Philadelphia-based artist Tremain Smith wasn’t sure what to expect when Rabbi Zalman Wircberg, director of the Old City Jewish Arts Center (OCJAC), visited her studio to look at her art, but was still surprised when he asked to see her grief paintings, which she had created after her mother’s death several years before.
“They were not something that I had thought that anyone else would particularly be interested in,” said Smith, who isn’t Jewish. “I had put them on my website, just to let people know that I hadn’t disappeared because I had really left my life for a period of time, both my studio and my career and my teaching, and moved in with Mom. That’s what he was interested in.”
“The Art of Grief and What Follows” opened at OCJAC on May 3 and runs through June 1. In addition to Smith’s paintings, the exhibit includes her poetry, as well as an interactive element where viewers can write their thoughts or feelings and attach their notes to a cord strung up throughout the exhibit.
OCJAC will host several events throughout May in conjunction with the exhibit. These include an art and writing workshop led by Smith on May 19 from 2-4 p.m., and a closing reception and poetry reading on May 29 from 6-8 p.m.
Smith said she first saw her grief paintings as a “means for processing my grief and not as producing artwork. That’s how I saw them at the time,” Smith said. “Of course, my paintings are all about my own internal landscapes. I move very intuitively. All the paintings come from within me, but these were particularly raw. I had not seen them as something other people might be drawn towards, though of course, they do speak to feelings that so many people share of loss and sadness and how to cope with that.”
In 2015, Smith moved to Maine from Philadelphia to care for her mother. Six months later, her mother died, and Smith used painting and poetry as a means to process her grief.
“In her home afterward, I remember knowing that all I had to do was sit there and breathe,” Smith said. “The next thing I did was go buy art supplies and start to do these grief paintings, which are up in this exhibit right now. That was the immediate thing I did after my mom died, as an automatic response.”
As an abstract artist, Smith approaches paintings intuitively. The grief paintings have an aesthetic distinction from her other works — infinity symbols.
“What emerged as I started painting these grief paintings was the figure eight, the infinity symbol,” Smith said. “They’re over and over in these grief paintings. They drip, and they’re on top of each other, and they’re all different colors. That came about because my mother had always said to me, ‘When things get rough, make the infinity symbol to balance the energy.’”
After Smith and Wircberg selected the exhibit dates, Wircberg noticed something remarkable: The exhibit overlapped with the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death.
For Wircberg, who had only looked up Smith and visited her studio after a visitor to OCJAC mentioned her name, the overlap seemed particularly meaningful.
“It actually hit me very hard,” Wircberg said. “Like, whoa, how could it commemorate [my mother’s death] to the Philadelphia community and to the center. It just doesn’t make sense that somebody randomly walked in, I followed up, looked her up and then she went through an interesting process and she never really showed her full body of this work and what follows.”
Though Smith has had many exhibitions of her works, and has several pieces on permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, her “Art of Grief” paintings have been shown only once before — as part of Penn Medicine Hospice’s booth at the Chestnut Hill Fall for the Arts Festival. The OCJAC exhibit is the most comprehensive showing of these paintings yet.
As Smith continued to process her mother’s death, her works eventually transformed into pieces Smith describes as “very free, very abstract but they’re not as immediate.”
The exhibit includes these, which Wircberg said is an important message about how Judaism sees the mourning process as eventually ending.
The exhibit timing is also meaningful for its place in the Jewish calendar, Wircberg said, as the period between Passover and Lag b’Omer is a time of mourning.
For Wircberg and Smith, the loss of their mothers and these paintings serve as a way to connect them.
“They’re so many people hurting, and there’s no way to run from this type of grief,” Wircberg said. “One way or the other, unfortunately, it’s just a fact of life, and everybody has to grieve in one way through death or through other experiences. How do you process it? Here, at the art center, we’re going to explore that with a Jewish twist.”