Moss sculpts war history using weapons of artistry

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As a 20-year-old combat engineer, Jay Moss saw death, destruction, and the horrors of war.  But he ’s turned those memories of the battlefield into art. 

On display until Oct. 7, the Derfner Judaica Museum at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale on Palisade Avenue features 13 sculptures created by Moss over a 30-year period. It’s inspired by his time serving in World War II, where Moss worked as a combat engineer, enduring not just battle, but both trench foot and malaria. 

He was stationed at various locations during the war, including Italy, France and Germany. After he was discharged in 1945, Moss attended art school through the GI Bill.

Though most of his pieces are related to his experience in war, Moss’ first artwork carved many years ago was a Polynesian head. 

“There was a gallery that wanted to have a show of artists under 25 years old, the Jacques Seligmann & Co. gallery,” he said. “I took three friends with me because I was afraid they wouldn’t be interested in me. But not only did the gallery take the piece, it was in the ArtNews the next month.”

Moss has worked in the industry ever since, including a job as the head of NBC Television’s art department, as well as with his own company which designed decorative mirrors and wall pieces. 

“I think that he took the lessons of the classic and modernist art that he was taught in school and he really made it his own,” said Susan Chevlowe, the Derfner Judaica Museum curator. “It’s very much a personal vision. He adapted a lot of the kinds of materials that he found working in product design, and he put them to use in sculpture in a very unique way. It’s very unusual.” 

Chevlowe discovered Moss’ work through his wife, Sabina, a resident of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale where the gallery is located, as well as Moss’ son, Jordan. Moss then invited Chevlowe to visit his Riverdale apartment where he works on his various pieces. And the rest is art history.

“It was so strong in my psyche, it just came out,” Moss said about sculpting his war experiences. “I can’t just do decorative things. The things I take time to sculpt have a meaning. I’m very pleased with that.” 

When Chevlowe began to choose pieces to include in the exhibit, there was one sculpture in particular that caught her eye, “Anzio,” which resembles an artillery shell. Inside the shell is a collage of mementos from Moss’ time in war, including a letter from his mother, a photo of his brother, and a patch spelling out “Anzio,” the Italian city where Moss was stationed. 

Yet, Moss didn’t think this piece would turn out to be the star of the show.

“When people come to my house and look at my sculptures, I never take (it) out, because it’s my own personal piece of junk,” Moss said. “But Susan fell for it. I couldn’t deny them.”

As Chevlowe organized the exhibit, she ensured Moss’ pieces were shown thematically. They come from his experience as a 20-year-old shipped off to war, and each sculpture there has a unique and authentic voice, she said. 

“That really resonated with me, because here we are today with young men and women going to war,” Chevlowe said. “We wanted to focus the work around that experience.” 

Another compelling piece in the show is ‘The Prisoner,” which was created in 1991. It is made from mahogany, sheet lead and cotton cloth, embodying a face with a bandana over their eyes to represent thousands of enemy soldiers captured during the finals months of the war. 

Originally, Moss was going to use an actual bandana, but he thought the pink in the bandanas was too vivid. He then re-drew it, using a piece of cloth, creating a detailed representation of the bandana pattern.

“I want people to take away the sense of continuity between the past and the present with the experiences of today, the sacrifices that people make, and what has come before,” Chevlowe said. “To carry the stories forward, art does many things. And I think that that is one of the things that it does, and the power that art has.” 

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