Michelle Sider at work in her studio.
Michelle Sider at work in her studio.

Each of Michelle Sider’s pieces are 14 x 18 inches, and each takes about 100 hours to complete.

Michelle Sider has combined her love of artisanal glass and her interest in the Jews of Yemen to create a stunning collection of glass mosaic portraits. She calls it “painting with glass.”

Sider has completed four portraits in a collection, “I Am Yemenite,” that will eventually number 12. Each piece is 14 x 18 inches, and each takes about 100 hours to complete.

vI am Yemenite by Michelle SiderMichelle Sider

Sider was inspired by glass mosaics at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Originally a painter, she studied glass art locally and with artists in Boston, Costa Rica, Belgium and Israel. Her first glass mosaic effort was a triptych, nearly 4-feet-by-5-feet, of a modernized Queen Esther. 

Sider became interested in the Jews of Yemen when her oldest son Joshua, 26, who lives in Israel, got engaged to a woman of Yemenite heritage. “I started learning about their history and I was hooked!” she said.

I am Yemenite by Michelle Sider
Michelle Sider

She listened to her future daughter-in-law’s family stories and examined their old photos. She used some pieces of her daughter-in-law’s mother’s jewelry as models for jewelry in her portraits.

Sider has read numerous books about Yemenite Jews, from scholarly tomes to reports from explorers, including one published in 1792. She turned to a translator to help her read a replica of a book of essays in German, Von Den Juden Des Yemen, published in 1913. 

Sider, 60, grew up in Detroit and graduated from Birmingham Groves High School. At the University of Michigan, she majored in fine arts, joking that she did her “junior year abroad” at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. With a master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Detroit, she worked for many years as a counselor. She taught art for 41 years, offering private tuition and classes at Farber Hebrew Day School, Frankel Jewish Academy, the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center and various community centers. She gave up teaching four years ago to concentrate on her own art.

I am Yemenite by Michelle Sider
Michelle Sider

In 2017, Sider and Rabbi Joseph Krakoff published a book, Never Enough Time, to help people grieving the loss of a loved one, and a companion coloring book for children. 

Sider spends many hours working in her first-floor home studio.

“I must create,” she said. “It is the essence of my being. I am continually thinking about how I can translate my experience into art.” 

An entire closet at the entrance to her studio is filled with large sheets of glass in dozens of colors. Some are thick and opaque, resembling marble; others are extremely thin and nearly transparent. 

Sider gets her glass, all of it hand-made, from vendors all over the world. She particularly likes Italian smalti, a type of glass produced in just two places in Italy. 

“Italian smalti is created with a focus on brilliance, purity of color, quality and consistency,” she said. “The recipes for over 3,000 colors have been handed down for centuries, often kept within family groups. The production of the glass itself is considered an art form.”

She starts the process with drawings, which she uses as a guide to create an acrylic painting. Sometimes she uses her own hands as models, taking numerous selfies with her cellphone to get the right angle. She creates the mosaic by placing glass pieces atop the painting. 

I am Yemenite
Michelle Sider

Sider uses no grout in her portraits, so each piece of glass has to be cut precisely to match the pieces next to it. 

Scrupulous about detail, Sider points to the embroidered edge of a shirt in one of her portraits where there is a break in the “stitching.”  Yemenite Jews often intentionally included a tiny flaw in their work, whether a building or a garment, to show that nothing man-made could be perfect.

The mosaics have a fluid look, as the glass pieces reflect light differently at different times of the day. 

Sider hopes a museum will be interested in exhibiting the “I Am Yemenite” collection when it is complete.

Sider and her husband, Bill, an attorney, are members of Kehillat Etz Chaim in Oak Park. In addition to Joshua, they have 22-year-old twins, Ben and Eli, who live at home, and a Bernese-poodle mix named Juneau. When she’s not in her studio, Sider spends time in her garden, which has been certified as a butterfly habitat. 

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