Westchester–For New Rochelle artist Fred Spinowitz, art is an integral part of his life, an almost inborn approach towards living and something that he recalls as a lifelong love of his. “I think I was born with a crayon in my hand. As far back as I can remember, I was always drawing,” Spinowitz said. Today, Spinowitz uses his multifaceted artistic talents to create paintings, prints, Ketubot and varied Judaica. He has even painted the walls of his own Sukkah, imbuing this mitzvah with artistic beauty and giving it his own unique spin.
When Spinowitz was young, he would draw constantly, even at times when it wasn’t always the right time to do so. His appetite for drawing was insatiable, and “as a youngster, I would draw as I watched TV. I also drew in the wide margins of my Gemara, which caused some trouble with my rabbi and teachers,” he said. Still, by high school, because there weren’t many art classes readily available, he found himself growing increasingly unfulfilled. He needed an artistic outlet. Fortunately, he got one with the aid of one of his rabbis at school. “In Yeshiva High School, the frustration of not having any art at my disposal was too much. One of my more thoughtful rabbis put me in touch with Chenoch Lieberman. Every Thursday evening after school, I went to his apartment for private lessons. His gentle and selfless manner was inspirational. One ‘Rabbi’ painting that I did that year had a great likeness to him.”
Lieberman influenced Spinowitz in more ways than he realized at that time. He gave him a way to cultivate his artistic aspirations and he took Spinowitz under his wing. It was a seemingly happenstance meeting, but one that would serve him well in the years to come. Of those early lessons, Spinowitz said, “Getting to Chenoch Lieberman was fortuitous and I only fully appreciated his gift and teaching in retrospect. His influence to express belief and pride in Judaism came from being with him. He started his career with propaganda art and came to America where he was free to express religion in art.”
During college, Spinowitz minored in education. He went on to receive a BFA and MA from Pratt Institute. Nowadays, Spinowitz spends much of his day ensconced in his home studio, working tirelessly to perfect his abilities. To fully create real art and become ever more proficient in his field, as in any other arena, he said, one must constantly practice–and then practice again. “I try to get to work in my studio every day. Art is creative. However, it is important to draw or paint with regularity. Creativity may not occur every day, but without an ongoing commitment there will not be an opportunity to achieve art,” he said.
Spinowitz spends time on many projects throughout the day, too. “Often, I will be working on the drawing board doing a few hours of a Ketubah or watercolor and then take a break by working passionately on a canvas. The Ketubah may take a month but only a few hours most days and the paintings carry in the time needed to complete and critique the result. Paintings need time to revisit before deciding that [they are] finished,” he was careful to explain.
Spinowitz particularly favors working in an abstract style. Because of the many artistic influences at Pratt, he later began to branch out stylistically far more than he thought was acceptable while at school. Today, he uses beautifully formed Hebrew calligraphy in his Ketubot, and also works with an array of artistic media. “I grew up thinking that representational art and in particular the graven image [were] forbidden by the Torah. Pratt, where I attended art school [for a] BFA and MA, was entrenched in Abstract Art in the 1960s. A clear path to combine abstraction with Hebrew calligraphy seemed perfect!” he said. He also feels that the tension between a diverse array of colors in his paintings and the structured technicality of the Hebrew calligraphy that he employs truly makes his artistic style stand out. “Most of my paintings and my series of prints incorporate wild abstract color but are contrasted with structured and beautiful strokes of the Hebrew letters. The tension created in the painting between the [Jackson] Pollack-like paint strokes and the calligraphy is parallel to the acrylic and oil paints that repel each other. As a result, the paintings are more dynamic. The energy seems to fly off the canvas,” he said.
Spinowitz’s Ketubot, which he has been creating for over 50 years, are all so unique that one can easily recognize his work, he stated proudly. Said Spinowitz of this unique art form, “The Ketubot and Chupot that I have created over 50 years have special meaning. The style of calligraphy is basically my handwriting. The Ketubot and Chupot are so unique that people who have seen them at a wedding have called to tell me that they recognize the uniqueness of my work. It makes me happy to know that these lasting creations will become family heirlooms [and] gives me the opportunity to take the influence of antique documents and incorporate them into a contemporary interpretation. It becomes an historic continuum.”
Interestingly, Spinowitz does not consider himself a calligrapher, and in that area, he is mostly self-taught, although he uses calligraphy very often in his work. “The Hebrew letters build words and deep thoughts. It also reminds us in a Kabbalistic way that everything was created by the word. The dot of the YUD is the beginning to form all other Hebrew letters. There are glorious moments that seem to come from a spiritual place as the paintings evolve,” he said.
Beyond calligraphy, the work that he does in other media also points towards Jewish-inspired output. “My paintings are acrylic/oil, mixed media [and] I have enjoyed working in watercolors over the past 15 years. The watercolors are scanned so that technology has been introduced into my work. The Chupot series that I created incorporate paint, hand embroidery and an array of fabrics. The Seder plates are porcelain and have been handled by Aviv Judaica [and] a new series of Judaica called “Iris” will pay tribute to one of my favorite flowers. The Seder Plate is made of silver plate and it contrasts and defies the delicate lines of the flower petals,” he explained.
Because Spinowitz’s creative process is so influenced by Judaism, much of his art is Biblical in nature, imbued with a focused and holy air. “[The series] ‘Patriarch/Matriarch,’ ‘Kabbalah,’ ‘Alef-Bet’ and ‘Chupot’ as well as many paintings give me an unending supply of topics to inspire my work. I never look at a blank canvas or page without thinking of some scripture or biblical commentaries as research in my paintings,” he said.
Over the years, Spinowitz’s Sukkah, has also become a huge art project–a beautification of the mitzvah itself and a testament to his dedication to art. The Sukkah’s panels, featuring all of the Ushpizin guests, are painted with care and great attention to detail. “I first painted my parents’ Sukkah with the symbols of the 12 tribes in 1965. The Ushpizin of my personal family Sukkah was done in 1980 [and] was updated in 2001 to suit its current location. It has traveled with us as we moved from one house in New Rochelle to another, each time having to adjust the size to fit the space,” he said. “I have painted the Sukkot of my married children with scenes of Jerusalem. I paint the canvases flat and spread them out so each wall flows into the next scene. It takes three months to complete all the walls. This must be done in an environment that is dry and [so that] they are able to lay flat,” he continued, recalling the long–but worthwhile!–process involved in its completion.
Spinowitz’s children and grandchildren have followed in his footsteps. “All of my children and grandchildren are comfortable with art materials. They grew up surrounded by them,” he said. “One daughter is a designer and a graduate of FIT with a BFA. My grandchildren all show promise. Some have gone to the art camp, Usdan. One granddaughter is in the major art track at Frisch HS. Another took workshop classes this summer at FIT. Another designs logos,” he said proudly, highlighting the fact that in the Spinowitz family, art is alive and well.
To contact Mr. Spinowitz about his art, visit his website at spinowitzjudaica.com or contact his wife and agent, Rachele, at 914-632-9794. Arrangements to visit his studio and home gallery can be scheduled at mutually convenient times. “Custom Ketubot or Chupot provide an opportunity for the patron of the arts to become a partner in a unique experience, [in order] to enhance our faith with beauty,” he said.
By Bracha K. Sharp