Gary Rosenthal Interview


Gary Rosenthal of the Gary Rosenthal Collection

Gary Rosenthal's work is truly incredible! Not only is he an inspired artist, but he is a person who cares deeply about others and making a difference in the world. Although Gary Rosenthal is best known for creating one of the most popular lines of Judaica in the country for almost 30 years, many are not aware that he is the CEO of Art as a Catalyst, which empowers special needs groups through training and employment. In fact, Gary's beautiful new line, the Woven Collection, is woven in his studio by two autistic workers.

In January 2009, The Gary Rosenthal Collection introduced a new line of Judaica, the Woven Collection. Gary's unique woven pieces are enhanced by the story of those who created them. Two autistic employees on staff at the Gary Rosenthal Collection contribute on a daily basis to the studio's fine artwork. One of them, Tim, enjoys the task of weaving copper strips into a mesh that other artists can fabricate into this wonderful mezuzah. He loves the precise operation of weaving, a skill at which he excels, and is very proud of the finished product. The Gary Rosenthal Collection is pleased to be a company that combines business, art, and social responsibility.

I first interviewed Gary Rosenthal in June 2007 and I am so happy to have interviewed him again in September 2009. It is my pleasure to introduce to you a wonderful man and artist, Gary Rosenthal...

The interview below is from September 2009:

Risa Borsykowsky (RB): You introduced several new woven items in January 2009 which are made by two of your autistic employees, and you have just added more items to the line because of their popularity. The woven pieces are beautiful! Where did you get the idea from?

Gary Rosenthal (GR): I was on a vacation in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and I saw a pair of mesh earrings that I bought for my wife. I liked the mesh/woven appearance and when I got home I had the goal of using woven copper in my work.

RB: How many autistic employees are on your staff? What are their names?

GR: Right now, Tim and John are regular employees. Tim has been with me for 6 years and John 8 years.

RB: Did you know them prior to employing them?

GR:. I work with an organization called CSAAC of Maryland, which places special needs employees throughout Montgomery County, MD.

RB: What gave you the idea of employing people with autism to help weave the items?

GR: I like to say that all of my staff/associates do what they do better than I would do. Nowhere is this clearer than with my autistic associates. Everyone is different, but John and Tim love to work on repetitive tasks where precision is critical. Weaving is a favorite task and the more the better. After the mezuzahs were so successful, I was determined to create more woven items so that eventually I could hire another autistic staffer for just that collection. That is still my hope.

RB: Prior the woven collection, do you have a connection or a prior experience of working with and wanting to help autistic people?

GR: Working with special employees has been a goal of mine since college. I was an industrial and labor relations major at Cornell. My first effort to combine art with employment was in 1977 when I tried to develop papermaking into a gift card operation with special needs staff. It did not work out at the time, but my hope was always to bring people into the business using art as a catalyst for empowerment.

RB: Have you learned anything new about autism since working on the new line?

GR: I learn something new about all of my staff just about every week. Keep learning!

RB: How many years are you now in business?

GR: I have been sculpting since I took a year off college in 1974.

RB: I sold one of your pieces a few weeks ago as a gift to Itzhak Perlman’s daughter. Then I read on your blog that Henry Winkler received an award that you created. Any other new notable/famous people who own one of your pieces?

GR: I actually have a thank-you note from Itzhak Perlman for a gift he received of mine many years ago. I don't do a good job of keeping track of folks who receive my work but will make a better effort in the future. Stay tuned!

RB: Where do you get your inspiration?

GR: Inspiration comes from living and thinking.

RB: You have an interesting new tzedekah box that hangs on the wall. It’s so unusual to have a tzedekah box on the wall - what gave you the idea for this?

GR: I was asked to create a tzedekah box that would be attached to the home so that "tzedekah could become part of the home." I liked the idea.

RB: Please tell me more about the Kristolnacht project. Is this still in the planning phase or is it coming together?

GR: The Kristolnacht project is in the planning stage. I am writing a proposal right now. This will probably be the largest and most significant project of my career. Stay tuned.

[Note from Risa: Gary elaborates more on The Kristolnacht projec on his blog as follows: "In remembrance of "The Night of Broken Glass," we hope to create a memorial wall in honor of the millions who lost their lives during the Holocaust. In the same way as the Hiddur Mitzvah Project, people all over the country, and perhaps the world, will design one foot square glass tiles, some with a white border and some with black. These will then be fused solid and put together into one wall, symbolically putting back together the shards of that broken time. The black represents the evil of the past and the white represents the good hope of the future. There is always some good and always some bad as the design shows. The final wall will be displayed for all to see. If you are interested in getting involved with this historic project in any way, please contact us, or call Gary at 301.493.5577.]

