Art People: Rochelle Shicoff | painter, mixed media artist

Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Rochelle Shicoff thinks of herself mainly as a painter. And yet, her exhibit “It Came to Pass,” on view through Oct. 31 at the Jewish Community of Amherst, features photomontages; the images are mostly sacred items housed in old synagogues on the Lower East Side of New York City.

The Orthodox shuls (synagogues), some grand and restored, others simple rooms in apartments or basements in tenements where Jewish immigrants once dwelled, remind her, she says, of the “synagogue life” of her childhood. As a Brooklyn youth, Shicoff traveled with her father, cantor Sydney Shicoff, to the large Borscht Belt hotels (Grossinger’s, The Concord) in the Catskills, where he performed for the Jewish holidays. “It was a different kind of growing up,” said Shicoff, 71. “My father didn’t have a shul — he was the Catskills Cantor.”

In spite of her father’s profession (her grandfather was a cantor, as well), she says, she’s not religious. “I’m a cultural Jew,” she said. “But it remains a part of my life, that Catskill experience.”

Shicoff, who lives in Monson and New York, became interested in the synagogues after taking a tour given by the Lower East Side Conservancy, an organization that preserves the area’s sacred sites. With help from the Conservancy staff, Shicoff revisited 11 synagogues to prepare her exhibit, photographing architectural details, as well as ritual objects.

“You’ll notice there are no people,” Shicoff said in an interview last week at the JCA. “I’m interested in people, but I’m not interested in people davening,” she said, referring to prayer recitations that are part of the observance of Orthodox Judaism. “I’m interested in the sacred objects — the siddurim (Jewish prayer book), the taleisem (prayer shawl). I think that this has intimacy and power.”

Words from the Torah are also often displayed. “The Jews are very involved with The Word. Books are very important,” Shicoff said. “That’s how, through all of the anti-Semitism, we’ve kept the learning. So I put the Torah in.”

Ultimately, Shicoff says, she is a storyteller, and her photomontages, she says, are meant to tell stories, not only about her own life, but also about the Jewish immigrants who flooded New York City’s Lower East Side at the end of the 19th century through the mid-20th century. Shicoff’s grandparents immigrated after the Holocaust, during which some family members were murdered.

Shicoff says the “expansive dichotomy” of her early life — she attended Hebrew school six days a week (“Thank you, Dad”) as well as public school — is reflected in the work. Though it features mainly sacred objects, she integrates secular images, many from her own paintings, as well as handmade paper, encaustic and oil-painted surfaces, and photos taken during her travels, including to Italy in 1980 when she won the Rome Prize Fellowship in Painting.

Shicoff says creating the exhibit for the JCA took her back to her roots.

“I stayed in each (synagogue) as long as it took me to absorb. ... I could see the immigrants. It was important for me to do that, making connections,” she said. “I hung the show (at the JCA) and then I went home and watched ‘Schindler’s List’ for the thousandth time.”

— Kathleen Mellen

For more information about Rochelle Shicoff’s artwork, visit rochelleshicoff.weebly.com.