Jacqueline Kott-Wolle

Artist Website: www.paintingsbyjacquelinekottwolle.com

About the Artist

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 developed 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.

Growing Up Jewish–Art & Storytelling, a series of 40 oil paintings, 2019-2021

Kot Textiles, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 24x36

My grandfather was the hero of my dad’s family during the Holocaust. In 1949, after ensuring their survival, Zeidi brought his family to Canada at the age of 50 where he quickly grew to understand that his My grandfather was the hero of my dad’s family during the Holocaust. In 1949, after ensuring their survival, Zeidi brought his family to Canada at the age of 50 where he quickly grew to understand that his best years were probably behind him and real opportunity was reserved for the next generation.  Nevertheless hard work was expected and Zeidi and his brother Usher got into the shmata (fabric) business.  They opened Kot Textiles on Queen Street.  It never took off.  Jewish success stories are often peppered with tales of shmata peddlers who turned their small operations into some of the biggest names in fashion today but this was not in the cards for Zeidi and Usher. I grew up visiting that store on weekends with my parents and sisters. I remember Zeidi reading the “Yiddish Forverts” (The Forward) and always having a brown paper bag full of chocolate bars from the corner store ‘fir de kinderlach’. Zeidi did not speak English well but I do remember the sense of importance I felt when he’d ‘test’ the quality of the fabric of my clothes by rubbing a swatch between his fingers and then give a nod of approval.  The store smelled like Pine-Sol, reams of material and cigarette smoke. I was certain that if he just had some good and colorful signage (which I’d hand draw) sales would go up.

My Parents’ Chuppah, 2020, Oil on Canvas, 16x20

I was lucky to grow up in a home with parents who were completely in love with each other.  Their romance was the stuff of fairy tales...sort of. Two young survivors of the Holocaust, my parents met in Montreal.

When my father was accepted to law school, they decided to get married and the plan was simple – they’d move to Toronto and my mother would work as a legal secretary to support my father as he completed his education.  My mother’s side of the family saw this as a hopeful and wonderful new chapter – the Holocaust and all the obstacles of adjusting to a new life in Canada were firmly behind them and they could look forward to a bright future. 

My father’s side of the family saw this marriage as the ‘end of hope’.  They were furious – so much so that Zeidi and Usher refused to attend their wedding.  Zeidi and Usher put all their hopes on my father’s achievements.  All the suffering during the Holocaust and the financial troubles they had in Canada would be worth it ONLY if my dad became a ‘success’ and graduated law school.  They were certain my mother would get pregnant immediately and my dad would drop out of school and shatter their dreams for his future.  Added to this anger was the audacity of their son getting married before his older sister, my aunt Sylvia.  Such was the mindset of my grandfather and his brother.  Somewhere in that stubbornness were good intentions. 

My father was undeterred.  He enlisted one of the seamstresses at the garment factory where he worked to copy a Dior gown for my mom; he rented a tuxedo and my parents had a humble wedding in my great Aunt Cecilia’s living room. Five days later they were hunting for apartments in Toronto just as classes were starting at Osgoode Hall Law School.  My parents made peace with Zeidi and Usher.  Their first priority was to find a husband for Sylvia (which they did – my mom introduced her to a cousin). My mom was able to support my dad throughout his education.  He graduated 4 years later without missing a beat. Both Usher and Zeidi loved my mother.  She cared for each of them in their final months when they came to live with us before they passed away.

Cheder (Hebrew School) at the DP Camp, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 16x20

At 15, this was my dad’s first real experience with education. In his memoir he explains that, in all, he had 2 years of formal education in his youth: He had completed the equivalent of first grade before the Holocaust (during which time he and his family fled to the forest to hide for 19 months). When the war ended and they were in Russia, my dad had to work to help the family stay afloat. It was only when his family arrived in the DP camp in Poland, that he finally had one year of education. My dad was 16 when he finished 7th grade in 1949. The war and post-war yearsin Europe had robbed him of his entire youth. He never had a bar mitzvah nor did he receive an education.

This painting is based off of a photo that I used to study as a child. When I was growing up, I had some understanding of the Holocaust but I couldn’t figure out why all those kids looked so ‘old’. There’s my father in the front row. He was so eager to learn and he told me that he loved that one year he had in school. (My report cards always said that I 'talked too much'. I think he would tell me this to inspire me to take my studies more seriously!).

As I painted the faces of these 14 and 15 year olds I couldn’t help but compare them to my own child who is 14 today. These children struck me as so haunted and profoundly exhausted. I wondered what they had witnessed and who they had lost. Who looked after them? Did they rebuild? How did life turn out for these children?

When my dad graduated law school and was called to the Bar in 1960 one of the senior lawyers at the firm where he articled remarked “it’s a long way from the forests of Poland to the halls of Osgoode Hall Law School”.

1950 Ladies Auxiliary Tea - United Jewish Welfare Fund, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 16x20

When my parents immigrated to Montreal after the Holocaust, they (like so many survivors) were absorbed by the established Jewish community.  I never really thought about the task of welcoming thousands of refugees, many (if not most) of whom arrived in Canada traumatized by the events of the second world war.   How did the established Jewish community prepare to help these people whose needs were so profound?  I have nothing but gratitude for the types of women, like those pictured here, who came together to fundraise, collect material donations, volunteer at clothing banks and provide scholarships to young refugees who couldn’t afford tuition for Jewish summer camps and schools. I am certain that in the early 1950’s, my family benefited from these efforts and generosity.

