Artist offers a feminist spin on Jewish folklore

Jessica Riva Cooper creates onsite installation at Women's Studies Research Center

Jessica Riva Cooper

Toronto native Jessica Riva Cooper's feminist spin on Jewish folklore will leap out at visitors to the Kniznick Gallery in the Women's Studies Research Center this spring.

Cooper, the third annual Hadassah-Brandeis Institute artist-in-residence, will mine her experience as a Canadian Jew of eastern European descent to take viewers on a visual journey inspired by Yiddish folklore that deals with the mystical and the supernatural. Specifically, she will examine the golem, a creature created to do a person's bidding without question, and the dybbuk, a mischievous spirit that attaches itself to the living, through a female perspective.

"I like the idea of showing the dybbuk as a protective garment [women] sew on, of not looking at them as these evil monsters but as a protective sort of thing, giving voice to disenfranchised women," she says.

Cooper began creating her onsite installation a few weeks ago. The opening reception is April 14 at 7 p.m., but the public is invited to visit the gallery and watch as it is transformed. She's painting what she describes as long, trailing narratives on the walls, which she'll supplement with wood cut-outs and ceramic sculpture.

"It's a nonlinear narrative," Cooper says. "Depending on how somebody would approach the imagery, on where you're positioned, the story changes."

Throughout her residency, which is sponsored by Avoda Arts, a non-profit program that teaches Judaism through the arts, and Arnie and Walter Winshall, Cooper will lead lectures and workshops. She'll hold a slide talk on Thursday, April 7, at 12:30 p.m., which will cover these recurring themes in her work, as well as her investigations into fallen economic and environmental climates in regions like Detroit, Mich., where there are more than 10,000 abandoned houses. On Monday, April 11, from 2 to 4 p.m., she'll lead a beginner's clay workshop.

Cooper received a bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. After completing a post-baccalaureate program at the Sheridan College School of Craft and Design in Ontario, she received a master of fine arts degree in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design, where she has taught wheel-thrown pottery and ceramic sculpture courses. She has exhibited her work and been a visiting artist at universities and other instututions in both the U.S. and Canada.  

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