The exhibition features 15 large, bold, haunting paintings, composed with a mixture of oil paints and hot Ditmar beeswax, which feature notary actors portraying Jewish characters from important works of literature — all of which were made into Hollywood movies. Some of the paintings include: Rod Steiger as Rabbi Isaac Saunders from the novel “The Chosen,” written by Chaim Potok and directed by Jeremy Kagan (1981); and Ben Cross and Harold Abrahams, who starred in the movie “Chariots of Fire” (1981), based on the screenplay by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson.
Other films featured in the show include: “The Pawnbroker,” “The Pianist,” “The Fixer” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” Each of Ratajkowski’s portraits is accompanied by a quote from the film it depicts, such as “My father taught me to look inside myself, to find my own strength,” from “The Pawnbroker;” and “Being born a Jew means living vulnerable to history, including its worst errors,” from “The Fixer.”
The original idea for the series came to Ratajkowski and Balgley as they were sitting in a coffee shop in the town of Bantry, located in County Cork, Ireland, where they were restoring their old farmhouse. The couple noticed a portrait of author James Joyce on the wall, leading them to think of Joyce’s Jewish character, Leopold Bloom, from his novel “Ulysses.” They decided that they would search through literature and film for Jewish characters to paint and study. This began a long odyssey of reading and viewing film to find the appropriate subject matter.
“Once the idea was hatched, we began a hunt and located films and literature to go through,” Ratajkowski said.
Ratajkowski said he searched each movie they selected for the one single frame that was exemplary of the main character or the movie. Ratajkowski froze the frames on his computer screen, printed them out and painted them. Balgley said the use of frames “allowed Ratajkowski to reveal a figure’s circumstances in a quickly passing moment with an expression or gesture.”
Ratajkowski, who is of Polish descent, was raised a Roman Catholic. He attended Sacred Heart Elementary School in Coronado. He still has a gnarled knuckle from where the nuns used to rap his hand with a ruler. Ratajkowski went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from San Diego State University and taught at San Dieguito High School, where he met Balgley, who also taught there for a time.
Balgley, who is Jewish, earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego, where she studied the relationship between visual arts and literature. She teaches at San Diego Jewish Academy.
“Each face, each personal parable offered in their portrait, suggested an overarching story of the persistence against the odds of the Jewish spirit and the indomitability of Jewish dignity,” Balgley wrote in the exhibition catalog. “The Jewish spirit holds up a mirror to our own experience and reveals something universally true for all of us.”
The exhibition will be on view until Feb. 23. For further information,
call 858-457-3030 or visit www. sdcjc.org.