendant of generations of dressmakers and tailors from Odessa and Paris. My father and aunt had a fashion house on Seventh Avenue. Fabric and pins and scissors and sketches and models and dresses were the stuff of my childhood. Now, I like to think that I am also honoring my family with this work.
As for the Everywoman quality of the person at the center of Women of the Balcony 1, yes, we are all seamstresses, who are descended from seamstresses. But this woman lives in this particular world I have created for her. She is sewing a cushion with a blood-red thread.
The femaleness of my materials interests me. Somehow I can’t quite imagine a man making these pieces. If you will allow me a poetic generality: Men record history and women sew it together.
About the Artist
Jane Trigère’s installation, Women of the Balcony, honors the women of former Congregation Ohav Sholaum in Upper Manhattan. Consisting of four fabric wall panels and a three-dimensional sculptural assemblage, the work acknowledges the women of the synagogue, many of whom created seat cushions that marked their places in the balcony. In 2006, after the synagogue closed, Trigère salvaged the fabric from those cushions. She used it to create work that explores the interdependence of men and women, while recognizing their differences.
Congregation Ohav Sholaum was founded in Inwood, in Upper Manhattan, in August 1940 in the shadow of the Holocaust. It became a symbol of the annihilation of the European Jewish communities and of their rebirth on American soil.
Jane Trigère was born in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 1948. Her work has been included in group exhibitions at Hebrew Union College, in New York City, Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, MA, and the Vered Gallery in East Hampton, NY, and was featured in a solo exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum in New York in 2007-2008. She has a B.F.A. in Theatre Design from Boston University’s School of Fine Arts and has an M.A. in Jewish Art and Visual Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. Trigère was a member of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in northern Israel for six years in the 1980s and now lives with her husband in a converted firehouse in South Deerfield, MA.
This brochure has been produced in conjunction with the exhibition, Jane Trigère: Women of the Balcony, held at the Derfner Judaica Museum, October 30, 2011–February 5, 2012.
About the Hebrew Home at Riverdale
As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provides educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.