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ARNOLD SCHWARZBART: his life, work, and being an early AGJA member

by Flora Rosefsky We were all deeply saddened to learn of the passing of longstanding AGJA member and friend Arnold Schwarzbart who, at the age of 73, died on March 16, 2015.  I had the opportunity to interview him about his long career, at his solo show and by telephone, in the fall of 2014. I first met Arnold Schwarzbart at the overflow in attendance opening of his solo show at the Temple Beth El Library Art Gallery in Knoxville, Tennessee on October 24, 2014.  I knew immediately that he was a man of great integrity, both as a visual artist and as someone many people respected for his thought-provoking and meaningful Judaic work. As a fellow member of The American Guild of Judaic Art, it was my pleasure to come to Knoxville to share in Arnold’s exhibition. Arnold was one of the early members of the AGJA, and, along with his wife Mary Linda, was always a loyal Guild supporter. In an interview, he told me he “sees the Guild as an important part of the Judaic artwork world,” and said that every Judaic artist should support it. He especially appreciated the educational aspects of the Guild, and looked forward to more educational opportunities in the AGJA’s future. Arnold’s was born in Russia during World War II, and the family moved to Vienna after the war. In 1951, when Arnold was 9, they came to the United States and settled in Knoxville, Tennessee, because a cousin who lived there sponsored them.  After high school, he attended the University of Tennessee, followed by working 13 years as an architect. Along the way, he became interested in Judaism and its ritual objects, and particularly enjoyed learning about the mystical traditions of Kabbalah. His first Judaica involved calligraphy in a “framing series” of four pieces that he had taken to a local Knoxville frame shop. Eventually, he started to sell his artwork out of his home art studio. In the 1980s, he took five art lessons at the local Jewish Community Center making clay frames; soon people wanted to buy them. Besides the frames, he began to create Tzedakah boxes, Seder plates, and Kiddush cups. When people saw his work coming out of the kiln, they wanted to purchase them, and soon he was selling ceramic items. It wasn’t long before Arnold decided to give up architecture to create more Judaica, adding Hanukkah lamps and Mezuzot to his repertoire. That began his successful career in wholesaling to approximately 200 accounts in Judaic, gift, and museum shops, including the Jewish Museum in New York City. In the late 1980s, Arnold received a synagogue commission. At the Temple Beth El Library Art Gallery show, there were a few color photographs of some of those commission pieces, including a Torah ark and two tapestries. Some of Arnold’s smaller pieces, such as Kiddush cups and Omer counters were also displayed, showing his wide range, high standard of craftsmanship, and what I would call “museum quality” that individual collectors and museums came to appreciate. When asked what his favorite piece in this solo show was, Arnold immediately pointed to his pit-fired clay sculpture entitled “The Shtender.” According to the statement in the exhibition’s catalog, “the sculpture of a man covered by a Jewish prayer shawl stands before a Shtender, (lectern) yet no form stands under that shawl that itself makes a ghostlike shape. The man is gone. ‘He is ashes,’says Arnold. ‘This is a comment on what the Holocaust did.’” When the work came out of the firing kiln with its deep browns and scorched grays, a friend asked to purchase it, and is now part of the art collection of Jeff and Nancy Becker. When I looked at Arnold’s business card, there was a drawing of a lion’s body profile. I asked him about the significance. He told me that in the mid-1980’s, on a trip to Israel, he spent two hours in the Israel Museum. There, he came across the sculpture The Lion of Hazor, carved in stone. It is an orthostat, the base of a doorway. The stone was 6’ long, 2 ½’ deep and 3’ high. The carved lion was something he never forgot, and decided to use it as a symbol for his card. Perhaps the lion is also a symbol of Arnold’s strength, as an inspiration to other artists, to be strong in our convictions to create work that is both beautiful and meaningful, to last in its intrinsic material strength from generation to generation L’Dor V’Dor. Yasher Koach, Arnold. You will be missed. www.schwarzbart.com  

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