Chana Cromer: The makings of a fabric artist

Wall hangings are not the most usual form of visual art, although they have a history stretching back many centuries.

The artist, Chana Cromer, in front of her work, ‘The Wise Hearted’ (2019) (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
The artist, Chana Cromer, in front of her work, ‘The Wise Hearted’ (2019)
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)

Wall hangings are not the most usual form of visual art, although they have a history stretching back many centuries. Recently revived as an art form sui generis they have drawn to themselves some very talented visual artists who see in the medium something unique. One of these artists is Jerusalemite Chana Cromer, who uses fabric with a variety of techniques that include etching, lithography, painting, collage, and silk screen-printing.
At present she is exhibiting her latest works in fabrics at the Orthodox synagogue of Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. The walls of the sanctuary are large enough to hold her pieces, some of which are many meters in length. Not all of the pieces are so large. “The Wise Hearted” is made up of 27 30x40 cm (12x16 inch rectangles) in a kind of mosaic dedicated to the colors of the Tabernacle, which is the theme of the whole exhibit. This points to one of the characteristics of Cromer’s multi-layered work, namely that they are inspired by traditional Hebrew texts.
“I did my first degree in literature,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “So I was always very close to the written text. The Bible and the rabbinic commentaries delve into words – their root, their multiple associations, their appearance elsewhere – the pithiness of the Hebrew word holds fascination for me.”
Born in Italy but brought up in the US, she completed her bachelors and masters in literature and education before coming to Israel.
“After I made aliyah and married, I went to Bezalel Art School where I began a course in fine arts. I came with experience as a painter and draftsman from night classes and wanting more depth in the area of painting. It was in the ‘seventies and the school was dominated by conceptual art. Instead of painting, people sat around philosophizing about it there was a fear of marking the white canvas. I was 29, a little older than the other students, most of whom were in their mid-twenties. “I had already sat on campus greens and philosophized. I was a mother, taking time from my child, taking time from bringing in earnings so I wanted to use my time usefully. I was there to learn to paint, to better my skills, not to contemplate the empty canvas. So in my second year, I shifted to sculpture. In sculpture you needed to learn skills. Sculpture stands in three dimensional space, it needs an underlying structure, volume should relate to concept, elements like texture and positioning the work in space are essential. My
sculpture teachers were Pinhas Eshet who taught us to think in three dimensions, and Jacob Epstein who taught us to capture the human form.
“Simultaneously, I continued with painting in my second year. The breaking point came when we were directed to limit our colors to three primary colors – taken from commercial house paint-colors – in painting a human figure. This was not a one-time exercise but repeated for weeks till I felt the instructor had sterilized all the painting out of me. I became more involved in sculpture, etching and lithography with Morris Kahn and paper-making with Tzvi Tolkovsky.
“My husband Gerald, a lecturer in criminology had a sabbatical at Queens College in New York in 1979 and one day a week I left my babies to study etching with Clare Romano at Pratt Institute. In my fourth year back at Bezalel I built sculptures out of paper and resin and used my hand-made papers for etching and lithography. That year I was Tolkovsky’s assistant in the paper making studio. In retrospect this work with paper-making and collage was a precursor to my textile work today.
“After Bezalel in the 1980s, I had my first two one person shows at Ta’amon and the American Cultural Center in Jerusalem. In the exhibited artworks I used techniques of paper collages and assemblage of found objects. The French born assemblage artist, Arman, was my idol at the time. I collected soft drink cans, or construction site bent tar cans, sometimes painting them in mothering pastel shades and other times using John Havard’s trompe l’oeil effects in assemblage compositions.
“In the late 1980s Gerald, had a sabbatical at Penn. Since we would be in the USA, close to my parents, I had an idea to do a project involving personal history of their families - the grandparents, aunts and uncles I had never known because they perished in the Holocaust before I was born. The idea was to create out of objects, that might have been part of their lives a kind of portrait of each of them. I would make portraits without faces!
“My mother’s family came from Hungary. There were no remaining photos of her family. My father was number nine in a family of 10 siblings. His six older siblings had gone to South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s so because of them we had photographs of the family. Both my mother and father had cousins who had survived the Holocaust and were living in Israel. In preparation for the project I interviewed them.
