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Art on Location


Student and professor painting

Antioch Assistant Professor of Visual Arts Sara Black (left) and Jessica Potempa from Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, work on the Ziggurat section of the synagogue ceiling replication project.

Six first-year Antioch College students this summer traveled to Sejny, Poland, as part of a new visual art course called Art on Location.

They worked with students, artists, architects, and historians from around the world to build an 85 percent scale replica of the timber frame roof structure and vaulted painted ceiling of the historic Gwoździec synagogue, one of more than 200 wooden synagogues in Poland that were destroyed during World War II.

The synagogue’s reconstruction represents a unique hands-on approach to understanding history.

Committed to using tools, techniques, and materials that were available when the synagogue was built centuries ago, an international team of students and professionals has been working tirelessly to carry out a reconstruction that will represent a unique hands-on approach to understanding history. The final stage of the project will be re-assembling the roof and ceiling panels inside Warsaw’s forthcoming Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Sara Black, assistant professor of visual art, collaborated with Boston-based Handshouse Studios to provide Antioch students with this embedded education opportunity. Handshouse Studios is operated by Rick and Laura Brown, both teachers at Massachusetts College of Art. The couple attended an Antioch College Community Meeting in February to discuss the project with staff and students.

“The replication project has been a focus of Handshouse Studios for nearly eight years,” Black said, “though the 85 percent scale replica began production last summer in Sanok, Poland with the building of the timber frame roof structure by an international group of timber framers and students from the U.S. and around the world.”

The team receiving instruction

On the first day of the workshop, the students get a sense of what the ceiling originally looked like from one of the painting team leaders.

That timber frame structure was built using architectural drawings made in the 1920s by a scholar intrigued by the Gwoździec synagogue. The frame was built using tools and techniques authentic to the time period, Black said.

“The original synagogue was built in the seventeenth century, so of course, there [were] only hand-hewn logs and boards,” Black said.

The polychrome ceiling is being replicated with tools and techniques from the seventeenth century. The images are drawn on the boards and painted with rabbit glue and naturally dried pigments that have been mixed by the students and faculty leaders.

Mixing paint colors

Antioch students and visual art professor Sara Black (right) mix paint colors under the guidance of the painting team leaders.

“We have had great success replicating the ‘cove’ element of the polychrome ceiling,” Black said.

Before the first brush stroke, however, artists examine black and white photographs of the original structure, as well as similar painting styles of the time, to determine form and color.

“Our resources for this project were very limited,” Forrest Humphrey ’15 said. “Although the photos were in black and white, the majority of these photographs were of excellent quality.”

Humphrey said looking at the archival photos—the only way to discern several components of the design that were indistinct or inaccurate on the architectural drawings they had of the structure—was “perhaps one of the most interesting and educational aspects of the project.”

“Our reasons were challenged for going into another country to interpret somebody else’s story.”

Sam Senzek ’15

“Keen observation is an essential skill for both artists and historians, and participating in this project, I felt like a little bit of both,” Humphrey said. “It may sound simple, but learning how to look is a subtle and elusive skill, especially to a novice painter such as myself. It was wonderful to be able to work with and learn from a skilled professional artist.”

The Antioch College students worked in a group that included students from Harper College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and schools in Germany and Belarus.

Student Sam Senzek ’15 said one of the most powerful experiences she had in Poland as a member of the project was participating in a discussion led by another student from Israel about their individual perceptions of Jewish culture and what has influenced them.

Student Jumahan paints

Student Nargees Jumahan ’15 paints the spirals featured on the ceiling.

“Our facilitator challenged our reasons, as a group of primarily non-Jewish Americans, for going into another country to interpret somebody else’s story,” Senzek said. “Until that point, I hadn’t considered the implications of my role in this project and my role in Poland—as a member of the historically privileged—reconstructing the history of the oppressed. Were it not for this conversation, I might have slipped into the trap of not fully considering my reasons for working towards social justice by retelling a history that was almost erased.”

While in Poland, the Antioch group was hosted by the Borderlands Foundation, a Sejny-based arts and culture organization focused on promoting and educating the region on the area’s multicultural history. Though prior to WWII, 70 percent of Sejny’s population was Jewish, that population is entirely diminished, leaving an unused synagogue.

“It seems a particularly poignant place to work,” Black said.

Senzek echoed Black’s sentiment. “The reconstruction of the Gwoździec synagogue…is an important step in the direction of correcting this oftentimes skewed focus,” she said.

Following their time on the project, the group packed up the panels, pigments, paints, and brushes and traveled to Treblinka, the Nazi extermination camp where most of the Jews from Sejny were murdered. An estimated 870,000 men, women, and children were killed at the camp between 1942 and 1943.

Senjny synagogue

The synagogue in Sejny hosted the painting workshop. It is considered a cultural center in the city, though is no longer a functioning synagogue.

“It [was] a powerful experience after immersing ourselves in this work for the past two weeks,” said Black.

The painting leaders and Handshouse Studios will now move on to Kashimirez Dolny, where they will meet another group of students to replicate the next portion of the ceiling. The completed roof structure will be installed in the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews and become a major part of the permanent core exhibition. The museum is scheduled to open 2013 in Warsaw on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto.

For more information about the synagogue replication project, including an informational video, visit or visit the project’s blog at

Antioch students received scholarships to travel to Poland to participate in the project. Funding came from a fund established by Leo and Pearl Guzik. Tammy Guzik Bliss ’62 released the funds in the endowment, which was established to assist students pursuing Israeli or Jewish studies.

Nicole Wroten is the assistant director of communications at Antioch College.