Once, when asked by an interviewer about what he believed to be his greatest gift, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel replied, “My ability to be surprised.”
The late rabbi, a leading 20th-century theologian and philosopher, would no doubt be surprised to see his larger-than-life portrait made out of found materials — in this case, recycled soda cans — hanging in the lobby of the Manhattan high school that bears his name.
Amy Cohen, Edy Rauch Memorial Artist-in-Residence at the Heschel High School, designed and spearheaded the effort, in which students, faculty, staff, security guards and administrators hammered pieces of metal to create a surprisingly realistic image.
Cohen explains that after consulting scholars and hearing Susannah Heschel speak about her late father, she was convinced that Heschel not only had a sense of humor, but that he believed in recycling and saving the environment. Those passions were shared by the late Edy Rauch, a beloved professor of education at JTS and a founding member of the Heschel board of directors.
She compares her process to making a mosaic or stained glass window, or the painting style of pointillism, where small stones, glass or points of color are used rather than brushstrokes of paint. Her label is “contemporary indigenous art — using recycled materials and traditional methodology.
For this portrait, the artist’s palette was shards of different colored soda cans — Dr. Brown’s cream soda for his skin, Starbuck’s espresso for his brown eyes, Red Bull blue for the background, a color Cohen describes as “achingly beautiful — you can’t find a blue like that in Windsor Newton paints.”
One of the challenges for Cohen, an award-winning visual artist and creativity specialist, was finding enough white on cans for his thick beard and tousled hair. She cut up logos of Dr. Brown cans, which include images from New York City landmarks, so at close range viewers can see the Brooklyn Bridge and kosher-for-Passover markings in his beard.
Fond of puns, Cohen drew Heschel’s hands in an emphatic position, as if to say, “Yes, I can.”
In the light, the portrait sparkles, each metal scrap reflecting the light. The portrait even captures the twinkle in his eyes. “Heschel illuminated our lives,” Cohen says.