Nancy Katz bringing her community-infused artwork to the JCC – and you can help

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For artist Nancy Katz, community is essential. It is at the heart of all her work, which began in the 1980s, when she volunteered with the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt.

“Being involved in that fueled my sensibility in community art-making,” Katz said in a recent interview. “My identity as a Jewish woman gave me an imperative to actively do something about the AIDS crisis.”

Katz eventually became the NAMES Project’s director of education and outreach, before leaving to make her own art, and to help others do the same. Since then, she has facilitated workshops and educational programs in Jewish communities across the country.

Last year, Katz and her husband became permanent fixtures in Rhode Island’s Jewish community. 

“We had been living in the woods of western Massachusetts … it was lovely, a beautiful place, but we were craving to be more integrated in a diverse, larger Jewish community,” she said.

Katz, 64, describes finding such a community in Rhode Island as “a discovery … incredibly impressive and powerful in its diversity and openness,” and fondly recalls her introduction to the community. She said that before she had even thought about moving to the state, friends connected her to Rhode Island Jews, and they “showed up in my life before I had a place to live [in Providence]!”

And the community came together to provide shelter and fellowship late last year, when Katz arrived in Providence only to learn that her new home wouldn’t be ready for another 40 days.

Today, even under COVID-19 restrictions, Katz has continued to grow her connections. Already, she is connected to Jewish communities around the country; she has facilitated more than 150 workshops and classes nationwide, helping people of all ages to make their own mezuzot, challah covers, painted-silk tallitot and more. Her work, in the form of Torah covers and ark curtains, can be found in synagogues from California to Massachusetts.

In collaboration with her husband, stained-glass artist Mark Liebowitz, Katz has also designed and installed stained-glass windows in several synagogues. Katz and Liebowitz met in 2005 in Houston,  where they were both vendors at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial celebration, and married in 2009.

Katz said that when she met Liebowitz, she “knew very little about glass,” but that “Mark saw the possibility of collaboration right away and encouraged me to design for glass early on.”

Her first joint project with Liebowitz, at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, in New Jersey, “was a true testament to our ability to collaborate. Members of that synagogue’s design committee take full responsibility for us getting married!”

The couple now lives on Providence’s East Side and works out of Nancy Katz|Wilmark Studios, in Pawtucket, where they hope to soon be able to reopen their doors to the community.

Katz’s passions for community and glass were cemented when a Georgia synagogue commissioned her to create an interactive project that would become a permanent fixture. She created a tree-shaped community mosaic tiled with glass “gems,” each of which features a small piece of art from a member of the community. The project was installed last year in Temple Sinai Atlanta’s new education wing.

Katz has now been commissioned by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island to create a mosaic tree for the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence, as part of a larger project titled “Jewish Roots – Growing Community through Art.” The tree is expected to be installed in September.

Since social distancing makes it impossible for Katz to run an in-person gem-decorating workshop, as she had done in Atlanta, the Jewish Alliance will instead mail complimentary “creativity kits” to anyone who signs up to participate. The kits will include art templates, instructions and a few surprises to help beautify peoples’ homes.

“I was thinking about this time, and the absence of accessibility to a space that’s specifically designed to be a communal, spiritual space. We’re going to embellish the space, and we anticipate the time when we all can get back into it. People will be creating in their homes, but we’re bringing the home to the space, and ultimately we will bring things from that space home with us,” she said.

Katz says everyone is invited to participate in “Jewish Roots.”

“One of the things about this project that’s so fun is that a 2-year-old, who’s just learning to play with materials, and a professional artist have the same credibility in creating something, and I love that. I think there’s nothing more powerful than for somebody to be able to point to something that they have been a part of and say, ‘I was part of that. I helped build it.’ I love to create situations where people take pride, [where] they have the opportunity to create something, and then it has meaning for them,” she said.

Asked if she had a message for the community, Katz said, “I want them to know that they’re going to be part of a permanent fixture at the JCC, that they’re invited to engage, and that no skill is required. All that’s required of them is an open heart and spirit; the theme of this whole endeavor is that we’re all here for each other.”

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (mschemaille@jewishallianceri.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.