Federation adviser Bob Aronson reveals a soul-feeding passion in a new exhibit.
Robert Aronson regularly travels to Israel and other faraway destinations with distinctive Jewish cultural and historical significance. But when it comes to pictures for remembrance and personal expression, he prefers an alternative to smartphone photos.
Aronson, longtime CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and now chief development adviser for the Federation, draws what he sees in those distant places as the starting points of images that become artistic projects reflecting his creative perspective.
When Aronson returns to Michigan, he goes into an equipment-filled art studio at Wayne State University and uses the renderings as templates for serigraphs, lithographs, collagraphs, monotypes and intaglio prints.
The techniques are not new to him. There are thousands of finished images completed over many years and stored in his home.
Although Aronson’s work has been displayed alongside works of other artists specializing in prints, he has not had a one-person exhibit until now. “Landscape as Portrait” will present a 50-year retrospective of his projects. It runs Aug. 25-31 at the Galerie Camille in Midtown Detroit.
“It feels like I’ve come to an important point in my life,” says Aronson, who will be displaying some 60 images as curated by Mary Rousseaux, a local artist, college instructor, his mentor and the one who encouraged the independent initiative. “I always wanted to do the art I wanted to do, which is an artistic diary of my life. It’s based on the people I know as well as the places I’ve been.
“I asked Mary to be the curator and select the pieces without my involvement because I wanted an outside eye to determine which pieces should be included. I also asked her to organize and catalog my work. It’s taken close to four months to organize it by subject and year.”
Born in Milwaukee, Aronson thought about art as a primary career after winning a Scholastic magazine scholarship when he was in high school. While the scholarship resulted in a bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he soon learned, as so many young artists do, the earning limitations in the field, but he refused to let go of his creativity.
His artistry continued outside of professional hours devoted to building a Jewish community for the future. After starting with an entry-level job as a clerk-typist for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, he established a strong career as a fundraiser and has taken that role in innovative directions for 42 years. He also teaches a University of Michigan course in Jewish philanthropy, the only course of its kind in the country.
“I never lost my desire or need to be an artist,” he says. “It went hand-in-hand with my fundraising work. Most of my artwork, except for occasional human figures, involves imaginary landscapes with human elements in many of them. I look at landscapes as living things.”
Aronson believes that his completed projects can be distinguished by markings that go in similar directions. Most etchings take four or five months to complete with many different techniques applied to the plates.
“Much of the work from the time I was a little kid is about the Holocaust,” he says. “The other major images that repeat have to do with Israel as based primarily on the many, many times I’ve been there as well as time spent on a kibbutz.”
Although a large part of the Aronson collection is in black and white tones, there are color images as well. A series of three color etchings reflects sites experienced on a trip to Kiev, where respect was paid to the people killed by the Nazis at the Babi Yar ravine.
One image is of the Babi Yar statue based on a poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Another brings into view defaced Jewish graves, and the third shows a village street with paving stones made of Jewish gravestones.
“All three speak to my sense of Judaism and art,” Aronson says.
Aronson’s sense of art crystallized when he was an eighth-grader in Milwaukee. A drawing of a downtown building, completed with Cray-Pas oil pastels, got accepted into a show with an awards lunch serving up macaroni and cheese at the Stouffer’s Building, where he was given a Civil War calendar.
“Since that day, I’ve been a huge Civil War student and an artist,” he explains. “I came from a family of five that never went out to restaurants so for me to go to lunch at what was the fanciest restaurant in Milwaukee blew me away. I buy Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese to this day.”
Art brings a sense of memory, accomplishment and spirituality to Aronson, who thinks of it as a lifetime journey, not a hobby.
As Aronson works in the Wayne State printmaking studio, he is grateful to the late Eugene Applebaum, a Metro Detroit community activist, for endowing the room in his honor. The Robert Aronson Intaglio Studio is defined by the honoree as unlike any opportunity he could have across the country.
“My parents taught me to have a vision of beauty in the world,” says Aronson, who will be donating all proceeds from the sale of work to the Schyck Aronson Fund for Recovery at the United Jewish Foundation.
“My parents felt the world was a beautiful place and that had to be expressed. That’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s why I dedicated the show to them and Eugene Applebaum.”
When the room was dedicated to Aronson in 2012, he told the crowd: “I’ve tried to accomplish three things in my life. One is to be a good son and a good role model for my children. One has been to serve my community with all my strength, and the third aspiration I’ve had, believe it or not, is to be a Michigan printmaker. And that is not so easy, but it is something that I love. It feeds my soul. We all need something like that in our lives, and that’s why this little corner of the world is such a special place.”
“Landscape As Portrait” runs Aug. 25-31 at the Galerie Camille in Midtown Detroit. No admission fee. (313) 974-6737; galeriecamille.com.