“I collected both written and photographic material from the Diaspora Museum and Yad Vashem Museum to get some idea of life in the town and village they came from. The archival photos gave me an idea of the dress of their contemporaries. One cousin even drew a diagram of her town and its Jewish neighborhood, where her parents lived, where my father’s family’s house was, where their grandparents lived, the synagogue, the river and the schools. She really gave me a basis for understanding their daily life before the holocaust and the later events in the ghetto.
“I took all this information with me to the US. I was going to show my parents the material bit and bit and interview them about their departed relatives. One Shabbat morning I asked my parents – on Shabbat! the day that I couldn’t write or record or take notes – to respond to the photos and notes. I found that I couldn’t do a thing. I was unable emotionally to ask questions, to really interview them. It was too difficult for me to make them recall those times. In the end the whole project fell by the way, although two years ago I actually used some of the collected archival material to create a large textile piece about my maternal grandfather, a hassid of Rav Teitlebaum of Uhely, in northeastern Hungary.
“Once settled in Philadelphia I decided instead of this family project, I would take two courses at the Philadelphia College of Art, - and in this way connect to my parents. One in wood (my father was a carpenter before becoming a contractor,) and another course in textile print-making – my mother was a seamstress. I had already had a basis in printmaking from Bezalel and Pratt. I liked the idea of using fabric because it could be three dimensional.
“In later years I began to exploit the manipulation of fabric – collage, applique, working in layers using diaphanous fabrics, hanging fabrics within the space in relation to one another, using the natural airflow in a room. In the following years I also took courses in dye-painting and printing on fabric. Dyes, as opposed to the acrylics, are absorbed into the fiber rather than adhering to the surface of the fabric. They can be applied by immersion or by silk screen or by brushes, very much like the application of watercolors to paper. In the work I do today I like to combine painting in dyes and silk screening in acrylic pigments, giving the artwork various levels of saturation and line.”
COMING FROM a fine arts background, Cromer’s inspiration comes from painters rather than textile artists. The sensual color of Vermeer’s blues in The Milk Maid, the magic of the reds and golds of Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, the floating watery effects of a Rothko painting, the fields of spiritual color of a Barnett Newman painting, are some of the painters that inspire her. She hopes to bring this richness to expression on fabric, with its texture, volume, as well as its possible transparency and layering.
In her current exhibition, “Ten Cubits,” Cromer has hung three lengths of transparent organza on which are portrayed hands, the drawn outlines of which are silk-screened, whereas the color within their borders is painted in dyes, each representing one of the dyes mentioned in the building of the sanctuary – Blue, Scarlet and Purple. It is this sort of fusion that gives her work a unique quality.
It is often asked where an artist’s ideas come from. This can be an almost mysterious process, as Cromer herself has experienced: “I was taking in expressive dance class. A song came on that moved me. It made me think of my late husband Gerald, I think it was about the time of his birthday. When I finished the dance, I asked what was the name of the music. It was called La Prima Vez (The First Time), a well-known Ladino folk tune which includes the lines: ‘The first time I saw you I loved you/ and on your death I will continue to love you.’ I was totally shocked since I had no idea that the song was a reflection of what I was doing in my dance. It was like my body was telling me what my mind didn’t know. So it was quite an experience and I wanted to express it.”
Cromer’s work includes many references to Biblical and rabbinic texts: “The Besht in his commentary on the story of Noah said that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is a teivah.
In Hebrew, this word means both an ark and a box. The idea of breaking open the box and discovering what is inside it defines what I’m looking for. Similarly, the idea of the small light, the tzohar, that gave light to the whole ark is so poetic. Like the opening of Genesis, biblical text has so much to offer in each and every line. That’s the place that my works come from.”
In much of her current exhibition at Yedidya, Cromer focuses on the Tabernacle in the desert and particularly on the many colors of their linens that are mentioned in some detail in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. These works bring her back to the main theme of her most mature work, which has been to make these ancient texts meaningful today. By employing sophisticated techniques of working with fabrics and textiles she has managed to infuse obscure Biblical writings with a joyous sense of their presence in an aesthetic way that belies their ancient origins.
The artist’s exhibition has been extended through the summer. More information can be obtained at ■