The interview below is from June 2007:

RB: Were you always artistic?

GR: No. I started creating art when I dropped out of college as a junior. I worked for my dad who owned a used stove repair store, and my first experience with a torch was welding stove grates back together. I loved working with fire and became an artist with a torch.

RB: What is your education?

GR: A Bachelor of Science in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell and M.B.A.s. from the University of Virginia.

RB: How did you get started?

GR: It was a life choice. I did not want to get a job after college and art was a way for me to keep busy and eventually to earn a living.

RB: Which artists do you admire?

GR: Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso.

RB. What drew you to Judaica?

GR: I was at a JCC art show in Baltimore in the late 70s and a customer asked if I could make a menorah because there were no contemporary ones available. I made one and it sold right away and people asked for more, so I basically went where the market took me.

RB: Are you religious?

GR: Spiritual and Reform.

RB: Where is your family from?

GR: The Pale - you pick the country between Russia and Poland.

RB: Why do you like showing up at gift shows yourself?

GR: To meet the people and to talk about Judaica.

RB: Tell me more about the Hiddur Mitzvah Project and Art as Catalyst.

GR: I have spent most of the last five years turning my business into a community service machine based on art. For the Hiddur Mitzvah Project, we get people involved in craft activities with a social connection. Children in Minneapolis create Shabbat candlesticks and then we feed people in Argentina for Shabbat. Families in New Jersey make twin kiddush cups. One goes home and the second one is sent to Israel as a gift for an Ethiopian Bar Mitzvah.

Art as a Catalyst is outside the Jewish market but has the same concept of art to involve, raise awareness, and raise money for good works. We work with breast cancer patients or homeless women and empower them through art. A portion of our profit goes into several foundations we have set up to feed people or educate them or to fund other artists working with kids.

RB: How many people work for you, including designers, sales people, and support staff?

GR: Around 20.

RB: How involved are you in the design of new projects?

GR: Completely, in all new projects.

RB: Which are your most popular products?

GR: All of our work is popular but the best new piece is our vertical seder plate.

RB: What is the most unusual custom project that you created?

GR: A woman with declining eyesight had me make a torah pointer with a magnifying glass.

RB: Where do you like to travel? Do you travel to Israel?

GR: I went to Israel in August to be inspired.

RB: Which accomplishment has made you most proud?

GR: Having great kids.

RB: Do you express yourself artistically in other ways?

GR: Through my community service, which is based on creative social venture concepts.

RB: What do you do for fun?

GR: Think about work and how to it better.

RB: Who or what had the greatest influence on you as you developed as an artist, or did you always have your own style?

GR: I was self taught and books that I read with pictures, going to museums.

RB: What's your favorite part of being an artist/sculptor/designer?

GR: Not having a regular job.

RB:What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?

GR: Persist.

RB: How would you describe your creative process?

GR: I have an idea and then I collaborate with others and make prototypes until I see what I like.

RB: Where do you get your ideas?

GR: From life, in the shower, at a play, driving a car......

RB: Do you display your own work in your home?

GR: Very little.

RB: Have you met any of the famous people who own your artwork?

GR: President Clinton.

RB: Specifically, which items did you present to Jimmy Carter?

GR: He received a small sculpture that was placed in the White House Library Collection.

George H.W. Bush?

He received a mezuzah from a Houston Rabbi as part of a Holocaust remembrance ceremony.

Bill Clinton?

He received a menorah that he lit in the Roosevelt room for Hanukkah in 1998. It was presented by the kids from Temple Sinai.

Bette Midler and John Travolta?

They received a sculpture of jazz dancers, cast in bronze and mounted on marble presented by Dance Masters of America.

RB: Tell me more about meeting Bill Clinton.

GR: Last year, Bill Clinton presented three of my tzedakah boxes to outstanding democrat fundraisers at the J. Rockefeller mansion.

RB: I received your double helix Seder plate today for a customer and it is really magnificent!

GR: Glad to hear it. I am working on another special vertical seder plate for Women of Reform Judaism. It will have an extra dish at the top to hold an orange. They plan to have me at their biennial in San Diego this December to lead a Hiddur Mitzvah project for 600 women.

RB: Final question. What do you want people to remember you by when you are gone?

GR: My community service work and for the good deeds I have accomplished.

RB: Thanks so much, Gary. I really appreciate the time you have taken to answer these questions.

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