In Conversation: Mi Polin

 

Siedlce Mezuzah by Mi Polin, for sale at the Jewish Museum Shop. Photograph © Mi Polin

 

Mi Polin, founded by Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar in 2014, is a contemporary Judaica design studio, the first of its kind in Poland since the end of World War II. Now available in the Jewish Museum Shop, Mi Polin’s Mezuzah From This Home is a series of bronze mezuzahs cast from imprints left by those that once hung on doorposts throughout Poland before the Holocaust. Czernek and Prugar travel across the country in search of such traces, researching the buildings and original occupants. This compelling series weds the Polish-Jewish experience of yesterday and today, with each mezuzah bearing witness to what happened there and honoring hope that lives anew.

We teased an excerpt from our Q&A with Czernek and Prugar in the Museum’s recently released Fall 2015 Members’ Newsletter. In the following complete interview, Czernek and Prugar discuss the history and development of the Mezuzah From This Home series, Mi Polin’s social responsibility and engagement with Jewish traditions, and Mi Polin’s other profound products.

The Jewish Museum:  What inspired you to produce these mezuzahs?

Helena Czernek:  We first saw many of the traces in Kazimierz, a district of Krakow. We decided to commemorate them, saving them from destruction or ignorance by casting the imprints and turning them into new bronze mezuzahs.

Aleksander Prugar:  Before World War II, 3.5 million Jews inhabited Poland, and at least one mezuzah hung on almost every Jewish house. As Jews perished in the war, so did their mezuzahs — leaving empty voids, or traces, on the doorways where they once hung. By affixing a mezuzah from the Mezuzah From This Home series to your home, you commemorate what was lost and renew the holy function of these sacred cases.

A mezuzah imprint in Warsaw. Photograph © Mi Polin

JM:  Why did you elect to manufacture the mezuzahs in bronze?

AP:  We decided to use bronze because it is a metal of antiquity and is known to be completely resistant to external conditions or rust. Our casts will survive for 1,000 years; they are eternal.

JM:  How do you go about finding the doorposts marked with such imprints?

HC:  We check every doorframe of every building that is still standing in former Jewish quarters or wartime ghettos. We have found traces in 18 Polish cities so far, including Krakow, Warsaw, and Lublin, and we plan to visit Lodz, Klodawa, and Lomza. Included with every mezuzah we craft is the address of where the impression was taken and a booklet that tells its story. This connection to pre-war Poland enhances the mezuzah’s symbolic meaning while activating a direct link between the past and the present.

JM:  How does Mi Polin differ from other design firms?

AP:  Mi Polin connects three of our passions: Judaism, design, and enterprise, and we focus on the Jewish legacy and historical responsibility. This unique combination of influences truly sets us apart.

JM:  You mention that Mi Polin is also a social responsibility business — what role does Mi Polin play in your community and society at large?

HC:  We make an enormous effort to preserve Jewish history and educate people through our work. We give lectures about Jewish art and design, and we run all kinds of workshops. For our Mezuzah series, we hold training workshops on how to search for such traces.

Casting a Mi Polin bronze mezuzah. Photograph © Mi Polin

AP:  We collaborate with local and national museums, donating mezuzahs we buy on Allegro [a Polish online auction platform similar to eBay] to their collections. We also collect as much information as we can about the pre-war buildings and the owners of flats where we find the imprints, which we send to museums and include in the brochure that accompanies each mezuzah. In this way, we increase our chances of rescuing other traces, while also furthering Jewish knowledge and education.

JM:  Beyond the clear connection to Jewish history, in what other ways do your designs relate to Jewish traditions?

AP:  Our work has a significant relationship to Jewish law and tradition. All of our designs refer to the construct hiddur mitzvah, said to be derived from Rabbi Ishmael’s commentary on Exodus 15:2 that calls for ritual objects to be made both beautiful and functional.

HC:  While always considering tradition, we do engage in some reinterpreting of Judaism. We want our products to be more than just objects and for the many layers of Judaism to be tangible, so we are always reimagining tradition.

AP:  For instance, we are working on a besamim box — a spice box that is used to fulfill one of the blessings in havdalah, the prayer that ends the Sabbath each week. In Eastern Europe, these boxes were very popular, and traditionally were constructed in a cylindrical shape to resemble the Tower of David and made out of openwork patterns. However, we decided to renew the tradition and refresh the shape by using ceramics and platinum decorations.

Aleksander Prugar and Helena Czernek. Photograph © Mi Polin

JM:  Can you tell us about other projects that you are developing now?

