Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom has been making mosaics for about 10 years, many of which are eminently displayed in various Jewish institutions in Baltimore.
It started out with her creating little crafts to give as gifts. However, after making a tray for someone’s wedding and incorporating their family heirlooms into it, an artist sitting next to her at the wedding said, “You know, that’s art. You should be making art, not just gifts for people.”
“I had never really thought of myself that way, but it really opened things up for me,” said Ruskin. “I started making mosaics based on Jewish and biblical themes and song lyrics and prayers. Sometimes I just make something to teach a concept. It completely changed the way that I was doing mosaics.”
Fast-forward and Ruskin now proudly displays a collection of work solely her own in the Hoffberger Gallery of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Most of her work uses what she calls “found objects — things you find in the thrift shop, things you find lying on the ground or things that people give you.”
“For example,” she said, “a friend of mine’s mother passed away and I ended up with some of her costume jewelry, which I began using in my pieces. It became a way for that person to live on through the art. I started to encourage people to bring me things, anything. Now wherever I go, even at services, people will hand me bags with plates that they dropped or old jewelry or something for me to use in my work.”
“I started collecting lots of little things. I put my materials in jars, so I have a jar of fruit, a jar of moons, a jar of sea life, etc. The shelves at my house are covered with these jars filled with stuff by colors, by category — it’s a wacky artist’s toolshed.”
All of Ruskin’s works are heavily layered before the mosaic is applied. She builds up her canvas with screening material such as wire mesh, then adds mortar to help build it up. This is how she achieves the three-dimensionality of the pieces.
Following are Ruskin’s comments about her mosaics and inspiration, particularly pieces that she made with or for specific people and organizations in mind.
Book of Life
“Two years ago, I did my first project with a group of people. Everyone that came to Rosh Hashanah that year [at Adas Shalom] participated in making the Book of Life. People would come and drop some glue and some little stones and those represented their deeds in the Book of Life. I like this one because I remember the scene of everyone in the congregation putting down the glue and dropping pieces, it started completely empty, and by the time the holiday was finished, it was completely filled.”
“I gave this mosaic to CHANA. We all talk about the rainbow and how it includes everyone, but there are people who feel that they aren’t included in the rainbow, so these are all alternative colors. It’s not the typical rainbow; this is magenta and gold and chartreuse and teal, all of the off colors. Throughout the piece, there are faces of people — you have to look carefully — who feel that they don’t fit in with the rest of the rainbow.”
“[The mosaic includes] a blessing you say if you see someone who looks different. That prayer really spoke to me, so everything about this is alternative. Instead of a dove that you normally see with a rainbow, it is this big, clunky bird. The sun is also black, and it is mirrored. If it is eye level, you can see yourself in the piece. I really wanted a mirrored look for this reason so I specially ordered the blue mirrored tiles.”
How Abundant Are Your Works
“One of my congregants was in Israel working on a dig and brought me some shards which made up this particular mountain in the mosaic. For this other section, I was in Sonoma and picked these up off the ground. This is based on a verse in psalms, ‘how abundant are your works,’ so I tried to include as many species as possible in it — there’s a frog, there’s a dinosaur, there’s even Road Runner from the cartoons.”
Day God Has Made
“I made this piece when my daughter got married. It is partially based on tnai’m, a tradition where mothers-in-law break a plate at the engagement of their children. Each of the parents brought a piece of china from their own family, we broke the four plates together, and they gave them to me, and I made this. They wanted this verse, ‘this is the day that God has made,’ also from psalms.”
“Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh is the mosaic that I just completed. I wanted to create something just in white, so I took the verse from Isaiah where it says ‘holy, holy, holy’ and talks about the angels all flying around. There are a lot of angels all through the piece. I really just tried to capture the feeling of everything being pure and holy.” JT
“Judaic Mosaics” by Rabbi Gila Ruskin runs through Oct. 24 at the Hoffberger Gallery at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore.