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‘Enhancing Sacred Space’

Stained glass memorializes artists’ family members

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – “Our approach in doing a sacred space is to enhance its sacredness,” says creative artist Nancy Katz. “In a residential facility, we want to enhance its sense of home. If we can be successful, then what can be better?”

Last spring, she and her husband, traditional craftsman Mark Liebowitz, enhanced the dual concepts of home and family in a spectacularly beautiful way at the Eisenberg Assisted Living in Worcester.

They designed and created four stained glass windows, a series of doves moving through the four seasons, and installed them in the transom openings overlooking the Eisenberg’s lobby.

florence katz

Florence Katz

Conceived as a memorial to Lester Katz and Steven Katz, Nancy’s late father and brother, the windows grace the facility where both of the artists’ mothers, Florence Katz and Evelyn Liebowitz, now live.

Lester Katz, who owned several IGA grocery stores, died in 2012 after a long illness. His son, Steven, a science teacher at Burncoat Middle School, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005, leaving his wife, Joey O’Connor-Katz and their son, Jordan.

Although the library at the middle school is named for her brother and trees were planted at the Jewish Community Center in his name, “we had never done anything as a family to memorialize him,” says Nancy Katz. “I don’t think that any of us were ready before now.”

For the Katz family, giving to and being part of the Jewish community was already part of the family ethos.

Eisenberg was an ideal place for a memorial.

Lester and Florence Katz moved to the Eisenberg several years ago when both of them were in good health. “Smart and practical,” his daughter says, he wanted his wife to be well cared for if something happened to him.

Almost three years ago, Mark’s mother, Evelyn Liebowitz also moved to the facility from New Jersey at the age of 91.

“If my father was smart, Evelyn was brave,” says Nancy Katz.

“It was with real confidence that I encouraged her” to come here, she says. “This is my home, these are my people, they’re good people, it’s a good community. When we talk about the Eisenberg, we talk about the fact that it’s a community institution.”

She recalls that the idea for the memorial installation came from her mother.

“She’s committed to the cause and invested in the place, “says Katz. “She became bat mitzvah there four years ago. It made sense to honor her husband and son there– she wanted to do something. And she didn’t have to look far as to who could make this happen.”

Katz and Liebowitz were enthusiastic about creating “in this place we already love aesthetically but knew we had the capacity to enhance by adding glass,” she says.

They work together in Shelburne Falls, where their studio, Nancy Katz/Wilmark Studios, represents their merged artistic worlds.

A nationally recognized silk painter who spent much of her career in California, Nancy Katz has combined creating and teaching, working primarily in the Jewish community to “facilitate art making experiences for people of all ages and with groups of all sizes,” notes the studio website. Her work has been exhibited throughout the country and she has been an artist-in-residence at synagogues, community centers, and religious schools.

Eisenberg 2 (1)

Mark Liebowitz’s mother, Evelyn, a resident of Eisenberg Assisted Living, in front of the four stained glass panels overlooking the center’s lobby.

Mark Liebowitz has worked with renowned artists in the fabrication and installation of leaded and stained glass since 1975. Operating out of his studio in the New York area, he created more than 250 installations throughout the country and in Canada. His interest has primarily been in public installations, such as synagogues, churches, and public venues, including the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the National Art Club in New York City, the Rockland County Courthouse, as well as the Jewish Cadet Chapel at West Point.

The two artists met at a Union of Reform Judaism Biennial in Houston in November 2005, six months after Nancy had returned to Massachusetts from California to care for her parents in their later years.

Both artists were vendors at the Biennial, and although they had been attending the event for years, they had never before met.

“The rest is history,” she laughs.

They married in 2009 beneath the silk-painted chuppah that had, for years, hung on the wall of her Berkeley studio and was part of her display when she did shows.

By then, they were already creating stained glass together. It was a departure from her textile work that nonetheless came at a time when arthritis had made silk appointing and silk stretching difficult for her.

Now, she says, “my focus is working with Mark, a real partner. It was beyond my imagination that I could continue the work in the Jewish community, transforming space, enhancing Jewish life, and have a partner to do that with.”

For his part, he is thrilled to fabricate what he calls “Nancy lines,” the designs that his wife draws.

Together, among other projects, they have designed and fabricated a 75-foot stained glass window that reflects the story of the Jewish people at Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. Stained glass windows representing the creation story using text by Clark University professor Everett Fox encircle an octagonal daily chapel at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, New Jersey.

Their process is a fascinating one, and one that the residents at Eisenberg found mesmerizing when the two artists presented their design and plans for the Katz memorial windows.

Nancy begins with small sketches, “maybe on the back of napkins,” says Mark, sketches that evolve into “a more precise design in scale” according to the specific dimensions of the area where the windows are to be installed.

They then choose the type and color of the different types of glass that will be used. In this case, the windows include a variety of clear, textured glass.

“The backgrounds are hand-blown glasses in different colors but the same opacities,” he says.

He begins fabrication by tracing her drawings onto pattern paper and then cutting out glass to fit the patterns.

Although he usually works with a crew to do the fabrication, “Here it felt very important to me that mine were the only hands putting this together,” Liebowitz says.

Their personal connection and proximity to the Eisenberg meant that the artists were able to involve the residents throughout the process.

“Most of the synagogues we work on are in the New York area,” says Liebowitz. “We go down, measure, meet with committees, then come back and fabricate, then go back to install. Here we were able to try out samples to decide what kind of glass to use. We showed up with ladders and the residents would say, ‘what’s going on?’ They were engaged that way.”

To make sure they were even more connected, Liebowitz gave a presentation about the project to about 60 residents last October. He and Katz had long been considering such a program, given the unique nature of their work and the likely interest.

“And no one fell asleep!” he laughs.

On the contrary, the residents were enthralled, asking many questions about technique and the specifics of the process.

Katz also admits to an ulterior motive, given the amount of time she spends at the Eisenberg, particularly when her father was ill.

“People didn’t think I worked,” she says. “The presentation allowed us to say, ‘This is what we do. We’re committed to our moms, but we work for a living.’”

It also gave the artists an opportunity to create another memorial at the facility.

Resident Lillian Goff, “someone I’ve known most of my life,” says Katz, came up to them after the presentation to ask if they could do windows in memory of her recently departed husband, Joe.

The resulting installation features a tree that combines the Goff’s’ separate families of origin along with lovebirds.

“We loved Joe,” says Katz. “It was so special to be able to do that for her. Clearly this is a community that has experienced so much loss. Now their communal home has something they’re invested in.”

The installation of the Katz windows was completed in January, on Florence Katz’s birthday, and a formal dedication took place on Lester’s birthday in May.

Family, friends and residents gathered together for a party that was “a combination simcha and memorial,” says Katz.

The installation continues to be significant for the Katz family, the residents and, especially, for the artists themselves.

“To be able to do that in memory of my brother and father in this home, where my mother and my mother-in-law now live was so important,” says Nancy Katz. “For us to be able to do something to create a sense of home – it was so meaningful for us on this level.”

CAP: A close-up of one of the stained glass panels created by Nancy Katz and Mark Liebowitz for Eisenberg Assisted Living.

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