HC:  We recently produced a crystal mezuzah for the blind that contains the word Shaddai, one name of G-d, in Hebrew Braille. These products are almost invisible to those with normal vision, but we hope they can help bring a blind person into closer contact with G-d.

Mi Polin’s Mezuzuah From This Home series is now on sale at the Jewish Museum shop. Visit the website for more information and images of these stunning objects.

 

— Julie Reiter, Marketing Associate, the Jewish Museum, and Samantha Sharon, Marketing Specialist

 

In Conversation: @picklebeholding

Pickle viewing the exhibition Repetition and Difference, the Jewish Museum. Images courtesy of Katie Howard and Nat Ward

The Jewish Museum recently welcomed Miss Pickle, the French bulldog who has become a New York art world and Instagram sensation. An art advisor and avid contemporary art follower, Katie Howard has been documenting her dog’s visits to leading galleries and art fairs across Manhattan by way of the Instagram account @picklebeholding. We sat down with Katie and her fiancée, the artist Nat Ward, to discuss their respective relationships with the Museum, Pickle’s experiences exploring the New York art scene, and their reactions to the Jewish Museum’s current exhibitions.

The Jewish Museum: What inspired you to create an Instagram account devoted both to your four-year-old bulldog and fine art?

Katie Howard: The idea and inspiration for the account came about really organically. Before any of it started, Pickle always came to openings and art events with Nat and me when it was appropriate. Then, a few years ago, Korakrit Arunanondchai made a runway for his show at Suzanne Geiss. There was a baby already on the runway, so we put Pickle on it too, and everyone was taking so many pictures. That was the first little flicker of the idea.

JM: Artsy included Pickle on its list of “Instagram influencers,” and The Daily Beast dubbed Pickle the “Art World’s Favorite Canine Blogger.” What do you make of Pickle’s popularity?

KH: I think the funniest title was that of a recent article with Art:I:Curate, calling her “The Art World’s Most Powerful Dog.” I continue to be amazed at the positive reactions people have to our project. The Instagram appeals to so many kinds of people, and I love that she can introduce our insulated art world to people who don’t know much about it.  Although I will say, it is strange to walk around the galleries without her now. With her, we get so much love from everyone — sometimes the entire staff at a gallery will come out and greet her.

JM: The Jewish Museum is honored to be the first museum to host Miss Pickle. Katie, how have you experienced the Museum in the past, and can you share any memories of your visits here?

Pickle viewing the exhibition Repetition and Difference, the Jewish Museum. Images courtesy of Katie Howard and Nat Ward

KH: We are so excited for the Jewish Museum to host Pickle, it really is the perfect “first” museum for us. Having grown up only a few blocks away from here, the Jewish Museum has always been a staple. For me, the most memorable exhibition in recent history, other than the shows up now, was Masters of American Comics (2006). As someone who grew up not knowing much about comics, I just loved learning about the influential role of comics as a form of entertainment and propaganda.

JM: Nat, you are also connected to the Museum, as you recently participated in our May 10 program In Response: Repetition and Difference, which invited Columbia University Visual Arts MFA candidates and alumni to mount time-based projects in response to our exhibition Repetition and Difference. Like Pickle, you took over the institution for a day and shared your video piece on the Museum’s wayfinding screens. How is your work Autoequivalent 1 & 2 (excerpt) in dialogue with the exhibition, and what was it like to present your piece at an institution like this?

Nat Ward: I decided to respond to both the process and meditative intent of N. Dash’s Commuter series as well as to the ritual objects from the Museum’s collection that add meaning and spiritual depth to repetitive iterations of daily movement. I mapped my own daily movement for two days with a video camera recording the sky as I drove from my home to the location of my current project in south Florida. You can view an excerpt of the video piece here: https://vimeo.com/130468100. The Museum has such a rich history of curatorial innovation and scholarship. I’m excited to have participated in the further development of that programming. It’s amazing to have an opportunity like that as a young artist.

JM: @picklebeholding has become a one-stop shop for hearing about what’s on at major galleries and, of course, for indulging in adorable puppy pictures. How do you select which exhibitions to visit? Do you ask galleries and fairs for permission to bring Pickle along, and do they ever seek you out? We, for one, couldn’t resist reaching out to Pickle.

KH: Pickle and I spend two to four days a month trying to hit as many galleries in Chelsea and the Lower East Side as possible. We typically stick to ground floor galleries because Pickle is really afraid of stairs. I don’t ask galleries for permission, but I now know which don’t allow dogs. I do ask permission at fairs and museums because their policies are different, and I wouldn’t want to upset anyone with what we are doing. A few institutions have reached out to me — The Armory Show and the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) have both been so welcoming, even issuing Pickle her own press pass.

