Artist Teaches Joy, Spirituality
Julie Wohl, 40, can teach you Jewish spirituality through artistic expression.
Wohl is the director of PJ Library in Baltimore, which is facilitated by the Macks Center for Jewish Education. This role, which she’s served in since March (though she’s been with CJE two years), is perfect for her, as she’s studied Jewish education but also yearns to express it through art.
A Career in Jewish Education
Wohl’s Jewish spirituality has shone through in all parts of her life from art to career to volunteering to romance. Her husband, Rabbi Josh Wohl, leads Congregation Kol Shalom in Annapolis, which she attends. She studied Jewish education for her master’s. After graduate school, she started a synagogue school. And since then, she’s pursued a career in Jewish life.
“I worked in Jewish education since my early 20s. God, that’s a long time already,” she joked. “But I’ve also always been interested in art and from very early on incorporated art into classrooms.”
Initially, she wrote and illustrated books for Jewish families and schools. Then, she started a business out of training teachers to incorporate art-based projects in their lessons. In 2018, she moved to Severna Park and started working in Baltimore with CJE, where her coworkers agree she belongs. “Julie is a thoughtful coworker who thinks beyond her own work and is always willing to lend a hand — often literally, with her amazing artistic talents — to any CJE program,” said Terri Rosen, executive assistant at CJE. “She’s a great fit for her role as PJ Library director in Baltimore, as she engages people with Judaism in a fun, colorful and inclusive way.”
Just recently, CJE hired her to help them create a Jewish infant’s memory book, “Shalom Baby.” (These are free and available for locals.)
“Julie is one of an amazing staff of people with new perspectives,” CJE CEO Amian Kelemer said. “She just exudes creativity and collaboration and loves to share her skills with the agency.” Most recently, in one of their staff meetings, Wohl gave them a tour of her studio. “In real life, you don’t see your coworkers’ houses but in one of our Zoom meetings you could see her painting behind [her] so I said, ‘Hey, could you give us a tour?’ and it was like a staff [bonding] moment.”
While she does help CJE in various ways, such as decorating a book return box, Wohl’s job is to help Jewish locals find ways to engage virtually.
“We’re all doing stuff online now, which is a challenge and opportunity,” Wohl said. She was quick to adapt to these changes, though, as she started this position right around the time social distancing began. “I didn’t have an ingrained idea of ‘This is how we do things.’”
This has allowed her to blend education and art creatively in her job.
Painting to Inspire
Wohl was supposed to showcase her art at an exhibit with the Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for the Arts March 17, but the center closed March 15. She had created 25 individual paintings for the exhibit with Jewish themes of text or prayers.
“Up until the show, I was really working hard to get everything ready for the show in major creation mode; finding new prayers, new resources, new ideas. I was still in a creation space when the world shut down.” Wohl continued to paint at first, then she resolved to just posting the pieces on social media. She shared one painting every night. “I called it my quarantine show.” The depressing incessant state of quarantine had gotten to her, and she couldn’t create anymore. “I sort of hit a wall,” Wohl said.
Once she resolved that she’d be stuck for a while, she started to paint again. While she works to continue that collection, she also is working on commissions and another art gallery. She has an Etsy shop, where customers can buy print reproductions of her art.
This passion for art has always been a part of her. “I just have always, it wasn’t even a choice. It was never a decision that I made,” Wohl said.
Both her mother and grandmother were creative types, likely to leave art supplies around to pique young Wohl’s interest.
“I think it was in second grade, the first time I realized not everybody can do what I can do. It had never occurred to me before that it was special.” Even then, it wasn’t until her late 20s when she published her first (of five) books that she was willing to call herself an artist. “There’s a difference between being an artist and being able to call myself one.”
In her early art, Wohl was inspired by classical and post-modern paintings. Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh influenced her particularly. Recently, her biggest inspiration is Marc Chagall. “One of the best compliments was that my art reminded them of Chagall,” she said, which she modestly doubted.
Reflections of these artists’ styles can be seen in her shapely, vibrant art. “I just really love colors,” she said. “I have a hard time editing. I sort of feel like more is more. More texture, more color, more shape.”
This youthful personality to her art reflects her own youthful excitement to learn. “People ask me what my favorite art piece is, but it’s always the one I’m working on. Because I think I’m more excited by the act of making art,” she said. “I’m always learning. I’m always trying to push myself to the next level. That to me is very exciting.”
Her art is uninhibited. “I didn’t go to art school or get any training. I just taught myself because I just like to play. So I don’t have anyone on my shoulder saying you can’t use those colors together.”
While this can be an advantage, Wohl still wishes she had formal training. “I am an educator and I really believe in the power of education,” she stressed. She believes wholeheartedly that everything she has learned would have come to her more easily and quickly if she had gone to school for it. “I got there, but it was a longer path.”
Still, the art she produces today is full of life and meaningful themes. “I want people to feel joy when they see my work, but also a little intrigued. I want my work to tell a story and be thoughtful but the overarching feeling is joyful and warm.“
Wohl believes the purpose of art is best described by Judy Chicago. “When art is meaningful and substantive, viewers can become enlightened, inspired and empowered,” she quoted. “As a teacher who uses art to teach, this is my greatest aspiration.”
Teaching Through Art
In order to inspire and empower her students with art, Wohl starts with a big idea in Jewish text. She has her students respond to the idea by creating art. They then talk about the art and the Jewish motif.
“Art is a tool for further thinking and making it more personal and meaningful,” she stated.
One of her workshops is Place at the Table. There, they study Jewish concepts like B’tzelem Elohim, (in God’s image). She asks students to create self-portraits, not just of what they look like, but a visual way to share something about themselves because they are in God’s image. They then put the portraits on a table with notes and words they use to describe themselves. “So the lesson is I myself am made in God’s image, but also the person next to me is made in God’s image and the person down the street who doesn’t act or talk like me is made in God’s image, and there’s space for all of us at the table.”
For Wohl, this connection between Judaism and art goes even deeper than spirituality. It’s also a way to celebrate the culture.
“Jewish tradition is really about words and action,” she said. “And because of prohibitions against graven images, it’s not a tradition that has a super long history connected to artwork, but every culture has artists and people who want to create. So the earliest artists, if you want to call them that, are the sofers creating the Jewish letters. From there, they make art out of words.”
Art is a language in of itself, she said. It is one that allows new questions and answers that elicit emotional responses.
“For me, Jewish art and responding to Jewish words with color is adding another level of meaning and exploring and seeking out the meaning.”