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Textile artist weaves stories of Jewish culture in exhibit

History, feminism, identity, desire and ethnicity are recurring themes in “Shmata Nouveau: Textiles Through the Wringer,” an exhibition currently on display at La Jolla’s Gottelf art gallery.

The show consists of textile art from contemporary artists Carol Hamoy, Debra Olin and Miriam Schaer. Shmata, which mean rags in Yiddish, refers to the unwearable nature of all the garments. Although the artwork is modern, each piece is steeped in history and each artist brings their unique vision of textile art to the exhibit.

The Gottelf Gallery is an extension of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture. The exhibition celebrates the relationship between Jewish history and the textile arts, but it appeals to a broader audience because the show explores issues such as identity and culture, according to the exhibit’s co-curator, Debby Kline.

Kline co-curated the event with her husband, Larry Kline. The couple often curates art shows together and they both work as visual arts professors in San Diego.

They said that they came up with the idea for the show after discovering that many of their friends of Jewish descent had relatives in the garment industry. In fact, two of the artists, Carol Hamoy and Debra Olin, both had grandfathers who were tailors.

Jewish history and culture is prevalent throughout the exhibit, but desire is the major theme of the show, Debby Kline said.

“It is about the desire to stay connected to a culture and the desire to find an identity,” she said. “And the search for an identity usually involves pain and struggle.”

There are many pieces in the show that are rooted in conflict, such as Homoy’s “Triangle Fire.” It is a series of waistcoats with newspaper clippings sewn on that describe a fire that burned a shirtwaist factory down with the child workers inside in New York in 1911.

“People see the show and they think it’s all about clothes and fun,” Debby Kline said. “But research shows that today, 60 percent of garment companies in New York and Los Angeles violate minimum wage and overtime laws.”

The exhibit has many potent messages, as is evident in Schaer’s “Rules of Engagement” collection. It is made up of a series of aprons with pictures of traditional women and excerpts from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” inscribed on it. The contrasting images of domestic-looking women with aggressive text like “Attack where they are unprepared” results in a collection with a powerful feminist message.

All three artists are women and, not surprisingly, a lot of the work comes from a feminist perspective.

“My work is generally always about women,” Hamoy said. “I tell the stories of women through clothes.”

Olin’s pieces also pertain to women and the struggle that female immigrants go through. For example, “Is She Jewish?” is a three-dimensional coat designed by Olin and she said that it deals with immigration, assimilation and the loss of a culture.

Although all the artwork is made up of rag-like material, beauty is pervasive throughout the exhibit. Debby Kline was particularly inspired by Olin’s “A Path Examined.” It is a ghostly robe with an extensive scroll running through it.

“We have seen a lot of strikingly beautiful artwork,” Debby Kline said. “There is a beautiful scroll and it is incredibly breathtaking.”

Hamoy’s “Welcome to America” collection is an installation made up of 13 dresses and each one tells a true story of a Jewish immigrant who came through Ellis Island. One garment carries the text, “Tied with ropes by her brothers, she was put aboard a ship to America to prevent marriage to her Christian lover.”

The historical relevance of the exhibition appeals to all Americans because we are a nation of immigrants, Larry Kline said.

In addition, Debby Kline said it is important to celebrate the lives of all immigrants.

“As we migrate around the world in search of happiness, we have to thank those who came before us,” she said.