By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

A group of Chicago Jewish artists have participated in a year-long fellowship culminating in gallery talks and a performance this summer at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

Spertus presents Inquiry01, a multi-media exhibition through Aug. 12 that features works by artists Nelly Agassi, Leslie Baum, Iris Bernblum, Dianna Frid, Matthew Girson, Jesse Malmed, Geof Oppenheimer, Roni Packer and Rana Siegel. Gallery talks and a group performance are June 10, July 15 and July 26.

Through the Institute’s first Chicago Jewish Artists Fellowship, the artists conducted individual and collective research into their Jewish identity and artistic practice.

The artists—who work in a range of media including film, photography, performance, drawing, painting and sculpture—have had opportunities to learn from leading scholars, visit artists’ studios and work closely with objects from the Spertus Institute’s 15,000 piece collection.

The fellowship program is co-directed by Spertus Institute’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Ionit Behar, and curator, writer and educator Ruslana Lictzier.

About the program, Behar said: “It is exciting to bring this talented group of artists together. We hope to have provided a setting conducive to meaningful conversations and collaborations around issues relating to Jewish identity.”

Behar worked with the artists in exploring the collection. “Some artists were deeply interested in the objects that they found and they responded directly to it in that the new work is directly related to that object,” she said.

Matthew Girson has one work of art in the exhibit titled “To a Poet After Poetry.” It’s an oil on paper based on a photograph of the poet Yocheved Bat Miriam and some of her colleagues taken in the 1930s. Girson digitally manipulated the photo, incorporated stenciling and applied silver pigment.

Girson also presents Murmur of Democracy on July 26, a group performance. Audience members reflect on the successes and failures of democracy by reading and listening to letters, testimonies, and speeches of survivors of hatred, bigotry, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Many of the readings are catalogued on, a website named for the date that Nazi officials met to organize the annihilation of Europe’s Jews.

Girson said that the fellowship has been “really terrific. They put together a great group of people. We’ve been investigating each other’s work and exploring questions about contemporary art. It’s been very positive.”

Leslie Baum is exhibiting three paintings that are part of a series. Using modernist art historical imagery, her works explore the idea of “a long arc of time, thinking beyond the present moment, which is challenging politically and economically.” This project came to fruition in the shadow of the 2016 presidential election. She started these paintings “as a way to process and deal with it.”

She saw the opportunity of the fellowship as a way to explore interesting questions and ideas with those interested in the same thing. “Judaism was a big part of it, but I was reflecting on the opportunity of being in community with really wonderful artists and good thinkers.”

A new cohort has been selected to begin the fellowship in September 2018. The second group includes Elana Adler, Dana Carter, Tirtza Even, Julia Klein, Jaclyn Mednicov, William J. O’Brien, Ben Segal and Maggie Taft.

For more information about the exhibits, talks and performance, visit or call (312) 322-1700.

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