Forging new Judaic designs by repurposing the past

Frann Addison describes herself as a scavenger. 

Since she took her first steps, the American-based Judaica artist has been interested in creating. 

Growing up on the shores of New Jersey, the proximity to the ocean allowed Addison to scavenge for shells, beach glass, and driftwood. 

“I would take [beach items] home and make collages,” she told me in an interview. “The kitchen table was my workplace of choice. I would pick up rusty, broken things. My bedroom was always cluttered with different materials for an art project.” 

In junior high, she started making some jewelry with “twisted wire and beads” and would take the work around her school to show teachers. 

“I ended up making some sales that way and I thought, this is kind of neat because I love the creative but also the selling aspect and connecting with other people.” 

But her artistic career did not begin with Judaica, in what would later make her a unique artist in the field due to the unconventional materials seen in her works today. 
In 1975, Addison graduated with a BA in Art History at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. But after working for a year in jewelry design, she wanted to focus more on her own craftsmanship. So she decided to take on an MA in Metalsmithing at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. 

Honeydish for the New Year. (Courtesy of Frann Addison)

While in graduate school, Addison came across an article in a goldsmithing journal written by Bernard Bernstein, who felt there was a need for contemporary design in Judaica. 

According to Addison, until that point, most Judaic designs were reproductions of old pieces, often favouring a more ornate style over a sleek and clean look. 

The young artist was captivated with the idea and decided to focus her thesis on the history of Jewish ceremonial objects for the home. By tracing pieces from country to country, she learned of their evolution in style and the Christian influence often seen in the works. 

During this time she created a kiddush cup, a havdalah spice box, and a mezuzah in silver. 
At the thesis showcase, a Rabbi happened to come to see everyone’s work and was attracted to  Addison’s right away. She made her first sale from the pieces and thought “a living could be made from this.” 

Addison is not religious by any means—at the time she didn’t even know what havdalah was—but through her research she learned more about Judaism, forging a strong relationship with the Jewish traditions and her new medium of artistic expression. 
So in 1979 she graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art and created a studio to make Judaica. 

While finding success from her work, after ten years of producing Judaica, she took a fifteen year hiatus to raise her children and to take a break from the constant production of the religious metalworks. 

But once Addison’s children were grown, she found herself missing the craftsmanship and creative process of making Judaica. However, for this next chapter in her career she wanted to only produce one-of-a-kind, limited-edition pieces and return to her “scavenger roots” that so deeply resonated from her childhood. 

Addison’s ability to repurpose unusual objects is central to her current artistic process and Judaic work. 

“Now I go to flea markets and antique shops to look for interesting elements to combine into my work,” she said. “I use vintage salt makers for the stem of shabbat candlesticks, or use antique clock gears to make dreidels. Most importantly the piece is always new, always creative.” 

By working this way, Addison sees potential in what other people might see as trash. One of her favourite works is a kiddush cup that uses a crystal gavel as it’s stem. 

“TIME to Give” Tzedakah Box. (Courtesy of Frann Addison)

The piece holds special meanings and memories, as the gavel comes from her late father who was a criminal court judge for over 40 years. By extension, her pieces not only incorporate unusual objects, but sentimental ones too, drawing on memory and the past to bring added meaning to these new metalworks. 

Another noticeable design is the honey dish for Rosh Hashanah. The glass dish was found in an antique shop and Addison made the spoon from flat sheet metal. The border is done by hand-sawing each letter—none of them are stamped out. 

And then there’s the Time To Give tzedakah box, which uses clock gears as the opening for people to put in the money—it’s one of Addison’s favourites. The box came into being after she was tasked with creating donor appreciation gifts for the Jewish Federation of New York. The man who was being honoured collected antique clocks and thus the idea was born. 

Dreidel in colorful enamel cloisonné. (Courtesy of Frann Addison)

Oftentimes, the sources of inspiration for her pieces are created from what is found in the market while thrifting. For the seder plate, the US-based artist saw a huge slab of jade and simply thought “seder plate.” 

For now, Addison wants to keep creating these limited edition pieces, as she scavenges for more objects that provide meaning in her artwork, but importantly strengthen her Jewish identity, which she has become “proud of” overtime. 

“I have a deep feeling in my heart about Judaism,” she reflected, and it’s this connection that feeds each handcrafted piece. 

Frann Addison’s work has been shown at the Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, PA, and Oregon Jewish Museum in Portland, OR. She is a recipient of the Niche Award for Fine Craft. 

Feature image courtesy of Frann Addison. 

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