Q&A with Beth Surdut: Bringing Art Home

Jewish artist Beth Surdut moved to Tucson in March. In addition to her unique tallit and chuppah designs, she uses paintings, drawings and stories to translate and integrate nature and world cultures. Her stained glass and mural paintings bring light and nature into homes and public spaces.

Whether framed or installed, Beth says her art is “for the home.” An image can morph into a variety of pieces with an idea that started out as stained glass becoming a painting on silk that becomes a textile that becomes a garment, a tile mural, table linens, carving and so on.

In the following Q&A she shares her inspirations, her Jewish roots and her range of artistic adventures.

What was your Jewish involvement growing up?

I grew up in Rhode Island. I walked from home and Quaker school to my Reform temple for Hebrew and Sunday school, read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah and began my association with the National Federation of Temple Youth. In between two summers in Israel, my rabbi encouraged me to attend federation leadership and arts institutes in upstate New York.

Many years passed and many adventures happened before Hebrew College hired me to write articles, primarily about tzedakah. Soon after, I painted a chuppah, but it took me wandering in the American desert to create my first tallit. The connection between exotic locales, critters and prayer shawls is not immediately obvious, especially considering the mostly bad rap Raven gets in the Torah, but just as there is a prayer available for everything from the sighting of a rainbow to a storm, and 613 mitzvot represented by 613 seeds in a pomegranate, the beautiful realities and mysteries of life are all intertwined if we practice the art of paying attention.

What brought you to Tucson?

For the last six years, the many layered palette of the high desert has been my teacher, and now it’s the Sonoran desert. I moved from Santa Fe, NM, to Tucson in March 2015. The 2012 Tucson Festival of Books was my introduction. A year later – after literally jumping up and down in my studio when I got the news – I returned to accept the book festival Literary Award for Nonfiction for Listening to Raven, my book-in-progress of illustrations of that iconic bird interspersed with collected true stories and personal essays.

In 2014 I gave a presentation on “The Modern Tallit” at the JCC here. During that visit, Arizona Illustrated featured me in two separate shows – as a tallit maker and raven specialist – and that carried over into a radio piece on Arizona Spotlight. With that exposure, I collected more fabulous raven stories and gained new tallit clients. And I realized that there were pollinators and lizards that I could study only here.

Describe the work you have done with stained glass and mural paintings for homes and public spaces.

Not long out of college, where I majored in religious studies and fine art, I took a community night class for the basics of working with stained glass. It became my livelihood for many years. I designed for public places and private spaces, including 24 windows for a Middle Eastern palace and numerous private homes.

Perhaps my three visits to the major Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery called me to the tropics. Designing a lush tropical floral window for a hotel in Key West and making trips to Jamaica had shown me how insistently gorgeous tropical islands can be. I packed a bag of clothes, a bag of dyes and silks, and moved to the Hawaiian Islands, where world travelers bought my paintings.

I was invited to design environments as large as an entire Hawaiian shirt exhibit at the American Textile History Museum and as intimate as a condo foyer turned into a faux aquarium. The latter featured my ocean-themed paintings set into niches and walls I painted to mimic ambient light playing off water. Using mostly house paint, I transformed a covered concrete outdoor space into a bamboo forest. The owner requested the image of a classic seaplane flying in over the mountains. You could almost hear propellers whirring and a voice calling, “Da Plane!”

Back on the mainland after six years, I landed in a quintessential Massachusetts town during a winter with snowfall the highest ever in recorded history. I warmed viewers with painted visions of verdant jungles.

I do have a penchant for custom projects. If someone has an idea for something beautiful, especially inspired by nature or myth, do come to me and we will see what we can create. Some of my best work has been generated by “what if” and “could you possibly…”
Where else have your journeys taken you?

Prior to Raven calling me to the Southwest, I spent three years paddling with alligators on the designated wild and scenic Myakka River on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where human interactions with paradise informed my paintings and essays. Ever drawn to wild places grand and intimate, I have hung from a rope in the feathery greenness of a mountain fern forest, piloted a small plane through the lava reds of sunset, climbed a mountain to bathe in a holy Hindu spring, and kayaked amidst seals and dolphins. As an adult, living in Hawaii and enjoying long sojourns in Indonesia, the West Indies and Australia nurtured my relationship with the mysteries and nuances of tropical and oceanic realms. My focus is illustrating, through art and writing, the creatures and habitats with which we share this world of wonders.

Why do you work in so many mediums?

I have always been a professional artist, adding mediums as curiosity beckoned.

Known as a glass designer and colorist, I stymied some of my collectors when I turned my hand to intricate drawings of ravens, hummingbirds and insects, so detailed that they have been exhibited at the New York State Museum along with international scientific illustrators. That was a surprise – I thought I was just paying attention to form, structure and personality of each being.

I tend to learn the basic mechanics of a medium and then create an individual approach and style. Just as people recognize my voice when they hear my commentaries and interviews for public radio, they recognize my “hand” in the paintings and one-of-a-kind wearable art I create for women and men.

One of the clearest descriptions of my creativity and purpose was written by former New Mexico State Land Commissioner Ray Powell in a letter to the mayor of Santa Fe: “By using her outstanding art and literary talents, Beth connects with people of all ages in a very positive and constructive manner. Her love of nature and our local community come through strongly in her work. She calls herself a ‘visual storyteller’ and in my estimation she does great justice to the natural world we call home.”

How do you view the role of art?

Fine art has always had a function: as beauty, as political or personal statement, therapy, expression, information, or as a platform for questioning and dialogue. My fine craft includes a full-length cape in the New Zealand Wearable Art Awards runway show, and printed table linens designed for museums and Bloomingdales, and that Tucson Botanical Gardens currently carries. Whether in a home or a public venue, art affects the quality of our lives. Look what history remembers – war, art and invention: goodness and evil. Every one of those elements led me to creating custom prayer shawls, tallit or tallis, depending when and where you learned Hebrew.

When my Russian-born grandfather was 18 years old, his two brothers, studying to be Torah scribes, were murdered by Cossacks. My paternal grandfather came to America in 1905 and fathered three sons. My decision to become a designer and painter of prayer shawls, wedding canopies, Torah covers and healing scarves is, in part, a way to say Kaddish for these family members, along with my mother and my father, each time I hand-letter a prayer in Hebrew. Tallitot add more colors to my spiritual palette than I ever imagined.


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