Hoffberger Gallery exhibit displays paintings of biblical women

Marcia Bornfriend is co-chair of the Hoffberger Gallery
Marcia Bornfriend is co-chair of the Hoffberger Gallery (David Stuck)

When artist Karen Warshal told graduate student Jen Begazo that she would make a great model for a painting of the biblical figure Ruth, she wasn’t expecting such an emphatic response.

“Oh my gosh,” Warshal recalled Begazo saying. “I would love to do that. I would love to model for you. I would love to be Ruth in your painting.”

Despite the fact that Begazo, at the time a graduate student of the Maryland Institute College of Art, was moving to New York, she made the trip back to Baltimore to model for three of Warshal’s paintings, said Warshal, a Jewish resident of Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood.

These same paintings currently hang in the exhibit, “Women from the Bible: Stories of Courage, Faith, Hope and Love” at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Hoffberger Gallery. The exhibit, which opened Aug. 25 and will remain on display through Oct. 25, includes works by a total of eight artists. Many of the paintings portray the same models as biblical figures, but from different artists’ perspectives.

“We had a reception [Oct. 3], and we had over 50 people spread out, seeing the show, and so [it was a] very positive response,” said Marcia Bornfriend, co-chair of the Hoffberger Gallery and a resident of Pikesville. “People really [were] enjoying it.”

The show was originally meant for 2020, but was pushed back due to the pandemic, said Bornfriend, a lifelong congregant of BHC. It is the first exhibit the Hoffberger Gallery has had since the start of the pandemic.

Warshal, who teaches at MICA, said she had had the idea to do a painting of the biblical figures Ruth and Naomi for 15 years. She explained that she found the story of the two women a deeply moving tale of devotion.

Warshal started painting her series of women from the Bible some three-and-a-half years ago, she said. She hired models to come into her Bolton Hill studio to serve as the basis for her paintings. Other artists came in as well to do their own works with the models as a basis. It is fairly common for Warshal to invite other artists to her studio, she explained.

Another artist and friend, Marshall Kinsley, convinced Warshal to approach the Hoffberger Gallery about doing an exhibit. Kinsley currently has one painting in the exhibit.

One of the things Warshal hoped to accomplish through her paintings, she said, was to portray poignant moments in the stories of the biblical figures.

“In the painting of Ruth and Naomi, the moment in that painting is the moment where each woman sort of renounces everything for the other one,” Warshal said, retelling the story of how Naomi instructed her daughter-in-law Ruth, after both women had lost their husbands, to return to her own family where she would be looked after.

“And Ruth says, whither thou goest, I go. And so it’s this moment of … perfect love and charity between these two women,” Warshal said.

Bornfriend noted how visitors to the exhibit can gain a better sense of how two different artists can come to very different interpretations of a single image or model.

“When [visitors] come, and they see the different artwork, they can, one, you can look and see how artists interpret a scene differently,” Bornfriend said. “And just get a feeling of the moment in the life of this particular person that is depicted in the Bible, that you might get a little snippet of what was happening in their life.”

Warshal hopes that visitors to the exhibit gain a sense of what can result when a group of artists work independently within a single studio, interpreting the same image from different points of view. Additionally, Warshal also wants visitors to come away with a deeper appreciation for the stories of the biblical characters portrayed.

“These are stories that have been around forever,” Warshal said. “In a day and age where we look at … people like the Kardashians as role models, these are women who in biblical times were strong, and they were courageous, and they were charitable, and they were faithful, and they exemplified these qualifies that would be good for all of us to try to emulate, in a lot of ways.”

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