‘Faith’ exhibit grapples with Holocaust imagery

Artist Deborah N. Sessel, whose paintings and drawings include striking juxtapositions of powerful, sometimes disturbing images, often portrays the horrors of the Holocaust tragedy intertwined with the realm of eternal faith. Sessel’s exhibition of Holocaust drawings and paintings, entitled “Faith,” is on display at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center through the end of the year. They are accompanied by poems to complement the art written by the Sessel’s mother, Janice Sussman.

Sessel is struck with the paradox that occurs when people choose to live an observant Jewish life and must confront the fact that “religion and faith have become concepts and realities that often play against each other.”


“Comparing free will and divine intervention is a juxtaposition that is conflicting and confusing,” Sessel explained. “These concepts have found a place within my art and are conveyed in the existence of a spark or faith, combined with my own underlying obsession with the mechanics of Holocaust survival, have drawn me to depict man’s inner faith within this most dark period of history.”

In viewing the several drawings and paintings on display, one is struck by the almost photographic realism of many of the works. Sessel takes pains to apply strong attention to detail, and the range of her sensibilities and styles includes trompe l’oeil, still life and Impressionism.

Dan Reich, curator of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, admires Sessel’s ability to “go beyond the photographic in her realism. She does not use photographs for the most part; she arranges and juxtaposes images, such as a tallit on barbed wire, and a Jewish prayer book placed on the top wire. In another, she shows a tattered tallit, and one of the torn spaces is an image of the flag of Israel with a red background. She is not saying that the creation of Israel was in response to the Holocaust, but clearly the events are related. The camps were liberated in 1945 and in 1948 Israel was born.”

In another of Sessel’s works, the guard tower at a concentration camp is placed on the canvas to provide a view that “offers a poignant hope of eventual freedom,” Reich said.

In her painting “Day’s Work I,” an oil on board work, Sessel deals with the fact that the Nazis required the Jewish prisoners to sew their own work clothes and prepare their own yellow stars, “exemplifying a well-organized system intending to devalue one’s very existence.” Sessel’s image uses worn thimbles and old spools of thread set against the blue stripes of the work uniforms, the “juxtaposition of forced labor and pride.” The color painting is accompanied by a “Study on Day’s Work I,” a black-and-white graphite on paper depiction of the same items in the finished work. The black-and-white image is striking in a different way than the color version, and also reflects Sessel’s craftsmanship as an illustrator.

Reich pointed out that Sessel’s black-and-white drawings are called “Studies On” the color versions. “These are not sketches on the way to the finished work; they are free-standing different approaches to the same concept.” Sessel deploys her considerable skills to great advantage in her powerful and moving images.

Sessel brings solid artistic credentials to her work. She received the Jay Verbuits Award for Excellence in the Field of Fine Arts at Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn., from which she graduated in 2007. While at Paier, she worked under the noted painter Robert Zappalorti. In 1987, she graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s of science degree in business administration.

Sessel and her husband, Mark, a native St. Louisan, reside in Orange, Conn. Sessel, along with her parents, Stanley and Janice Sussman, of Rye Brook, N.Y. and her in-laws, Marcus and Joan Sessel of St. Louis, were at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum for the opening of the exhibit last week. Janice Sussman is the author of a collection of poems, Spaces, which was inspired by her travels with her daughter and granddaughter to Poland and Israel. The collection of poems, containing illustrations by Deborah Sessel, is based on that experience where “three generations cried, hugged and felt united. The poems and my daughter’s artistic interpretation are our memorial to keep this history alive,” Janice Sussman says.

Through the gut-wrenching images of Deborah Sessel, and the evocative poems of her mother, their goal is fulfilled “to cry, to pray, to remember, to hope.”

(Sessel’s exhibit “Faith” will be at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, 12 Millstone Campus Drive through the end of the year).