by Currie Alexander Powers

Nashville artists Kaaren Hirschowitz Engel and Reesha Leone joined forces recently to bend the borders of traditional sacred spaces and create an exhibit that explores the spirituality of nature. The divine is the common thread with Engel and Leone, as well as Betsy Chalal and the late David Manas, whose work will be part of their Sacred Spaces, Landscape and Letter show at the Gordon Jewish Community Center March 1–31. All four share a love of the Hebrew language, and there are elements of Judaica in their work. Engel and Leone are “building” the installation, a creative set-design for their work, with found objects of moss, tree limbs, and vines, a “sacred space” that will weave with the two- and three-dimensional works. 

Engel, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, was a lawyer until 1999 when the creative muse beckoned and she began her career as an artist. Engel’s new series, Above, Below, and In Between: Exploring the Divine, was inspired by a five-year exploration of the edges of her spirituality and her art by incorporating Hebrew prayers into her paintings. “Many of these prayers relate to the beauty and wonders of nature,” Engel says.

“In Judaism, prayers are said for many things . . . seeing a rainbow, hearing thunder, tasting fruit from a tree.” 

Leone, a native of New York and a resident of Nashville for the past twenty-five years, studied art at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film and took a year to “deprogram from art theory” during which she documented the paintings of David Manas using digital photography.


“My idea of sacred space is anything that removes one from the ordinary realm,” Leone says. “Artists create altars where the world slows down and a transcendent experience is invited.”

Her abstract landscapes started with “doodles” on a primitive paint computer program. She photographed the images off the computer, dropped them into a more sophisticated graphics program, and began manipulating them to appear as if they were sewn. With her new series for the upcoming gallery show, she will further manipulate the images into mixed-media works, adding real threads and collage elements, allowing the work to go through several technological “incarnations,” which Leone sees as a metaphor for the life/death/rebirth cycle. 

Chalal has a fascination with the number 22, which is also the number of letters that are in the Hebrew alphabet. Her paintings incorporate the sacred Hebrew letters in a style reminiscent of Miro or Escher. They are graphic yet fluid with pastel colors and warm blurred edges, abstract symbols inserted in the spaces above and beneath the letters. She blends watercolor, pencil, and marker, then achieves texture by scraping it away and blending more layers to give depth. 

Manas is the only artist of the four whose work is not abstract. His landscapes of forests and horses are straightforward and yet convey a deep love of nature. Manas possessed a strong Jewish identity, loved to travel, and was humble and witty. That wit, grace, and humility are evident in his work.

“We are all woven together, in one way or another,” Engel says. The Sacred Spaces gallery show should be an inspiring example of both the collaboration between like-minded artists and the weaving of viewer to creation.    

Sacred Spaces, Landscape and Letter will be showing at the Gordon Jewish Community Center March 1 to March 31. For more information visit  


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