A Home Away from Home: a member’s personal reflection on our Chaim Gross exhibition
Since September 2015, Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center has been my home away from home. I started coming on a regular basis to drop off my son at pre-school, and then I found myself sticking around, to try out the gym on the fifth floor, to chat with a senior buddy on the 3rd floor, and to explore the art exhibits on the mezzanine. In this political climate, the past few months, it went beyond feeling like a second home: it became a refuge. A place where I knew I could find others like me; a place where I could be creative and open-minded and free to explore. I could look around and see joy and hope and a future for our world.
Chaim Gross was another seeker who came to the Educational Alliance. Unlike me, he was a true refuge, arriving in New York City in 1921, with his only brother and his few words of English. During World War I, he had seen his parents brutally attacked in their own home in Austria, and he had fled to Hungary and then on to New York City.
The day after he stepped off Ellis Island, he walked in through the doors of the Educational Alliance Art School. On that day he met Moses and Raphael Soyer, fellow artists, who would become his lifelong friends. The brothers invited the newcomer to their home for dinner, a very generous offer, considering they were part of a large poor family.
Chaim’s first network of friends from Educational Alliance changed his life. Before his arrival at the art school, Chaim had only done drawings and sketches. Chaim took up the challenge of sculpting after Leo Jackinson, another friend and fellow artist, encouraged him with “Your drawings look like a sculptor.”
Educational Alliance Art School was a jumping off point for Chaim’s explorations into art from around the world. After an introduction to African art by his friend John Graham in the 1930s, Chaim began his own collection, eventually collecting over 2,000 pieces of African Art. He was attracted to the beauty of African art. He identified with the woodcarvings, the simplification of forms, and the totemic figures. If you had asked him whether he was influenced by African art, he would probably have said “no” and brushed off your suggestion, but it is apparent to the viewer that he was.
As much as his friends inspired Chaim, his influence on his fellow artists and friends is evident in the portraits they made of him at work. These paintings capture the physicality of Chaim sculpting with his tools, with a pot belly stove glowing in the corner.
His Jewish identity became more important to him after the Holocaust. Some of his works from the 1960s focused on Judaica infused with African influences. He found commonalities in that African and Judiaca objects had ritual memory. For example, he created a menorah that uses Ashanti imagery of a bird looking backward, bringing a sculptural representation to the Ashanti saying, “look backwards to move forwards.”
Chaim moved forward with his art career, becoming world famous, while remaining a devoted teacher at the Educational Alliance art school throughout his life. He donated his salary to support scholarships as he truly appreciated that the Educational Alliance classes were free or next to free and the training was of extremely high quality.
He had a distinct teaching method. First, he felt his students needed to touch sculpture in order to understand it. Beginners in his class started doing relief on a flatboard before moving to working in the round. He used a 28 minute silent film of himself working as a teaching tool. Chaim taught wood carving, now a lost art form, as the mahogany, teak lignumuitae, and ebony trees are currently endangered.
I highly encourage you to visit the current gallery exhibit on the 1st and mezzanine floor to view his sculptures so lustrous they shine like metal.
-Amy Greenhouse, Manny Cantor Center member and volunteerPrint This Post