Mural artist finds inspiration in Jewish lore


Jim Ibur’s contribution the new Staenberg Family Complex involved clay — a lot of clay. Try 3,000 pounds worth.

The Jewish Community Center commissioned Ibur, a local artist and assistant professor of art (and coordinator of the ceramics program) at St. Louis Community College – Meramec, to create a ceramic mural to adorn the north wall of the Staenberg Family Complex indoor aquatics center.

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The result is a dramatic 12- by-16 feet work of art inspired by the account of the world’s creation in the Book of Genesis, aptly called Creation.

The project began when Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the JCC’s Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Life told Andrea Schankman about his concept for a ceramic mural. That’s when Schankman introduced the rabbi to Ibur and the shiddach was made.

Horwitz said while the building’s focus is on fitness and wellness — not specifically Jewish activities — the artwork inside provides a reminder of the center’s Jewish roots.

“We wanted the Jewish elements done subtly — not in your face,” he said. “We wanted the building to feel welcoming to everybody but still have a Jewish ambiance.”

Ibur said after his first meeting with Rabbi Horwitz, he read through local author and professor Howard Schwartz’s collection of stories, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. Two jumped out at him: the second day of Creation when the Upper Waters were separated from the Lower Waters, and the story of the vessels God created to hold the light being sent to earth.

According to the Zohar, a mystical interpretation of Torah, God sent 10 vessels filled with primordial light to earth, but the vessels were fragile and they broke, sending holy sparks out into the world. The Zohar says our job is to gather up those sparks. When the sparks are gathered, the vessels will be whole again and the world will be healed, which is what we call tikkun olam, repair of the world.

“I’m a potter,” said Ibur. “This is what I do. I make vessels.”

The project became collaborative, and meetings followed with Horwitz; Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the JCC; Matt Wever, the JCC’s director of facilities; O’Toole Design Associates and Michael Staenberg, a driving force and namesake of the Staenberg Family Complex.

Designs were drawn and redrawn. Ibur made clay mockups called maquettes; colors were examined and re-examined. A spit of land became a whale; static shapes became more playful; vessels became animals; turquoise water became jade green. Colored tiles were brought into the aquatic center and compared and debated until exactly the right colors were chosen.

And then work on the mural began in earnest at Ibur’s studio.

Ibur had to work with 3,000 pounds of clay without stepping on it, so the first task was to make 12 movable tables on which he could rest the clay.

Once the clay was laid out, Ibur spent months crawling on it — every night throwing gallons of water on it. Shapes began to emerge and to morph.

“I started with vessels which started growing arms and tails. Pots got wiggly and pushed out features and morphed into full-out animals. I had come full circle and was making realistic animal figures again, like I did years ago,” Ibur said.

Once everything was sculpted, it had to be cut into pieces. Three thousand pounds of clay became over 200 individual tiles.

Then each piece had to hollowed out, so no piece would be too heavy to hang on the wall or break while being fired.

Every piece was hand painted and fired twice. Then, each piece was numbered so it could be identified after it was moved from Ibur’s studio to the Staenberg complex where the mural was painstakingly reassembled.

The result is an interpretation of Genesis, with layer upon layer of meaning. An enormous whale symbolically divides the waters below from the waters above. Moving closer in, creatures such as sea turtles, starfish, seahorses, crustaceans and even a serpent, swim through the shimmering green water. Some creatures are colorful, some luminous. Closer still, layers of creatures emerge –land animals foreshadowing the continuing evolution from dinosaurs to human beings. And a careful inspection reveals a light covering of the sparks of initial creation as well as the DNA of ongoing creation.

Ibur said piecing together the 200 tiles is no small feat. “It’s a puzzle,” mused Ibur. “The biggest piece of work in my life.”