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Translating voices to the page and canvas
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Translating voices to the page and canvas

In her books and art, Jennifer Moses draws on her time down south

Jennifer Anne Moses credits the devout Christians she met while living in Louisiana with inspiring her deepened involvement with Judaism.

“I didn’t share their beliefs,” said the Montclair artist and author, “but their faith and their kindness touched me really deeply.”

They and other people she met while living in Baton Rouge inspired the characters — most of them black and many of them dying — whom she brings to life in her latest novel in stories, Visiting Hours, published last August. They also populate her paintings, on display at Montclair State University’s George Segal Gallery from Jan. 13 to Feb. 9.

The characters in her novel are modeled on people she met while working for over a decade as a volunteer at an AIDS hospice in Baton Rouge. “I heard their voices. I could choose to ignore them, not to listen to them, but why would I?” she said. “They would have had to find someone else to give them expression.” The result is vividly real, and surprisingly uplifting.

The woman behind all this work is white, and grew up in Virginia in a secular, intellectual Jewish home. In a recent interview with NJ Jewish News, she discussed the experiences that have fueled her evolution.

Moses went to college in Boston and lived in New York City and Washington, DC. When her lawyer husband suggested moving to Baton Rouge in the mid-1990s, she was appalled. It seemed like a totally foreign land, she said, but it turned out to be fertile ground, creatively and spiritually. Moses had an adult bat mitzva celebration a few years ago, and is now an active member of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, the Conservative temple in Montclair, where they settled in 2008.

Finding a publisher for her new book proved tough, despite Moses’s success with two earlier volumes, Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou and Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom, and a track record of articles and short stories. But that material drew off her own experiences as a Jewish wife and mother of three; with the new book, she wanted to speak authentically for people far removed from her own life. She eventually found a publisher in Fomite, an independent publishing house in Vermont.

With her art, as with her writing, Moses describes herself more as a vehicle than an originator. She drew avidly as a child but she stopped in her teens, choosing to focus on writing. During those years in Louisiana, she began having what she calls “waking visions,” receiving clear, childlike images, often with lines of text — sometimes in Hebrew.

She produces her pictures now in her studio, housed in a converted garage behind her house. They bring to mind the works of Grandma Moses, but her modern namesake shrugs off the connection. “This is just what I ‘see,’” she said. The drive to capture the images just so, she added, “comes from my six-year-old self, from that joyful time before self-criticism and inhibition set in.”

In addition to the MSU show, her paintings can be seen on an ongoing basis at Outsider Art Gallery in Frenchtown. Among other places, they have been shown at various venues in Louisiana, the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina; the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC; and, in Montclair, at Shomrei Emunah, the Montclair Art Museum, and other venues. Prints of her work, including her Torah images, are available for purchase at 73See Gallery in Montclair.

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