At the start of this year the Sixth Grade began studying the work of Jewish artist and Holocaust survivor Wolf Kahn. Born in Germany in 1927, Kahn was the target of anti-semitic violence, specifically for his unwillingness to join the Hitlerjugend. In the summer of 1938 when a Nazi decree banned Jewish children from taking summer holidays outside the city, Kahn and his family were confined to the hot city; thus began his preoccupation with nature and outdoor spaces. Kahn left Nazi Germany before the start of World War II, fleeing on a Kindertransport that undoubtedly saved his life.

After reuniting with his family in the United States, Kahn began his artistic career. Kahn struggled with his Jewish identity throughout his adulthood, but he often credited painting with reuniting him with his Jewish heritage, once telling an interviewer that it was through painting that, “I got all my yichus back!” Kahn did not try to create realist images of the American landscape, but rather wanted the viewer to experience the feelings of being surrounded by nature. Kahn used color, texture, and scale to create morning sunrises, spring afternoons, and summer sunsets. He was accepted into the National Academy of Design in 1980 for his contributions to the American arts and culture; as a refugee and naturalized citizen, Kahn felt an obligation to enrich American lives.

Wolf Kahn passed in 2020, leaving him one of the most widely celebrated landscape painters in contemporary American Art. As an art educator, I prioritize artists and works that I believe will resonate with students; teaching in day school provides an opportunity to discuss Jewish artists, not as an anomaly within the greater scope of art history, but rather as the norm. Kahn’s work is not about the pastoral beauty of the American landscape, but rather the struggle between a Jew and his yiddishkeit. Sixth grade is often a time of b’nai mitzvot, when many students examine their Jewish identity for the very first time; by discussing the works of Wolf Kahn, students have the chance to explore their own yiddishkeit through artmaking.

While pastels are a dry medium, they are applied in a manner similar to a wet medium – this is why pastel works are referred to as paintings and not drawings. We used traditional pastel techniques such as blending, feathering, and scumbling as well as non-traditional tools – like our fingers and credit cards! Students focused on the Elements of Art and Principles of Design including line, texture, color, and space. To give the viewer a sense of time (morning, afternoon, evening), students chose analogous color schemes found during specific periods of daylight. Analogous colors are those found next to one another in the color wheel.

Artists from left to right:  Eden Chaykin, Elior Ginsberg, Drying Outside