“Upstream P10,” Stacy Leeman, 2013, oil on canvas, 32” x 48”
As one transitions from biblical—pre-Jewish—history toward the narrative adventures of the next 24 centuries, artistic engagement with that adventure spreads in directions the variations in which, in style, subject, and material, parallel the diversely diasporic experience of Jews across time and space. Stacy Leeman, from Columbus, Ohio, offers a large and vibrantly-hued abstract oil on canvas, called “Upstream.” The title alludes to the early rabbinic tradition—that first story, built on biblical foundations, in the edifice of Judaism—and a specific passage in which praise is extended to the bird able to swim against the water’s flow. The artist carries the viewer upstream with her along several simultaneous currents.
The bird, as an ongoing symbol of the soul (in Muslim and Christian and not only Jewish visual history), emphasizes the spiritual underpinnings of Jewish identity while connecting it to the larger range of Abrahamic thought and art. The notion of a bird—not a fish—swimming in any direction underscores both the elimination of whatever lines traditionally offer separation markers—whether between art and craft (Leeman often uses her paintings as “sketches” for finished pastel drawings, rather than the other way around) or between men and women, in which the latter have traditionally suffered exclusion from the mainstream in both art history and Jewish liturgical history, as we have noted. Indeed, in the artist’s own words, the rabbinic comment offers a “metaphor for the boundaries and contradictions I experience as an Orthodox Jew and a feminist struggling with melding a 3,000-year old patriarchal tradition and a 21st century sensibility.”
Her image is contrived primarily of a range of earthy reddish, brownish, yellowish colors simultaneously embedded within and surrounding colors that reflect both the sky and water. The lush range of sky-water blues reminds us, too, of the inherent logic in a bird swimming: for the rabbinic tradition itself refences the notion that the “firmament” that emerges from God’s words on the second day of creation, separates two realities that are otherwise the same reality: the waters below and the heavens—for which the Hebrew word, shamayim, means the “waters (mayim) there, (sham)”—above. Here and there, handsome wisps and blobs of whites and off-whites suggest cloudy formations in the heavens that are also reflected in the waters. We are further reminded by this soaring visual exercise that even the presumed line between abstraction and figuration is far from straightforward; every work of art reflects reality, but no two do so in precisely the same way.
Stacy Leeman’s paintings and drawings have been exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States. Her work is held in public and private collections, including Princeton University. Ms. Leeman has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors. She received grants from the Greater Columbus Arts Council and Vermont Studio Center. Ms. Leeman is represented by the Sharon Weiss Gallery in Columbus, Ohio; Rutledge Street Gallery in Camden, South Carolina; and B. Deemer Gallery, in Louisville, Kentucky. She earned her BA in studio art from Oberlin College and her MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Ms. Leeman lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her family. Visit stacyleeman.com to learn more about Ms. Leeman’s art. You can also follow her on Instagram @stacyleemanart.