Philadelphia Weekly
September 14-20, 2005

by Roberta Fallon

I recently picked Shelley Spector and one of her minyons up at the studio, and we drove over to the Painted Bride where the artist was installing her show “I Am on Your Shoulders.” It’s her first solo exhibit in three years and her first ever to involve motors, installation and music-though not her first to involve minyons, which appeared in a tinier version in her last solo exhibit held at the Museum of Jewish Art at Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

Spector, sculptor of finely crafted assemblages, most of them human figures, got in the car and put the wood and glass minyon, about the size of a kindergartner, in the back seat lying down. The minyon (a Hebrew word referring to the quorum of people needed to officially recite prayers) was one of 10 in the two-part exhibit, which includes “Life on Earth” in the downstairs gallery and “Above the Clouds” in the upstairs space. The exhibit is a celebration of departed loved ones that ranges from stately and solemn to giddy.

I asked the artist and gallerist why the emphasis on the dearly departed and death.

She said her life was touched by death early on. Her father Edward Spector died when she was 9. “When you have a death in the family when you’re little, that’s a long time to think about it,” she says. In the last three years the artist has been touched again by loss. “Becky [Westcott] died; my cousin died; my sister’s sister-in-law died; Hankus, my cat, died. The theme [of the exhibit] comes from thinking about death.”

But the exhibit’s focus isn’t really death. It’s a celebration of life, including the lives of the departed. And while there are aspects that are solemn, ritualistic and poignant, overall the show feels like a group hug by the artist of all souls both living and dead.

There are participatory elements that will surely be cathartic for many people. Viewers are invited to add the names and a memento of their loved ones to vessels provided. By the end, there’ll be an archive of the departed and a kind of new community of living souls united through the show.

If that all sounds like rather sober material for an art exhibit, it is. But that’s just half the story. The second act upstairs, “Above the Clouds,” is where it gets giddy.

“Above the Clouds” is where you get a change in the atmospheric conditions-from somber to jovial and from still to swirling. Climbing the stairs, you hear the toot and wail of klezmer music. Then you see them-tiny carved figures of departed souls, flying like supermen and women in three circles near the ceiling like some blessed three-ring circus in the sky. The music mix-six songs from the Klezmer Conservatory Band and other bands selected by the artist-swings with that lyrical Oriental loopiness characteristic of the genre. The whole thing is theatrical and magical, like Fellini’s parade at the end of 8 1/2 or like the second-line parade of a jazz funeral.

The walls are pale blue, and the whirling figures cast shadows that imply legions of angels. The figures, carved out of particle board and made to look like individuals with shoes and dresses, pants and tops-no angel’s wings-pass in mesmerizing rhythm. Little wooden clouds dot the floor like so much scenery. The whole thing, mechanized by heavy-duty disco ball motors, is childlike and completely lovable.

The music’s snappy rhythm evokes the dance, something near to the artist’s heart. Spector’s mother was a dance teacher, and the artist has taken dance seriously all her life. “Klezmer has a happy/sad quality. Like this show, it’s a celebration, but sober. It’s like the way you have to be,” she says.

This is a breakthrough show for the artist. Not only did she produce an installation that’s participatory and that expresses both the happy and sad sides of her core being and philosophy of life and community, she made the work in a new (for her) way, using scrap wood (“junk wood,” she called it) instead of fine wood.

There’s plywood, masonite and particle board, scraps and leftovers from walls and cabinets torn down in a rehab project at her house. She has wood scraps from other people. In effect, it’s a community of wood scraps used to make new individuals and new community. The recycling of materials echoes the show’s theme of people standing on the shoulders of their forbearers to move forward and upward.

Spector has a way of creating a community around her wherever she is. Here she’s forging a new group of viewers and friends who will see and participate in this celebration of life.

September 06, 2005

by Libby Rosof

Amidst all this sad news from New Orleans and young men dying Iraq with a president somewhat short on compassion, Shelley Spector’s installation “I am on Your Shoulders” at the Painted Bride is a healing place to spend some time.

Spector’s vision of heaven, not to be missed, is in the upstairs gallery, where a small army of superhero ancestors come to the perpetual rescue, circling on three mechanized carousels to sprightly klezmer music.

These are fierce angels, determined to circle forward. They retain the obdurate quality of the wood blocks from which they were carved, and it makes their delicate carousel hora in the sky-blue room all the more charming and miraculous (overcoming the lighting and the HVAC grill in the ceiling.

Equally surprising are the chunky little clouds beneath the dear-departed souls, separating heaven from the floor below, where we on earth get to remember the dead.

Down below stands an assemblage minyan (10 Jews–the minimum number needed for prayer). They are bottom-heavy, earthbound figures made of stacked rings of wood that hold in their glass torsos talismans of memory and spirit–Jewish nkisi-totems. The simple fabrication succeeds in evoking male and female, the dirndl skirts harking back to shtetls and folk-shuls all at once. (I have to put a vote in here for the shoes on all the figures, large and small, upstairs and downstairs. They are ur-shoes of some prior generation and I love them especially)

The figures face toward the rising sun in the east, which is both traditional and hopeful. The painted sun is labeled “East,” and this sweet literalness is part of what makes this installation feel so childlike and so directly connected to its wellsprings of feeling.

One of the things I especially liked here is that every visitor, just by arriving, interacts with the installation. When someone walks into the space, the little congregation of praying figures swells both in height and number and spiritual strength.

