A CONCEPTUAL ARTIST LOOKS AT JEWISH CEMETERIES.
Artist Susan C. Dessel lives and works in Manhattan and Long Island City, NYC. She left a successful corporate career in 1998 to study Studio Art at the City University of NY (BFA Hunter College, 2003, MFA Brooklyn College, 2006). Her work has been exhibited in the U.S., London, & Prague. Dessel has twice experienced censorship, events that encouraged her to continue to develop her voice & visual vocabulary.
In 2008 NYC artist Susan C. Dessel spent a week working on the restoration of the historic Hunt’s Bay Cemetery in Kingston, Jamaica. This introduction to sepulchral material led Dessel to the Chatham Sq. Cemetery, NYC’s oldest extant cemetery. While both sites contain graves that date to the mid 1600s, in 1851 a NYC law was passed banning burials below 86th Street.
still lives, currently on view at the Abrons Arts Center Henry Street Settlement and supported by a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Manhattan Community Arts Fund, gives voice to the women buried in Chatham Sq. and its sister cemeteries on W. 11th and W. 21st Streets. Dessel, a member of L.I.C. Artists, Inc., creates work that reflects on death as social commentary – e.g., the artist’s installation OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale, selected among the 2006 Top Ten works by a number of art blogs yet censored in 2008 by the Long Beach Island Foundation as “‘offensive” – and as the gift of memory.
A visit to the Chatham Sq., W. 11th and W. 21st Streets cemeteries (belonging to Congregation Shearith Israel, a.k.a. The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue) resulted in an understanding that little information could be gleaned from the headstones due to ravage resulting from New York City’s climate and environmental conditions over 3 ½ centuries. Additionally, the early Jewish community reflected the local Christian custom of unadorned headstones and brief text, unlike the headstones in Hunt’s Bay which resembled those found in Europe rich with informative iconography and text.
Conceptual and artistic decisions were made as research was conducted. The work would give voice to the women and girls buried in the three cemeteries by naming them as during their lives they were most often referred to as wife of or daughter of.
A number of Wills of early New York Jews mention slaves among various men’s belongings that were to be passed on to others at their deaths. Reading this elicited a strong emotional reaction and a determination that this information could not be ignored. The art work had to also honor the female slaves — 10 of the 30 referred to in the Wills were mentioned by name – without taking the fact out of its historical context or having it overwhelm the installation.
Young women were concerned about the condition of their teeth which began to deteriorate at age 18. The first mass produced toothbrushes were made in the Wisdom factory (England, 1780), which still exits. Many men of the Jewish community were merchants who traveled back and forth from Nieuw Amsterdam/New York to Europe. An archived letter that mentioned sending a toothbrush back to a daughter highlighted what a special gift this was at the time
The research coalesced in a decision to create an object for each woman and girl that would resemble the article that she had used to clean her teeth.
I made tooth rags dipped in salt for the Jewish women who died before the mass production of toothbrushes
in 1780 (i.e. between 1654 and 1779). The material used was heirloom linen from a nightgown that had belonged to my great-grandmother who was raised and married on the lower east.
African chew sticks, used even today in Africa and the U.S., represent each slave woman and girl with inscriptions of their names when known. Placement in the installation would be along-side the piece representing their “owner”.
I carved cow bone and used horsehair for bristles (the same materials used for the first mass-produced toothbrushes) to create toothbrush-like forms for the Jewish women who died after 1779 through the mid 1800s.
The use of multiples of each object also references the commonality of some aspects of the women’s lives while the differences among the pieces symbolize their individuality. The combined total of 270 hanging objects is coincidentally a multiple of CHAI (the letters of the Hebrew alphabet which spell “chai” or “life” equal the number 18, which is considered to be very lucky) which delighted me as I often use multiples of CHAI in my work.
In addition to the installation, through american samplers, series 3 (chicken chronicles), a suite of 14 works on paper, the still lives exhibit addresses serious issues of inclusion and exclusion these immigrant Jewish women faced (and many immigrants still face today) keeping traditions, rituals, family and home together.
Food was chosen as the central visual image for the drawings as the kitchen was women’s domain. Because of dietary restrictions, Jews were forbidden to eat plentiful local food such as lobsters and instead killed and prepared chickens following the laws of kashrut (kosher slaughtering). Even as wealth accumulated, women were still responsible for maintaining strictly Kosher homes by closely monitoring any household help in the kitchen.
The drawings depict the various stages of raising, slaughtering, preparing and eating chickens as kashrut required. The use of birds is reminiscent of art created by and for the observant Jewish community throughout history where representations of the human form were not allowed. Societal and cultural pushes and pulls that confounded this first Jewish community and continue to mark the maturing of immigrant communities are glimpsed through visual references in the drawings.
Three texts that were particularly helpful:
. Leo Hershkowitz, Wills of Early New York Jews (1704-1799), 1967.
. David De Sola Pool, Portraits Etched in Stone Early Jewish Settlers 1682-1831. 1952.
. Hasia R. Diner, Her Works Praise Her, 2002.