JM: Pickle has been pictured sitting on sculptures at the Armory Show, and she is always off the leash around apparently fragile, and often valuable, works of art. Have you experienced any backlash in response to posing a dog near (or on) such works? We imagine that not all artists and gallerists would be pleased.

KH: Pickle and I are always extremely cautious around art and sculptures. She is off leash when we take the pictures, but she is on leash at all other times — and once the photo is snapped, the leash goes right back on. And, to clear the record, whenever she is sitting on art directly, I always ask permission from the gallery as well as often from the artist. There was very little backlash from the start, and practically none now that she is more well known. But, if I ever sense there might be an issue, I ask permission, and do my best to do so within guidelines that make the artist and gallerist happy.

JM: Pickle has explored the temporary exhibitions Revolution of the Eye, Laurie Simmons: How We See, and Repetition and Difference. Any sense of her reaction to the moving images, contemporary and modern paintings, photographic portraits, and historic objects and Judaica on view? Crossing our fingers that our exhibitions are up to sniff.

KH: I really loved all of the exhibitions! Especially Repetition and Difference, which is a wonderful show that brings cultural and historical references to contemporary art, and vice versa. Pickle is a dog, so she mostly loves the attention and meeting new people when we go to galleries and museums. And she absolutely loved her Kosher dog bone toy — a perfect gift from the Jewish Museum Shop! She has been showing it to everyone.

Pickle wearing a Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Chantal Joffe exhibition scarf, the Jewish Museum Shop. Images courtesy of Katie Howard and Nat Ward

JM: Finally, what can we expect for Pickle’s future art adventures? We hope to see her back at the Jewish Museum in the fall; she may like the status quo-breaking contemporary art featured in the upcoming group show Unorthodox

KH: We would love to come back to the Museum in the fall! Right now we have expanded from just the Instagram to also a website, artblogdogblog.com. It features more images from each exhibition than we show on Instagram. We are working on scheduling more studio visits and interviews with artists. We are also looking into collaborating with artists to create doggy art apparel!

Check out our Instagram and Facebook for more photos of Pickle @TheJewishMuseum!

— Julie Reiter, Marketing Associate, the Jewish Museum, with thanks to Samantha Sharon, Marketing Specialist

Please note that while the Museum is service dog friendly, pets are not generally allowed.

Introducing the Young Patron Program

(Top left) 2015 Purim Ball attendees Will Palley, Hillary Reinsberg, Melanie Baevsky, Audrey Gelman, Stephanie Roach, and Jared Effron, photo: Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com. | (Top right) Attendees of the March 9 opening of Repetition and Difference in front of an installation by Abraham Cruzvillegas, photo: Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com | (Bottom right) Cheim & Read presents Chantal Joffe: Night Self-Portraits to the Jewish Museum Young Patron Program on May 21. | (Bottom middle) 2015 Purim Ball After Party attendees, photo: Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com. | (Bottom right) Craig Rosenberg and Ruthie Nachmany, Cheim & Read presents Chantal Joffe: Night Self-Portraits to the Jewish Museum Young Patron Program on May 21.

 

The Young Patron Program offers one of the newest avenues for engaging with the Jewish Museum’s rich history of art and Jewish culture. It comprises a dynamic group of young professionals and art supporters, ages 21 – 40, who recognize the importance of the institution and its mission.

Young Patrons benefit from a host of unique and exclusive experiences. Geared toward deeper engagement with the Museum as a cultural touchstone and social hub, participants enjoy a curated calendar of 10 to 12 exciting events per year including Shabbat dinners, art gallery tours, networking receptions, curator-led programs, and other social gatherings.

The Chelsea gallery Cheim & Read kindly hosted the Jewish Museum’s Young Patron Program for a launch event on Thursday, May 21. Young Patrons celebrated the astounding work of Chantal Joffe with an evening of conversation, champagne, and hors d’oeuvres. Many young professionals joined Claudia Gould, Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director, and Joffe for an in-depth discussion about the artist’s work, which is currently on view at the Jewish Museum and at Cheim & Read.

Join as a Young Patron ($180+) today to receive exclusive invitations to our upcoming events:

  • July 12: Lunch at a private art collector’s home in the Hamptons followed by a guided tour of Art Southampton, the premier contemporary and modern art fair in the Hamptons

Young Patrons carry on a tradition of giving and involvement that for more than 110 years has allowed the Museum to build its renowned collection. Consider joining the Young Patron Program or gifting a Young Patron membership, and take part in this vibrant community of young New Yorkers.

— Jacqueline Spar, Development Associate, Young Patrons, the Jewish Museum