Jacqueline Kott-Wolle (b.1969) lives in Highland Park, IL, where she paints full time. In 2005, after moving to Chicago from Toronto with her family, Jacqueline fulfilled a long-time goal of developing her painting skills by studying at The Art Center Highland Park. Using a fresh palette of color, Kott-Wolle currently paints in oils and focuses on capturing precious moments with her family and friends. Her most recent project, entitled “Growing Up Jewish—Art and Storytelling,” is a series of 40 contemporary oil paintings and personal narratives exploring her North American brand of Jewish identity and how it evolved through five generations of her family.
Jacqueline’s work has been exhibited in both group and solo exhibitions and her paintings are in private collections throughout the United States, Canada, South Africa and Israel. Jacqueline has lectured about her exhibit for numerous organizations, including the Museum of Jewish Heritage NYC, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre, Momentum, the Ontario Jewish Archives and the Virtual JCC, among others. Her work has been featured in various publications, including the Art Canada Institute, The Artdex and New American Paintings, Issue 161.
“Growing Up Jewish–Art & Storytelling” is a series of contemporary artworks and short narratives about Jewish identity as it evolved through five generations of my family. Inspired by vintage photos, I created this series to look at the people, experiences and community that shaped my Jewish identity—to tell my family’s Jewish story and perhaps shine a fresh new light on what North American Judaic art could look like. Some pieces in the “Growing Up Jewish” series depict joyful accounts of the Judaism of my youth, including memories of Jewish summer camp, Purim carnivals or singing around Passover tables; other pieces speak to my family’s history, including the acculturation process experienced by my parents and grandparents, who arrived in Canada after the devastation of the Holocaust and rebuilt their lives with complicated feelings of anguish and optimism. I examine my personal Jewish observances—the traditions I’ve kept, the ones I’ve “adjusted” to better suit my family’s current needs and the ones I wrestle with. Every seemingly simple Jewish moment I painted had a story.
What initially compelled you to pursue art?
I have always been able to paint and draw. In fact, every single report card that I received from Owen Public School in Toronto, where I grew up, said the same thing year after year: “Jackie talks too much and she’s good at art.” It never occurred to me to go to art school when I was applying to college, even though my mother, Irene Kott, is a professional (and noted) Canadian artist. My educational background is actually in social work. I have an MSW with a specialization in community development and social planning. After graduation I spent many years working in Jewish communal service before moving with my husband and kids to the U.S. I served as the Executive Director of MAZON Canada, the Jewish Response to Hunger, and before that I worked at Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada. Even then, I never missed an opportunity to bring visual artwork into my practice. I was honored to curate an art show featuring the work of Jewish artists who came to Canada as immigrants. I believed it was important to highlight the contributions immigrants make to enrich our society, especially in the arts.
Who or what in your life influences your practice the most?
Anyone who knows me knows that I am very identified with both my art and my Jewish community. Given these connections, I had often been asked why I never painted Jewish art. It was a good and logical question, but I was resistant. I always assumed Jewish art meant painting portraits of stern-faced rabbis of old or scenes from Jerusalem. What could I possibly create? I normally like to paint figures in bathing suits! I draw inspiration from vintage family photos taken in summer by pools and at the beach and then turn them into paintings. Judaism and art were two places where I felt very connected, but these were separate loves. Still, the question vexed me. I wanted to challenge myself to figure out how I could create Jewish art in a way that felt truly authentic to the Judaism I grew up with here in North America and the way I like to paint, using vintage family photos. And then one day back in 2019, I was at my parents’ house, going through their old photos mining for something cool to paint and I found a 1970s photo of my sisters and I at Jewish summer camp … and then I found a lovely 1960s image of a Passover seder at my grandparents’ house. I had a flash of inspiration. What if I paint these images? Once I started, I couldn’t stop!
What do you feel is the key concept that connects your works?
Since my work is all about five generations of Jewish life in one family and the chapters of both joy and sadness (and everything in between) that characterized our history, I had to figure out a way to unify this series. I did this by repeating certain patterns (notably red and white polka dots, which might appear as a dress pattern in one painting or as a background in another). I absolutely love fabric with bold patterns and bright colors. Perhaps incorporating these motifs in my paintings is a nod to my grandfather’s “shmata” (fabric) store, which he opened in 1949, when he arrived in Canada after surviving the Holocaust.
Tell us about a moment that ultimately made you look at your art and/or practice differently.
I often listen to Broadway show tunes when I paint, and I sing along when no one is home! One day I was alone on a winter afternoon, singing my heart out to the Hamilton soundtrack. I was painting a really cool image of my Uncle Usher smoking a cigarette. Usher died in 1972. He was a Holocaust survivor with no children or grandchildren. He just had us—his brother’s grandchildren. I was belting out “Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story?” and I froze in my tracks. I realized almost nobody really knew or remembered Usher’s story of how he survived the Holocaust. How he almost lost his life from a bicycle chain beating while protecting his brother; how he hid in the forest with my great-grandmother, my grandfather, my dad and aunt Sylvia for 19 months. That song made me realize that I wanted to tell Usher’s story, and my paintings could do that ... and the idea of creating the narratives to accompany the paintings really started to make sense.
What does your art give you that nothing else can?
As I created the “Growing Up Jewish—Art & Storytelling” series, I spent a lot of time reviewing the old black-and-white photos with my mother and we approached this task with a sense of mission: to record the family history before it was lost. As we combed through the old photos, my mom recounted memories of family members who are no longer alive and whose stories were never known or were completely forgotten. Some of these images were of relatives who lived with their own regrets and dreams never realized, while others triumphed against all odds, and you could sense the pride in their facial expressions and the twinkle in their eyes. In some faces I saw despair—their faces were haunted and hollowed out by the atrocities of war. These were relatives who could never overcome the horrors they endured, despite the cheery sundresses they wore and the bright surroundings of suburban Toronto backyards. Other relatives were innately gifted with a sense optimism, and in their eyes, I could sense victory and gratitude for Canada and all they had overcome. I wanted to capture all of these complicated emotions with my paintbrushes. Most importantly, the experience of creating these paintings and writing their accompanying stories enabled me to reach across time and space to memorialize and honor great-grandparents whose demise (at the hands of Nazis) was so very undignified. These were people who perished without graves, and I treated these paintings to serve as monuments, lovingly created by a great-grandchild who never knew them but loved them all the same. Studying these photos, seeing their artistic compositions enabled me to experience the world as my father did (my dad used his Leica camera to capture our family history). Though he is no longer alive, I could see, just by studying the photos he took, how much my dad loved my mother. His lens was always pointed at her. And judging by how many Jewish moments he captured on film, I understood all that he valued.