At the 2016 graduating exhibit last year there was an unusually large turnout for Fine Arts student Hendel Futerfas. Gaiety and critiquing ensued among dozens of hip-looking exhibit-goers who spanned four generations. They endlessly arranged themselves to be photographed in front of Hendel’s installation while his 102-year-old great-grandfather looked on proudly.
“Hendel is a bridge between the art world and our community” said attendee Chavi Kaufman, 24, a pre-med student from the Lubavitch Hasidim Crown Heights community.
“These orthodox parents have to be pretty cool to send their kid to art school,” said Hendel’s sculpture professor Sue Willis, after meeting family members.
According to members of this tight-knit ultra-orthodox community, there is greater reverence for the arts than ever before. The impetus, they say, came from a dialog between Hendel’s great, great uncle, the artist Hendel Lieberman, and the influential leader, Rabbi Menaḥem Schneersohn, known as “the Rebbe.”
Three generations later, young artists benefit from this legacy.
“The Rebbe was well-educated and thought art was extremely important, that a true piece of art could change a person’s whole attitude,” says Zev Markowitz, director of the Chassidic Art Institute in Crown Heights.
Markowitz, who wrote a biography of Hendel Lieberman, says that passersby used to cross the street to avoid paintings in the Institute’s window. The nervousness was due to the Talmudic pronouncement that one should not worship graven images.
Markowitz himself contacted the Rebbe during this period. “As a result, he said “things changed overnight.”
Today there are about 25 arts events a year in Crown Heights, including pop-up exhibits and gallery events.
“Sculptors strive to be magicians. To make the viewer believe and suspend belief simultaneously. Hendel’s wooden objects do just that. He takes us on a journey taking us back to consider the history of his making, the history of cutting, bending and cajoling the hard wooden forms into sensual organic curves that defy the original life of the material. The final forms project both strength and fragility. One can’t escape the metaphors of inflicted pain, rebirth, evolution to beauty and transformation inherent in these works.” – Joseph Seipel, Interim Dean, School of Art and Design
Since graduating, Hendel has completed a six-week artist residency in Korea, has exhibited work in a group show at The Rosemont in East Williamsburg, and for the past four consecutive years, had his work shown at The Beach Minyan in West Hampton Beach.
“I’m currently working on a series on the concepts of growth and transformation that reflect my understanding of my community” says Hendel. “I use wood, which has the characteristics of being strong and stubborn, yet has an organic flow.”
Hendel then cuts and patterns wooden beams in a way that allows him to bend the wood in shapes and directions he chooses. “I combine and then carve different beams. There are contradictions in the process, which represent an internal process of transformation.”
While the back story of his uncle precedes the young Futerfas, he acknowledges its impact. His connection to Hendel Lieberman, for whom he is named, carries great weight. Lieberman served in the Russian army during World War II. His wife and two children died in the Holocaust. Lieberman then, to avoid Stalin’s repression of Jews, changed his last name from Futerfas, escaped and eventually settled in Crown Heights where he befriended the Rebbe.
Lieberman’s correspondence with the Rebbe (excerpted in his biography) shows the leader’s reverence for the artist’s mission. “An artist reveals…the essence and ‘being’ of his subject,” says the Rebbe. The viewer “realizes that his previous impressions of the object were erroneous. In this way [the artist] serves the Creator.”
Today there are greater opportunities and artistic activity in the Crown Heights Hasidic community. The price of Hendel Lieberman’s paintings have risen greatly.
Young Crown Heights Hasidic artists speak knowledgeably about the Rebbe’s statements to Lieberman and other emerging artists. “Artists have all heard stories like this,” says Elad Nehorai, a blogger and arts organizer. “They’re encouraged that there’s a powerful voice that’s supporting them.”
Images used with permission.