By Larisa Thomason
Deep South Jewish Voice
Huntsville artist Shoshanna (who prefers to only use her first name professionally) has learned a lot about Judaism and Jewish practices since she began creating custom Judaica almost 10 years ago. “Specifically,” she laughed, “I’ve found that if I ask three different people the same question, I get five different answers of why my interpretation is right or completely wrong. Even if – or especially if – all three people are rabbis!”
Asking those questions of herself was the first step in Shoshanna’s career journey from NASA technical drafter to full-time artist. “While I was working on the drafting, I was also asking myself a lot of Jewish questions,” she said. “My questions were along the lines of why do we have to do this and what is the purpose of that and why does it make a difference if you light a candle before or after this time?”
Did the answers really matter? Should they affect her own Jewish identity? Shoshanna hit the books to find out.
“I started looking things up and creating Judaica to fit what I was learning. I found that the ritual was so much more meaningful when I made my own ceremonial objects.”
Her personal connection to ritual makes Shoshanna especially attuned to her customers’ needs when she creates objects for them. Each piece is uniquely designed to have meaning for the individual who receives the piece.
Although she stocks a few off-the-shelf pieces, most of Shoshanna’s mezuzahs, seder plates, menorahs, and other pieces are custom creations.
She’s not trying to create family heirlooms that will be treasured for generations, although she added that it “would be nice to think so.”
Instead, her goal is to create a piece that “fits the person and has meaning for that person.”
She described one customer’s experience. “For this one mezuzah, the lady wanted it to look like her parents because it was a gift for them. And when her father died, the woman’s mother said that whenever she looks at the mezuzah, it’s like he’s still there with her. For her, that mezuzah wasn’t just a piece of art. It reminded her of the life she shared with her husband.”
That’s a job satisfaction level that Shoshanna didn’t have as a technical drafter.
After graduating from the Art Institute of Atlanta, she worked at several advertising agencies, but never found her niche. So she tried something new: “I went into drafting and tech design and in the beginning, I really liked it. But then I slowly realized that it just wasn’t me. It was fun learning to do it and I got to work on the space shuttle. But, it was just too much with a ruler!”
During this structured phase of her career, Shoshanna began to create her own artwork. It was a way to “color outside the lines” after work. That hobby slowly began to consume almost all of her free time. “I started doing that more and more, and drafting got less enjoyable. My sister would display my art in her house.” Before long, Shoshanna said, people would ask her sister: “how much would your sister charge for doing this or that? Then I started selling my artwork and finally opened my own business.”
Most of Shoshanna’s customers share her interest in unusual or non-traditional objects. “Some people want something very simple, traditional, very much like a photograph – and those people usually don’t come to me. What’s fun about my designs is that you don’t have to limit yourself. I can do a combination that juxtaposes objects that couldn’t possibly be in a photograph.”
One of her more memorable creations was “a cake topper in the shape of a gondola with the groom proposing to the bride. Their dog was on the back rowing the gondola. And this is something you can’t get from a photograph. You can’t take a picture of a dog rowing a gondola while the man is proposing.”
Although the scene may have looked strange to outsiders, Shoshanna carefully designed it to fit the couple’s history and life together. “It’s so meaningful to the people who are going to have it in their house. What’s the point of having just the basic little thing you could buy off the shelf?”
Judging by their response, Shoshanna’s customers agree. “A lot of my business is from word of mouth from people who have bought or people who received my work as a gift and want to order something.”
Others remember her from shows she did years ago, Shoshanna said. “I’ve had people jump through hoops trying to find me. They’ll call somebody at a synagogue where I was at a show three years ago to find out what my name is and where I’m from. That’s a great ego boost!” Shoshanna has customers all over the world and regularly ships objects to customers in Israel,
Canada, and Europe. International customers most often find her through her business Web site (ShoshannaArt.com).
Much of Shoshanna’s recent artwork is influenced by her interest in the Kabbalah, she explained. “Kabbalah is about finding balance and when you find that, you give back to the world and make the world a better place.”
That connection to the world and to history influences her art in other ways. “I have a lot of things that I do that are part of my idea of Kabbalah. Lately, I’m doing a lot more that’s focused on women’s roles in Judaism. Like Miriam’s cup for the Passover seder – every time I make
one, it sells quickly.”
Other women-oriented themes are just as popular. “Every time I do a piece like that it gets sold much faster than a piece that has Abraham, Jacob, or other men as a theme. Maybe it reflects that women are getting more involved and learning more. We’re picking up where our mothers and grandmothers left off.”
Much of Shoshanna’s artwork reflects that theme of continuity between generations. “Those women from the Bible are actually tied to us today. Just think: if you go back generations and generations, these people actually existed – or people who resembled them did. They’re a part of me because I’m Jewish and I try to show that connection in my art. A lot of times, there will be a little cloth or ribbon that each woman is holding and that represents the tradition being passed down to the current generation of Jewish women.”
In the end, Shoshanna believes that everyone has to find his or her own meaning, both in life and in art. She loves to discuss her art and hear the different interpretations they read into it.
Those diverse viewpoints are fine with Shoshanna. “I would never try to convince someone that a piece is perfect for them. Some people look at art and insist on telling you what it is. I let people decide for themselves. My art speaks for itself and it’s so interesting to see the different ways it affects people.”