Visitors also get two chances to add their own loved-and-departed heroes and heroines to the installation. They can memorialize someone now gone by writing the name on a leaf to add to the lollipop trees on the wall, or they can drop a memorial memento in the one open glass jar in the minyan group. While the trees of life and the leaves are literal, taken straight from Jewish memorial observance and tradition, the glass jar is personal and adds an African touch as well as a time-capsule optimism that matches the superheroes on the floor above.

The memorial portrait of Rebecca Westcott, is a wall of framed clouds against blue skies, with a flower still asserting its presence in the world. It borrows from Westcott’s own imagery and dominates the nearby 16-foot totem pole of men and women standing on eachother’s shoulders, which becomes a timeline in space.

Spector, whose Spector Gallery showed Westcott’s work, makes a powerful statement for a broad definition of family.

In some ways Spector’s installation is so simple. In other ways it’s pure magic.

The Jewish Exponent
September 22, 2005

by Harriett Goodheart

It’s all “Above the Clouds” at Painted Bride Gallery.
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.”

The Philadelphia City Paper
October 13-20, 2005

by Susan Hagen

In her one-person show at the Painted Bride, local artist Shelley Spector continues to explore subjects from her own personal history, and furthers her mission to illuminate the universal human experience of community and the idiosyncrasies of people. Her sculptures, made from found and salvaged wood scraps, have long combined the formal simplicity and heartfelt emotional content of folk art with a more street-smart irony.

For this exhibition, Spector has created her first site-specific installation in the two-level main exhibition area of the Painted Bride, using five new series of sculptures that address themes of life and death, as well as the “legacies of people who have left a mark on our lives.” Spector received a project grant from the Independence Foundation in 2004 and has spent more than a year carving and constructing the components of the installation.

The lower gallery holds four sculptural installations. In Minyon, Spector constructed a series of stacked and laminated wood figures with large glass jars for abdomens filled with assorted items, such as rocks, bottles, buttons, pipes and pencils, while in Trees of Life, she painted nine simple tree forms on the gallery wall and added cut-out wood leaves, each with a person’s name. Audience participation is a new aspect of both pieces. Perhaps it’s a logical outgrowth of Spector’s belief in the value of community. She has deep ties to her family and friends — including many Philadelphia artists through her eponymous gallery on Bainbridge Street — and they have often appeared as subjects in her work. Viewers are invited to add a leaf to one of the trees in Trees of Life and to add an object to one of the open jars in Minyon, making the show itself a product of the memories and actions of all of the people who visit.

Also for the first time, Spector has begun to incorporate music into her work. She includes a soundtrack of klezmer music, which unites the separate sculptural pieces under an umbrella of sound, as well as adding a more distinctly ethnic theme to the show. One piece, A Flower in the Clouds (dedicated to the memory of Philadelphia artist Becky Westcott), is reinforced by the poignant sadness of the music. Here a large, sturdy wooden flower with a thick cluster of white petals like kernels on an ear of corn hangs on the wall surrounded by framed wood panels with white clouds and blue sky. I Am on Your Shoulders, a piece with a decidedly jolly outlook, connects with the celebration in the music. It’s 16 feet tall and made up of 22 alternating male and female figures reaching from the lower gallery into the open airspace above. These standing figures are solidly built and stylized, made from rough, salvaged wood with a variety of colors and textures, and stacked like Legos into a figurative “endless column.”

In the upper gallery, painted sky blue, Above the Clouds fills the space. Three motorized structures with radiating spokes hang from the ceiling. On each of these, six wood figures dangle in horizontal postures with their arms outstretched in front or pulled close to their bodies as they coast around in slow circles. The blocky Muppet-like people are all unique: dressed in pajamas or swimsuits, dresses, pants or high-heeled shoes. They’re roughly carved from chunks of laminated wood scraps and painted in rich, solid colors. Like a stage set, cut-out wooden clouds on little paper-doll stands are placed on the floor below the circling figures. The piece tells a lighthearted story about life after death, reminding me of a baby’s crib toy as well as a story you might tell to comfort a child.

In many of the pieces Spector has begun to employ the human body as a vessel or a unit of a larger construction. In this way the body is concretely functional, or as a certain children’s TV show character would say, “really useful.” When I asked her about this idea, Spector explained, “We are all containers. We are made up of components that are assembled to make us who we are and we connect with other people in our world.” In addition, Spector believes that by using old chair legs, brooms and other wood scraps, she connects with the animism of the objects and “gives new life to old spirits.” In this new body of work, Spector has begun to delve into the idea of rebirth and regeneration as the subject, not just the form, of her work — inviting us to participate in a dialogue with the idiosyncratic people and the “old spirits” in our own lives.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 23, 2005

by Edward J. Sozanski

There has always been a gentle, folksy quality to sculptor Shelley Spector’s wooden figures that suggests a consistently humanist outlook.

Spector’s humanism reveals itself fully in her first full-gallery installation, a two-part piece at the Painted Bride Art Center called I Am on Your Shoulders.

The title announces her theme, that the past continues to live in the present, and even in the future, through memories of dead relatives and friends.

Spector represents this idea directly, with a totem-pole-like sculpture of 22 figures standing one atop another. Nine “trees of life” painted on the walls function as participatory memorials; visitors write names on individual wooden “leaves” and hang them on the trees.

In the center of the room, Spector has placed 10 vaguely figurative containers, each filled with objects that evoke the past, such as 45 r.p.m. records, old pipes, spools of thread and pencils.

Upstairs, in a piece called Above the Clouds, wooden figures hung from rotating armatures slowly circle above a field of painted wooden “clouds,” accompanied by recorded klezmer music. Even a confirmed cynic might find such an evocation of the chain of humanity hard to resist.