In many ways, however, Montreal’s Jewish community (like so many established Jewish communities in North America) was strained by the sudden influx of Jews from the ‘old country’. While united by a common code of religious practice and customs, these Jews couldn’t have been more different from each other.  It was nearly impossible for the survivors to talk about the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, and frankly, the established community was not all that interested in hearing about it (at least not back then). It was beyond overwhelming for both sides.  

Furthermore, the arrival of the refugees altered the landscape of the established Jewish community and thus brought a sense of insecurity for them: would the very presence of these immigrants threaten the equilibrium and tentative acceptance the ‘Canadian Jews’ had worked so hard to achieve, living quietly in suburbs alongside the larger Gentile Canadian community?

The Canadian Jews had their own history.  They were the descendants of parents and grandparents who fled the pogroms in Russia.  At the turn of the century, these people arrived on boats only to be greeted by a Canadian society that had restricted neighborhoods, hotels and beaches, quotas for higher education and outright disdain for the Jewish immigrants and their ways.  It took 50 years for the Jews in Canada to respond to this brand of anti-Semitism and build their own parallel institutions, like the Jewish General Hospital, social clubs, the YMHA and various Jewish Community Centers.  As these early Canadian Jews amassed wealth, many wanted to simply ‘fit in’- to look and act like their Gentile neighbors and deflect any negative attention.  The presence of the Holocaust survivors must have reminded them of their grandparents and the obstacles they overcame.  The Canadian Jews definitely cared about the well-being of the Holocaust survivors and took responsibility to help them. But they didn’t always want to socialize with or live in the same neighborhoods as the refugees.  Perhaps it was too painful, or it was snobbery, or maybe a little of both. 

Time is a funny thing though.  Within a generation, the children and grandchildren of the refugees and those of the ‘established’ Canadian Jews almost immediately became indistinguishable.  I know this firsthand. Most of my friends descended from the ‘established’ Canadian Jewish community. We freely and happily socialized in each other’s homes, we went to the same summer camps, high schools and universities, attended the same parties, dated each other, got married and built life-long friendships together. For better or for worse, this pattern repeated itself when the influx of Russian Jews arrived in Canada and the US in the early 1990’s.

Shoftim (Judges), 2019, Oil on Canvas, 22x28

My daughter was the first girl in the history of my family to read Torah at her Bat Mitzvah.  When my sisters came of age in the mid 1970’s, girls definitely did not celebrate Bat Mitzvahs at our Conservative congregation. When it was my turn in the early 1980’s, the synagogue had adopted a more egalitarian approach to this milestone.  My mother offered me the chance to have a Bat Mitzvah but I was too shy to read Torah in front of everybody and turned down the opportunity.  She didn’t fight me.  When my daughter came of age in 2015, I was filled with pride.  She prepared for her Torah reading (Shoftim) with discipline and a measure of seriousness I did not know she possessed.  I have ultra-Orthodox relatives who declined to attend this service because traditional Judaism has never recognized women in this capacity. I wasn’t angry that they didn’t come to this event.  I actually understand the reasons why.  When you alter something after centuries of practicing it a certain way there’s bound to be a backlash from the traditionalists who want to preserve the culture and rituals in their original form. There are lasting implications when you change the tradition. My daughter understands this tension too.  We did not take offense.  But my daughter is more knowledgeable in Judaism than I will ever be and I know she has the tools to continue shaping the American Jewish story.  I wonder what it will look like when she is my age.

The Four Questions on Jeanne Mance Street, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 18x24

My mother’s family lived in Montreal.  Growing up, we didn’t take many family vacations, so getting in the car and driving from Toronto to Montreal seemed pretty glamorous to me. We were five sisters stuffed into the back seat of the car - no seat belts and definitely no WiFi.  We just had Archie comic books and 8-tracks of Tchaikovsky to entertain us.  The greeting we received by my mother’s extended family upon our arrival was like walking the red carpet on Oscar Night.  My grandparents’ home was a duplex and we had to climb two flights of stairs to get to it.  I remember them standing at the top of those stairs bursting to see us.  Cousins, aunts and uncles were all waiting to greet and hug the Kott Sisters and my seriously attractive parents. As the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors there was something about our generation.  The older relatives regarded us as nothing short of a walking miracle on earth and to see us participate in our Jewish rituals (in the safety of Canada) was a victory for them after everything they’d been through.

Statement About Work

Growing Up Jewish–Art & Storytelling is a collection of 40 contemporary oil paintings and short narratives about Ashkenazic Jewish identity in North America.  Inspired by vintage family 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 Judaic art could look like.  

Some of the paintings and stories in the “Growing Up Jewish” series depict joyful accounts of the Judaism of my youth (including my experiences at Jewish summer camp, Purim carnivals or teen tours of Israel); others speak to my family’s history (including the acculturation process experienced by my parents and grandparents who arrived in Canada after the Holocaust). I look at my personal Jewish observances – the traditions I’ve kept, the ones I’ve ‘altered’ to better suit my family’s current needs and the ones I wrestle with. I explore the tension between tradition and change, especially in light of the trend toward rising assimilation.  Every seemingly simple Jewish moment I painted had a story.

Exploring themes of ‘Community & Volunteerism’, ‘Trauma, Immigration & Liminality’, ‘Synagogue & Life Cycle events’, ‘Education & Opportunity’, ‘Israel & the Diaspora’, ‘Holidays, Observances & Shabbat’, Growing Up Jewish – Art & Storytelling provides an honest observation and account of  how a religion and culture shifts through five generations of one family that was devastated by the events of the Holocaust, the started over in Canada and rebuilt themselves and found their place in North America’s vibrant Jewish communities.