The young woman stares at you with a sideways glace. Her hair cascades around a hardened, resilient face, her eyes daring you to look away. The woman’s photo is set in an abstracted fabric rural landscape, with symbols from her native Ukraine framing her.
A photo of another woman is torn in pieces, a visual rupture revealing deep psychic wounds — the subject was a German nurse who betrayed her own government during World War II to save at least one Jewish child and ultimately fled her home.
They are two of the first six portraits in Leslie Nobler’s tentatively titled “Book of Heroines,” a mixed media work-in-progress that captures mostly Jewish women whose lives were uprooted during the Holocaust and restarted successfully elsewhere. When it is completed it will feature up to 40 images.
Regarding the title, Nobler said, “The heroism is about leaving a country and starting over, persevering through hardships and standing out.”
Nobler, a member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, culled the real-life stories and photographs from research begun at the library of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. She discovered the library accidentally during an event at the synagogue when she noticed a large Holocaust section, and the idea for the project was, at least partially, hatched that night.
While coronavirus shuttered the synagogue and halted her research there (though she continued online), the pandemic hasn’t entirely quashed her gallery showings. Six images from “Book of Heroines” works can be viewed online — no masks required — through internet and Instagram exhibits that began after the pandemic shut down physical showings. Before the pandemic, she had shows that had started or were about to start at Nails in the Wall Gallery in Metuchen and Studio Montclair, and in May she was supposed to participate in a large international conference in Brooklyn that was cancelled. She has other events coming up this fall, including one that was supposed to be in Korea, that remain up in the air.
Over two Zoom conversations with NJJN in mid-June and early July, Nobler, who lives in Little Falls and has been teaching art at William Paterson University for over 30 years, discussed art and activism, how Judaism weaves through her work, and her techniques for creating and viewing her art online.
Nobler’s art often focuses on home: a sense of place and its loss, including the displacement of refugees, migration, and homelessness. It is also about surfacing voices lost in history or to marginalization, or whose stories have yet to be told.
“Women are just not known in art history overall,” she said. “I just think it’s going to be worthwhile to take people and ideas around them that have really never been unearthed, and to put them out there.”
Case in point is one of the six women she discovered who has captured her imagination. The woman, an artist, studied for at least a little while in Israel, and Nobler is still uncertain if the woman is Jewish. “I have to dig, dig, dig” information about the subject, she said. While Nobler found enough to start working, she is still researching her.
Activism and art go hand in hand for Nobler, 61. She remembers participating in her share of marches as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But as she worked and raised a family, the impulse to take action on current issues receded into the background — at least until her youngest daughter’s bat mitzvah, about 15 years ago, she recalled.
“I used to always stress out that I didn’t have enough time to do volunteer work or social action,” she said. But something her rabbi, at Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter (which merged with another synagogue in 2019), said at that time changed her perspective. “She said, ‘When you’re doing what you love and connecting that to your sense of your Jewish self, and then giving that to the world, that is the best form of charity.’”
After hearing this, she told NJJN, “a light bulb went off in my head.”
“I’m like, ‘Wow, so, I can do all the stuff I have to do because I’m earning a living, and the stuff I love to do because it’s creative. And I can make that part of my altruism and my connection to Judaism.’ I was blown away.”
Ever since, Judaism and politics usually find their ways into her work.
One of her pieces, “Vigil and Penumbra,” which had been on exhibit at the Nails in the Wall Gallery in Metuchen before the pandemic, came from a protest she attended at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Elizabeth on Tisha b’Av a few years ago. An abstracted photo of the vigil holds the center position, its artistic roots in American patchwork quilting and domestic arts. The pink and yellow border comes from an old Andy Warhol exhibit program, which Nobler chose because of Warhol’s voice in support of the LGBTQ community and other underserved or marginalized communities. It is bordered in a shadow Nobler calls “a penumbra,” a kind of eclipse.
“The idea of the darkness and light is important,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of darkness now in terms of marginalized people having rights, but there are flickers of light coming through.”
Sometimes her themes are spiritual. A series, Protect the Refugees, she created at the beginning of the lockdown, is part of an online exhibition of 34 artists called “Prayers for the Pandemic; Prayers for Progress,” launched by the gallery Drawing Rooms of Jersey City. Nobler’s entry features a series of decorated Covid-19 masks hanging, so that they look like Tibetan prayer flags; they emerge, scroll-like, from another of her works called “Homes for Refugees.”
Nobler has been engaged in digital arts for decades and teaches a computer graphics course at William Paterson. In addition to a master’s degree in fine arts from Hunter College, she holds a second master’s degree in computer graphics from the New York Institute of Technology.
While plenty of artists create online and allow the images to circulate exclusively in cyberspace, she prefers her work to be tangible, physical, and on display at in-person galleries. “I went to really traditional art school. So, I still think a lot about output,” she said. While she’s pleased the portraits from “Book of Heroines” were accepted into online exhibitions, she fears the delicate lace and other details will be lost in the onscreen experience. She finds she looks at a digital piece for longer, often zooming in to see the details. “I do get frustrated because you can’t see it as well as in person,” she said.
Even so, she said there are benefits to online exhibits. “It could be more intimate,” she said, pointing out that online art can be viewed in a relaxed position, such as lying down, and “you can press your nose right up to it, while in a gallery you have to be standing or sitting at a distance.”
When Nobler must create art that will live online only, she told NJJN, she approaches it slightly differently than she does for other media. Whatever comes out of her ink-jet printer has to have good color, rich saturation, and be printed on a quality surface, whether it’s paper, fiber, or fabric, so she makes sure the colors are strong and sharp and the edging clear, and won’t use intricate pattern details or delicate fabrics.
While she has continued her research for the “Book of Heroines” online since the start of the pandemic, she said she’s excited to regain access to the library.
“This is the most interesting project I have worked on to date.”