“Ispy… a sefer Torah!”
“I spy… a bumblebee!”
A grandmother sits at her table, Chai Spy open in front of her. Hundreds of miles away, her grandchildren squeeze onto the couch, poring over their copy of the book. Bubby scans the page about Shabbos. “I spy… a Havdalah box!” The grandchildren search the page frantically, until one squeals, “I found it! Now it’s my turn!” And so the game continues.
Chai Spy is not just a book, I find when I interview artist Ellen Filreis. It’s a bridge-builder. And it’s also the result of five years of searching — and finding.
Jewish Life in Miniature
Seven years ago, Ellen was asked to contribute a piece for an exhibition entitled Generation to Generation. An assemblage artist, she collected items that were connected to a Jewish home and put them together in a charming and quirky collage. The feedback was quick in coming: “Every time I look at your piece, I see something I didn’t notice before!” people told her.
“When enough people said those words, the penny dropped,” Ellen says. “I realized that there was a gap in the Jewish market.” While “I Spy” books are hugely popular with kids, who can spend hours poring over the pages, there was no Jewish “I Spy” book. Ellen got to work.
Together with her daughter Ayelet, Ellen selected 18 themes connected to Jewish life — each of which would be the subject of a different collage. Ayelet began the writing process, and Ellen began the hunt.
The Search Is On
In Chai Spy, the pictures are not simply a montage of photoshopped images. Rather, each page is made up of a canvas that has been carefully filled with a plethora of teeny tiny items. Where do these come from? “Well, as an assemblage artist, my studio overflows with little stuff. The objects I used in the book came from all kinds of places. Craft stores have dollhouse miniatures, which were useful. A woman in the Midwest sells Jewish-themed charms, which were great for Havdalah boxes and other silver items that I used for the Shabbos and shul pages. I found a woman in England who sold tiny items, and of course, I searched the Internet and found some objects in China and Singapore.”
While Ellen was searching for items, Ayelet was playing with rhymes and verse. “Each poem was a lot of writing, going through lists and lists of words, looking at the pages, rewriting, reconfiguring rhymes… There were some I just didn’t like and kept coming back to work on over and over again.”
Ayelet was then working as a dorm counselor in a Bais Yaakov, and it was a struggle to find the time to sit quietly and focus on her writing. “My mother jokingly told me that I couldn’t get married until I finished writing all the poems. I guess it wasn’t such a joke — I got married about three weeks after I wrote the last poem!”
Ellen’s work was also challenging, but she was propelled forward by her experiences using art with memory care patients. Ellen has always been interested in art therapy, but when she went to university in the late 70’s and early 80’s, she was encouraged to go into a field that was more “solid.” Ellen got a degree in finance, but never stopped cultivating her interest in art.
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 600)