Love of Judaism inspires one-of-a-kind artworks

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Artist, Carole Smollen

Carole Smollan, who hails from South Africa and now lives in London, works with a plethora of materials to create unique artworks, ranging from ceramics to personalised chuppot, challah covers and Torah mantles.

Since the age of 19, Carole has largely created from her studio and is internationally acclaimed for her work. While still in South Africa, she was commissioned to produce pieces for individuals such as Nelson Mandela, F.W. De Klerk and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.  

“For 30 years I exhibited my ceramics all over the world in museums and galleries. My main production was large murals in public buildings. The one I’m most proud of is the ceramic diptych in the Constitutional Court formulated in Mandela’s time as leader.” 

Once she emigrated, her career in Britain was sparked when the Board of Deputies of British Jews commissioned her to create a chuppah for a travelling exhibition. Since then, Carole has designed hundreds of personalised chuppot for weddings all over the world.

Cape Town is no stranger to Carole’s work. In fact, she donated the last of her large Torah mantles to Beit Midrash Morasha after the 2018 fire. 

Some of Carole’s most dazzling pieces, those of her miniature Torah mantles, were inspired by a meaningful trip to Vilnius in 2001. 

She explains, “I was invited to make a mural for the Tolerance Centre [in Vilnius] and after that I took a guide and a car and went through all my family’s shtetels, and finally stood in my great-grandfather’s house which was the most amazing experience. In Tallinn I saw a miniature Torah mantle, and I just fell in love with the idea of having your own Torah, so that’s how the miniature Torah mantles grew”. 

Carole went on to create 150 miniature Torah mantles which were exhibited in Yeshiva University Museum in New York. The artist continues to complete mantle commissions, which are often ordered for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, bar and batmitzvahs and other special occasions. Carole turns each of these mantles into a future heirloom by embellishing them with names and personal details such as an ancestors’ travel documents. 35 of her mantles are set to be permanently housed in the Lost Shtetl Museum in Seduva, which opens next year. This is immensely special for Carole, as this signifies her family’s return to Seduva — the shtetl where her ancestors once lived. Even more auspicious is that one of these mantles is adorned with her grandmother Nurek’s travel documents — after 120 years, Nurek will ‘return’ to Seduva. 

The pandemic has changed the way that Carole works but it certainly has not slowed the demand for her work. For example, her most recent Torah mantle commission involved Darth Vader and was requested for a bar mitzvah in Turkey. On working during COVID-19, Carole says, “It’s affected me because I’m home and I don’t go to the shops so I have rediscovered all the things in my cupboards and drawers and actually used a lot of treasure that I’d forgotten I had. Beautiful laces and pieces that I’d forgotten about because I work very fast, and so I don’t take a lot of time to prepare. This way, I’ve had a lot of time. It’s actually been a revelation for me”. Currently, Carole is working on a set of panels as part of a fundraiser for the Royal Free Hospital.

For this textile artist, her pieces are how she connects with her religion, especially as a South African Jew with Lithuanian roots. She explains, “Much later in life I began to learn about Maimonides and learn about the stories and learn the background to Judaism, and I just found it all so fascinating. There were so many images that came up when I read and learnt these stories, so that’s been my inspiration. I’m not outwardly deeply religious in terms of my practice but I do love Judaism, so this is my way of making hiddur mitzvah (showing the beautification of the mitzvot)”. 

This prolific artist also dabbles in other ancient arts such as Chinese, Indian and Islamic artforms. She has, for example, created a chuppah for the Hong Kong synagogue containing Chinese and Hebrew scripture, and has been commissioned to create a 340-piece artwork for a Muslim art gallery, which took her two years to complete.

Carole is a member of the American Guild of Judaic Art and is set to feature in a book titled, Post-war Judaic Art by Jim Cohen. 

She hopes to exhibit in South Africa one day. 

For more information, watch her YouTube video: Ritual Textiles of the 21st Century.

Torah mantle picturing Shlomo Ben Zalkind and Gittel Levinthal, the artist’s grandparents, who left Zhagare, Lithuania in 1895 for the Cape of Good Hope
Rabbi Sam Thurgood from Beit Midrash Morasha in Arthur’s Road, with a Torah in the mantle created by Carole Smollen

By Jaime Uranovsky

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