Interview'I couldn't find Jewish art that really reflected my life'

In new exhibit, artist shows American Jewish life can’t be painted in broad strokes

Second-generation Holocaust survivor Jacqueline Kott-Wolle grapples with a complex, beautiful and contradictory identity in ‘Growing Up Jewish,’ on show in NY through June

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Jacqueline Kott-Wolle is the artist behind new exhibition 'Growing Up Jewish – Art & Storytelling.' (Courtesy)
    Jacqueline Kott-Wolle is the artist behind new exhibition 'Growing Up Jewish – Art & Storytelling.' (Courtesy)
  • 'Kot Textiles' by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)
    'Kot Textiles' by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)
  • 'Ice Cream Dreams at St. Fausten' by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)
    'Ice Cream Dreams at St. Fausten' by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)
  • 'Usher Had High Hopes' by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)
    'Usher Had High Hopes' by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)

WESTCHESTER, New York — On the surface, Jacqueline Kott-Wolle’s oil painting of her mother, uncle, and grandparents exudes summertime fun. From the cherry red Coca-Cola signs to their sun-kissed smiles, it radiates possibility and promise.

But dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent that “Ice Cream Dreams at St. Fausten” tells a far more emotional story. Inspired by a 1953 photograph, the painting captures her family just after they arrived in Canada having survived the Holocaust. Now on exhibit at the Koslowe Gallery at the Westchester Jewish Center through June, the painting is part of the series “Growing Up Jewish – Art & Storytelling,” which grapples with the question: “What does it mean to be Jewish for past, present, and future generations in North America?”

As she painted, Kott-Wolle found the question had multiple answers.

It might mean kids in white tube socks and T-shirts at Jewish overnight camp as shown in “Visitors Day Camp Massad 1976,” or plucking a plump shrimp from a crystal serving bowl, as shown in “Treyf.” It could mean lighting Shabbat candles before dashing off to ballet practice as in “Modern Shabbat,” or a clutch of grandmothers perched on daffodil yellow lounge chairs like in “Snowbirds.”

Sometimes it’s about the relatives murdered in the Holocaust, like in “Chaya Lea Tried to Come to America.” And sometimes it’s about teenage boys in powder blue tuxedos “who rumbled onto our driveway in their Camaros to take my sisters to USY dances,” Kott-Wolle said of “The Jew Fro.”

“It was always very hard to find contemporary Jewish artwork that looked like what I wanted to see. I just couldn’t find Jewish artwork that reflected what I really lived,” Kott-Wolle, 53, said in a Zoom interview from her home in Highland Park, Illinois. “But when I started this series, I actually wanted to avoid the Holocaust entirely and only do Jewish life, but that was impossible. So it was extremely important to me to focus — like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ — on the happiness and tears.”

Jacqueline Kott-Wolle, center-left, with husband David Wolle and three children Henry, Sophie and Isabel, at the 2022 opening of ‘Growing Up Jewish – Art & Storytelling’ at The Art Center in Highland Park, Illinois. (Courtesy)

Growing up in Toronto as one of five girls, Kott-Wolle found she communicated best through art.

“If you looked at my machberet [notebook] from Hebrew school, you could see doodles and drawings and cartoon characters all over it,” she said. “I was always getting in trouble at school. Every single one of my report cards said the same thing year after year: ‘Jackie talks too much and she’s good at art.’”

Yet, Kott-Wolle didn’t take her first painting class until 2004 when she and her family moved to the United States. It would be seven more years until she began painting full-time.

Jacqueline Kott-Wolle is the artist behind new exhibition ‘Growing Up Jewish – Art & Storytelling.’ (Courtesy)

When she finally did set up her easel, she drew inspiration first and foremost from her mother Irene Kott, an award-winning Canadian landscape artist. Among her other muses are Canadian landscape painters Lawren Harris and A.J. Casson, and figurative painters Kehinde Wile and Kerry James Marshall.

But if there is one painter who informed this particular series, it’s the American figurative painter Fairfield Porter. There was something about his portrayal of families sitting on screened-in porches or wading along the Maine shoreline that resonated with Kott-Wolle.

“There was a mood in his paintings that I wanted to emulate but couldn’t quite capture. Then I thought what would his [Porter’s] paintings look like if he was Jewish. That was the seed for the series,” she said.

She said she felt like she was on to something when she painted “Kot Textiles” in 2019. Based on a 1969 photograph, it shows her grandfather and an infant Kott-Wolle in her mother’s arms.

Rising behind them is a wall of rolled and stacked fabric. Each one represents a chapter in her life, from the wallpaper from her childhood bedroom to a favorite pair of pajamas.

‘Kot Textiles’ by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)

“It was a very emotional piece to create. It was all about channeling my memories of my zayde’s face,” she said, using the Yiddish word for grandfather. “To me, it spoke of our whole family’s history and how all the opportunity was heaped on to the next generation, how all the opportunity was reserved for the future.”

Growing up, she and her siblings were well aware their parents, grandparents, and several extended family members had survived the Holocaust. But they didn’t know the extent of the terror.

‘Ice Cream Dreams at St. Fausten’ by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)

“We would hear a lot about a scary moment; like when my mom described standing in front of a Nazi firing squad and dogs barking. She would tell us this when we were little, but like other stories, it always ended with them getting away. The stories always emphasized the helpers. It was always: ‘We were close to danger, but then we got away,’” Kott-Wolle said.

It wasn’t until after her father died in 2013 that Kott-Wolle began digging into her family’s story in earnest. Through daily conversations with her mother, she learned how her great-grandmother froze to death, how Oskar Schindler saved her great-aunt Cecilia, and how Nazis beat her great-uncle Usher with a bicycle chain during an interrogation.

‘Usher Had High Hopes’ by Jacqueline Kott-Wolle. (Courtesy)

While working on “Usher’s Reward,” which portrays her great-uncle as he was in 1968, she happened to be playing the Broadway musical “Hamilton” on loop.

“I came to the line in the song ‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.’ It stopped me. I thought about his depressing life in Canada after the war. It was so heartbreaking and I told him, ‘I want to tell your story.’”

After the beating, Usher fled to the forest with his sister Sylvia and Kott-Wolle’s great-grandmother, along with Kott-Wolle’s grandfather and father. They hid there for 19 months. Of nine Jewish families in their Ukrainian village, theirs was the only one to survive the war.

To produce the series Kott-Wolle worked from old photographs and home movies. As she went through the material she found not only tears, she found joy.

“There was this really interesting interaction in one of the films where my sisters and I were with one of our relatives, a survivor. We were just being playful. I realized we had to be the cheerfulness crew. That’s what we felt as children. That somehow it was our job to make those Holocaust survivors smile,” she said.

“I don’t know if I can explain it any better than that. We understood how much we represented to them. We were hope. We were the future,” she said.

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