OPINION: the Arts have a vital function at the heart of human life

OPINION: the Arts have a vital function at the heart of human life

Contemporary artist Willow Winston
Contemporary artist Willow Winston

By Willow Winston, contemporary artist

Willow is a mentor for a new student art exhibition organised by UJS in partnership with Jewish News and JW3. ‘The Way Things Look: Israel in the Eyes of Young Jewish Artists’ selected seven talented young artists to create work inspired by their Jewish identity and relationship to Israel.

See the beautiful and provocative works on Thursday 12th June at JW3 at 7pm, accompanied by a speech from celebrated artist Jane McAdam Freud and a drinks and nibbles reception. Click here for more information. 

Contemporary artist Willow Winston
Contemporary artist Willow Winston

Visiting my studio from Israel recently, my niece, Tziporah, and her bat-mitzvah daughter, Shirelle, looked at my art and that of my grandmother, Tilly Lipson. Tilly was Shirelle’s great-great grandmother, a woman with whom I feel a common bond in our love of geometric pattern and precise workmanship.

Then they saw the ceremonial key to Salt Lake City, which had been presented to my mother, Ruth Winston-Fox, fifty-six years ago. The first woman and first Jewish Mayor of Southgate, she was given the key by Salt Lake City’s first female Mayor, Adiel Stewart, who was visiting England.

Shirelle asked if the key really opened the gates of Salt Lake City, enchanted to think it was like a key to ancient Jerusalem when the walled city was locked at night.

I explained it was symbolic, an offering of friendship and freedom to enter the circles of another society.

Intrigued by the metaphor of the key being used by different cultures, Tziporah spoke of Shabbat Hamafteach – the Key Sabbath – which marks the Shabbat after Pesach.


Pondering meanings for this metaphor, we agreed that following Pesach’s celebration of liberation from slavery, it reinforces the experience of physical freedom with the idea of opening a door into mental freedom. On that Sabbath, too, there is a reading of the passage from Ezekiel describing the valley of bones being brought to life – resurrection implying spiritual freedom.

The key, designed and cast over half a century ago several thousand miles away, had stimulated a discussion that embodied important aspects of the function of Art.

The Key to Salt Lake City

We had looked more closely at the culture into which we were born, Judaism, found the beauty of freedom there and a common bond in our humanity with a different culture, in Salt Lake City. And it helped my great-niece to imagine a direct connection with her origins in ancient times.

All the Arts have a vital function at the heart of human life. Through them we find commonalities between cultures and can exchange ideas to build new forms still rooted in the origins.

Artists draw from their geography, history, experience and imagination to create objects that are catalysts which ferment examination of questions which have been asked continually by Mankind looking up into the night sky: Where are we? What are we? Why are we?

Even if there are no precise answers, the Arts give us insights, glimpses of a wholeness for which we long. Given time, mind, body and heart can unite in calm attention, opening us to the richness of our inner lives to know we are not just driven creatures but participants flowing with the gift of life.

We often forget there is a long Jewish Visual Arts tradition. Yet Bezalel, among the first named artists, has been remembered for three thousand years. Servant to our culture in the early days of its development, he built the Tabernacle and its artifacts, focus for the nation during the process of discovery when wandering the desert, reinforcing their humanity by keeping its spirit alive above the mere struggle for survival.

This story is itself a metaphor for the continual state of mankind. We fall into deserts of quarrels and killing. The search is always on for ways to build a just world where we can peacefully share bounty and beauty. With the Sciences, the Arts are active at the centre of this process.

Jewish artists contributed widely to twentieth century culture. Most poignantly, in times darker than we can imagine, they kept the bright flame burning in the terrible ghettos and camps of occupied Europe. Much of their work survives and inspires us now with its courage, humour and love.

This 21st century multicultural world is bombarded with visual imagery. Much is driven by commercial concerns, their accumulated clutter debasing the sensitivity of our visual palate. Now, more than ever, it is important to ‘cleanse the Doors of Perception’ and to support new Bezalels as they develop their vision.

Then we may more genuinely value the part Visual Art plays in our lives; to help us contemplate, allowing the image to work slowly and quietly in this frantic world, rather than grab one sensation after another without the time to digest.



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