If you missed Ruth Simon McRae’s beautiful December art exhibit in the Shainberg Art Gallery of the Memphis Jewish Community Center, you might want to check her out online.

Ruth’s exhibitions of Judaic textiles, tallit (prayer shawls), and other ritual items combines Ruth’s love of textiles with her spiritual practice.

“I have a passion for the warmth and feel of textiles and am drawn to handcrafts and the textile arts,” she said. “Textiles have layers of meaning, and I like to use talitot and challah covers as canvases for expressing stories, histories, and rituals. I also want to create emotion with surprising and evocative color relationships enhanced by shape and texture.”

Ruth’s interest in textiles began in childhood, as she was surrounded by fabrics – from her father’s interior design studio to 1960’s clothes. She studied painting at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Philadelphia College of Art, and in 1970, bought a 100-year-old loom and taught herself how to weave, focusing on pictorial tapestries. After reading Anni Albers’ writing, Ruth was inspired to learn more about producing fabrics with textile machinery.

She went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in textile design at Philadelphia University, then a Master of Science in textiles at Georgia Tech. “These degrees provided my entrée into the field of industrial textile design,” she noted, “for which I have enjoyed a long career in the floor covering industry.”

Now living in serene North Georgia, Ruth works with many mediums: textile arts, painting, printmaking, mixed media, ceramics. “I experiment with materiality and layering by merging complex color combinations, pattern designs, and textures,” she explained. “I use many textile and painterly techniques in making the artwork, including Japanese shibori techniques of folding and stitching in combination with multi-hue dyeing, as well as resist-dyed indigo. Stitching and embroidery were incorporated for emphasis; some pieces also include antique lace and other vintage materials that have been hand-dyed and embellished.”

Ruth’s pieces are all handmade, very personal, and connected to Jewish tradition and liturgy.

“Creating Judaic textiles was a natural evolution from my studio work in the fine arts. Many years ago, inspired by the work of Romare Bearden, I experimented with adding fabrics to my paintings,” Ruth shared. “This quickly evolved to making the entire piece with textile materials, hand-stitching into fabric that had been stretched like canvas. My process for making Judaic textiles in this exhibit is very much like painting, using fabrics, stitching, and hand-printed imagery as my tools.”

Ruth first showed her art at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, through a sponsorship between an interfaith committee and the art department. Then, Hillel at Emory University in Atlanta reached out to host an expanded exhibit. And after that was Nashville and Chattanooga’s JCCes.

“As I thought about showcasing my work in other active Jewish communities in the Southeast, I asked around and people told me about Memphis’ engaged community,” she said. “Since the pandemic, art openings are not done the same way. And I have to be strategic about exhibits.”

Ruth draws inspiration from nature and a combination of experimenting with techniques and materials, and seeing how they all fall together. She especially likes including birds and branches, which are meaningful memories connected to her father.

She’s done successful commissions, including talitot for bar/bat mitzvahs in Israel and a synagogue’s chupah. As her own PR person, Ruth gives Zoom presentations – like for the New Haven Jewish Historical Society – and made a video talking about her works for social media.

For those interested in art, in any form, Ruth suggests starting with things that appeal to you. Even something you own, like a scarf or necklace, and building off that. Consider the type of fabric or colors and what would feel good to go with them. Ruth often works with vintage materials where nostalgia is attached, like her family’s damask tablecloth she used to create a tallit. “Art is visual and very personal,” she added. “Let yourself be guided by the things you love that speak to you.”

Her exhibits combine Ruth’s love of the practical and material, with her spiritual life. She began with autobiographical themes: her backyard’s landscape, the garden, studies in white to express a feeling of holiness, watercolor painting. From there, she moved to creating tallit and challah covers that were inspired by various materials and color combinations. Each piece was produced over a fairly long period of time, each was iterative, with one material or section added in response to the last, like a painting. “The work in this exhibition represents a complex layering of handcraft and artistry,” Ruth said, “along with a deep appreciation for the objects of daily life that are a part of our faith.

Check out Ruth’s work on Instagram or on her website at ruthsimonmcrae.com.