As an ultra orthodox Jewish mother of eight from London’s Stamford Hill. Gitl Wallerstein-Braun is no ordinary artist. She graduated from Central Saint Martins School of Art aged 56 in 2006, and since then has established a reputation as an innovative, engaging, and above all a profoundly sensual artist.
Gitl was born in 1950 in Haifa to a destitute couple of badly affected holocaust survivors. When she was three years old the family moved to Jerusalem, living in the poverty stricken community of Mea Shearim. Due to the failing health and extreme poverty of her parents, Gitl was placed in a local orthodox orphanage, where she received a strictly religious education. She lived there until aged 18, when she married a young Rabbinical scholar from Budapest, Marton Braun.
Gitl and Marton moved to London in 1973, and brought up their 8 children in the orthodox community of Stamford Hill. True to her upbringing, Gitl dedicated herself to full time motherhood while her children grew up. Only once they left home did she return to education, first learning English and then attending a local art class.
Gitl was accepted to Central Saint Martins Fine Arts School in 2001, graduating with distinction in 2006. She held several solo shows in 2007, receiving massive media acclaim, undertaking several international commissions. She is now preparing to launch her work in the USA in 2008.
Kleider (clothes) were as holy relics to my extremely pretty Auschwitz survivor mother. She picked them up from wherever they were unwanted, lovingly washed them (naturally by hand), and against all protestations carefully folded and arranged them (for she knew children who needed them…) in the ever growing piles in our one bedroom, which I shared with my parents and four brothers.
I woke up and fell to sleep under the whispering gaze of mother’s precious kleider, which communicated to me shadows from a past world that weighed heavy on our non talkative parents hearts.
And so it was, that one grey winter morning, mother took me by my hands to a nearby orphanage, spoke in Hungarian to the pious long bearded home-master and left me sobbing there. My parents entrusted him to give me a truly orthodox upbringing.
I was to grow up in a stifling, protective environment – taught only to be a wife and mother. I received no general education; I developed no skills, no ambition. But I did have the blessing of inspiring fine people that passed through the orphanage.
Poor mother meant well. She thought it to be best for me. She was struggling with such grinding poverty and father’s health, which had been terribly damaged by the years he spent in the death chambers of the deep copper mines of Bor in Yugoslavia. He survived alone four years of starvation and torture, and married my mother in a refugee camp, after his six children and first wife were killed in the gas chambers.
However, I lived my childhood, and well into adulthood, carrying the scar of having lost my place at home in favour of my mother’s clothes and the silenced spirits of her six children, that had been gassed at Auschwitz.
It came naturally to me that in the course of my art education I would develop an interest in the effects of fabric in the work of the great old masters. To me, the silent skin, cloth, linen and silk – textures, flows and folds – constitute so much of the mood and atmosphere of their pictures.
While artists of our time are seeking visual codes for presenting the human experience beyond the structured visual language of testimony of old, I felt, that one must seek out a visual code to communicate the deep currents of silenced experience.
I found that the infinite flux of silent fabric effects can present subliminal images, in a sub-narrative, communicating an existential mood or reminding one of an unexplainable inner event. The very medium, the woven fabric, is most intimate to us humans, who are wrapped at birth, sheltered and disguised under fabric during life, and are enshrouded when we are reunited with the elements at death.
My ongoing interest in fabric effects evolved into a personal relationship of sorts, as I explored the multitude of possibilities, from traditional to ultra modern materials and weaves. I can sit for days, even months, working to facilitate the ‘accidents’ which may make my fabrics talk. Once achieved, I revert to a purely technological role in order to optimally ‘document’ the visual event which then eventuates.
Since beginning to exhibit my works outside of college I have been fortunate in being presented with a number of exhibition opportunities. One commission was to create a group of religious works for the British Library’sSacred exhibition, a showcase of the world’s oldest holy scriptures, which led to the creation of what I consider to be my best work so far: The Martyred Letters.
The Martyred Letters may at first glance represent a departure from my earlier preoccupation with the fabric effects. However, as far as I am concerned, considered alongside Ruth and Young David and other works made from ancient puppet fragments, as well as Kaddish and Prayer Book and other works made from shames(discarded old Hebrew manuscripts), it represents the very same creative impulse that has driven Routes of Silk, as I have named this earlier series of work. I am seeking to embrace and redeem the appeal of the disposed and marginalised, effectively utilising the skills available to me to do so, in the same manner that my mother felt compelled to do with the clothes that she gathered and recycled.
I regard all my finished works as my adult children, whom I shall judge worthy only once they have entered the world to take on a life of their own. When exposed, though vulnerable, I can only then hope that the viewer shall grace them with the relevance and meaning I consider that they truly deserve.
2001 – 2006
BA, Fine Arts – Distinction
Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design
Charing Cross Road, London WC2
1999 – 2000
Byhamshaw School Of Art
Elthorne Road, London N19
1998 – 1999
Art Portfolio Preparation Class
Hackney Community College
Falkirk Street, London N1
1996 – 1998
English & Psychology
College of North East London
Tottenham Centre, London N16
Breaking the silence. Jewish Renaissance, October 2007 The faith in a mother’s art. The Times, August 2007 Photos that aim to help women find their voice. Jewish Chronicle, May 2007 No folds barred. The Guardian, March 2007 Haredi mother of eight makes her art debut with exhibit at London gallery. Jerusalem Post, January 2007
March 2009 London Jewish Cultural Centre Ivy House (historic former home of Anna Pavlova)
North End Road, London NW11 7SX
6 March – 9 April 2009 Boundary Gallery
98 boundary Road, London NW8 ORH