Artist ‘Shoulders’ Views of Life

L’chaim! Shelley Spector’s art celebrates life even as she delves into themes of loss and remembrance in her first-ever site-specific installation, currently at the Painted Bride Gallery, in Center City.

She invites visitors to become more than viewers and to participate in her art, and in the accrued memory of her own experiences, and theirs, remembering who, and what, once was.

“I Am on Your Shoulders” occupies two gallery spaces. The first floor gallery walls are ringed with painted olive trees, nails protruding from their boughs, with an invitation to visitors to add their own memory by inscribing the name of someone remembered on a wooden leaf that can then be hung on a nail.

A 16-foot-high tower of 22 wooden figures, one atop another, stands as a welcoming totem at the threshold of the space and gives the show its name.

“Judaism has always been about reflecting back where we came from and don’t ever forget,” Spector said in a recent interview. “You and I and today’s generation are at the top, supported by those who came before, and are underneath us.”

For Spector, loss came early, when she was just 9 years old and her father passed away. “The experience of dealing with death when I was a little girl, a child, really formed how I have thought about things my entire life,” she reflected.

The exhibit, she said, is a continuation, and a culmination, of what she has been working through in her art for a long time. “But I never made it so all-encompassing before.”

For anyone who may be choosing to avoid the pain and the sense of loss that is ever-present here, think again. Spector’s work, and the essence of her aesthetic, is infused with wonder and joy and a resounding celebration of the lives of those who are no longer here, rather than their deaths.

The upstairs gallery, titled “Above the Clouds,” is dotted with white wooden clouds that stand on the floor. Suspended from the ceiling, three motorized mobiles circle around, with carved wooden people at the end of each of the spokes of the mobiles. Their simple forms suggest the timelessness of folk art and exude a childlike innocence.

“I’ve always had this idea of angels over my shoulder,” Spector said. For her, the people who have passed through our lives are angels, forever there, circling just above our shoulders.

A soundtrack of klezmer music plays in the background. It functions as an insistent element that further draws visitors in to share the artist’s experience. “I want to affect people emotionally,” she said. “The music is there and it’s unavoidable. With its happy yet sad and yearning sound, it’s reinforcing the spirit of the show.”

Downstairs, a minyan of figures — the quorum traditionally required for recitation of the mourner’s kaddish — stand together as if in prayer. Their torsos are constructed from glass cylinders.

Just before the opening of “I Am on Your Shoulders,” Spector walked into the gallery and looked at the installation in its entirety for the first time.

“I realized I had made a place, a place to be happy, to be sad, to reflect. I could go to a cemetery, but I don’t feel the need to be there to have this experience. I feel it’s a productive environment. People aren’t just going and looking. I hope they find their own personal place in the exhibit.”

For more information, call 215-925-9914.



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