A place where art and culture intersect

Behind the scenes of the Artists’ Lab at Sabes JCC.
Anat Szendro Sevilla (left) and Robyn Awend in the gallery space at Sabes JCC.

At Sabes Jewish Community Center (JCC) in St. Louis Park, an endeavor has been launched that inspires a connection to Jewish identity, fosters a sense of community, and offers insight into ancient traditions, while at the same time serving as an intersection of art and Jewish culture. “The Artists’ Lab is a new initiative that offers an in-depth experience for artists to deepen or begin to make connections to Judaism through various artistic avenues and through shared learning,” says Robyn Awend. As director of visual arts at Sabes JCC, Awend helped set the Artists’ Lab in motion in 2012 and currently acts as coordinator.

“Coordinating the Artists’ Lab has been one of the most rewarding projects that I have been a part of both personally and professionally,” says Awend. “We hope that participants gain a deeper understanding of the place where their art and their connection to Judaism intersect.”

In the Beginning

The idea for the Artists’ Lab started with a Jewish educator in Milwaukee, who wanted to create a regional arts lab with Madison and Minneapolis. The Covenant Foundation, which awards grants to encourage and advance Jewish education, selected the Sabes JCC and Hillel at the University of Wisconsin in both Madison and Milwaukee (for Jewish college students) as locations for the project. “The Sabes JCC was awarded this opportunity because of our commitment to the arts and our ability to create the space to connect passion points—and in this case, it’s the place where art and Judaism intersect,” says Awend.

The Artists’ Lab features 25 artists exploring a common theme through unconventional study and creative hands-on sessions. “Our learning opens participants to appreciating the ideas, rituals and values of their heritage in a new light. It informs their art and hopefully their lives, and, in turn, offers viewers new perspectives on an ancient tradition,” says Rabbi Alexander Davis, one of the lab facilitators. Together, the artists of varying backgrounds and traditions explore how the common theme is relevant to their work as individuals and the community.


How It Works

Artists meet twice a month for approximately eight months. Each session is usually divided into two parts, with participants studying during the first part of the session and then creating a hands-on project. Each year, artists focus on a certain topic. The first year, the theme was “Text/Context/Subtext.” The next year’s theme was light, and the exhibit was titled “Chadish: A New Light: Unfiltered.” Water is the theme for the third year, which launched in September.

The common theme is reflected through as many as 25 different perspectives in various disciplines such as visual art, text, music or poetry. “While the context of the lab is built around Jewish text, the experience is universal,” says Awend. “I think the more that individuals are able to be inspired through their passion points, the more they are able to inspire others in their lives and in the community, creating a ripple effect that impacts far beyond themselves.” At the end of the Artists’ Lab year, artists present their work at a reception at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery and Shared Walls exhibition area.

To be selected for the Artists’ Lab, participants must go through an application process. “There’s something really special about being a part of an artists’ group that [focuses on] meeting twice a month, building community and engaging people at a deep level,” says Awend. To develop continuity, artists are welcome to stay on board with the Artists’ Lab. “Its continuity creates a space and place for artists to grow and thrive,” says Awend.

A Creative Engine

Susan Weinberg attended an introductory session for the Artists’ Lab, thinking perhaps it could spark artistic inspiration. “My recent bodies of work have been focused on Jewish heritage and identity, so I thought it would sync up with my work and perhaps give me a new creative engine,” says Weinberg. “My antenna was up for anything that might take me to the next step.” She says the Artists’ Lab delivered.

Discussions provided material that enhanced Weinberg’s current project. She’s working on a series of paintings based on the stories of a local Holocaust survivor to use as a part of Holocaust education. “I was able to interrelate her experiences with our discussions to create deeper and richer content,” says Weinberg, who views the lab as a win-win that benefits both the artists’ work and the community at large. “Anything that fosters community is an asset, and when you gather artists together who reflect on what they take in through artwork, you reach a much broader audience,” she says. “Something we discuss may speak to us; we in turn synthesize [that] in our work in a way that may be more accessible to a broader audience.”

Weinberg is currently the lab’s resident writer and maintains a blog on lab sessions. “This has added an additional element as it gives me an opportunity to digest each of our sessions and reflect my thoughts in writing,” says Weinberg. “I began my involvement with the lab for an artistic engine, but I stay for the community. I now know 25 local artists [working] in a variety of mediums who share a common heritage and interest.”

The Power of the Group

When Anat Szendro Sevilla moved to the Twin Cities from Israel, she says she had no job, no friends, no family and no connections. She contacted the Sabes JCC in an effort to get connected to the community and she heard about the formation of the Artists’ Lab. “I cannot believe how lucky I was to be in the right place at the right time,” says Sevilla, who is now an arts facilitator in charge of the creative side of the Artists’ Lab and works with the text facilitator. “This challenges me more than anything I have ever done and satisfies me accordingly.”

Sevilla also says the close bond the group has formed is unique. “I feel that we created an amazing group that is both family and friends with one another and together we learn Judaism as I have never learned before, while exploring ideas that take us out of our comfort zone,” says Sevilla. “This leads to a powerful feeling of self- and group-fulfillment.”

Indeed, perhaps one of the most notable parts of the Artists’ Lab comes from the power of working together in a group. The artists not only appreciate the relationship the Artists’ Lab has afforded, but also how the group discussions enhance their artwork. “We often think of artists working alone in their studios,” says Davis, who is concentrating on text study. “The Artists’ Lab has given participants a community of fellow artists with whom to share friendship and learning. Steeped in their artistic mediums and open to exploring their faith, my hope is that they have grown as artists and as individuals through their participation.”

Facilitators are proud that the lab is growing, which speaks to the success of the endeavor. “For many, this was a safe, personal, meaningful way to reengage with Jewish community and Jewish tradition,” says Davis. “For others, it deepened their already rich connection. For all, it has been a rewarding experience.”


Sabes Jewish Community Center

4330 S. Cedar Lake Road;
Check the website for hours. Information is also available on the website about the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival which runs from October 23 through November 2.

Visit the Artists’ Lab blog at mplsjewishartistslab.blogspot.com.