Karen Gunderson

MARA DRESNER: Connecticut Jewish Ledger: "The Importance of "Moral Courage" Exhibit in Chester Explores Courage of Danes, Bulgarians During War": Nov 28, 2003

When artist Karen Gunderson was a little girl, her Uncle Leroy, a Danish minister, told her the story about how King Christian X stood up to the Nazis during World War II.

The story stuck with her.           

In the late 1980s, when Louis Farrakhan was speaking out against the Jewish people and Rev. Jesse Jackson was talking about “Hymietown,” the New York artist recalled the courage of King Christian X, using her talent to create a portrait of the Danish monarch. 
The series grew, ultimately leading to an exhibition at Drury College, a small Christian school in Springfield, Missouri.
Gunderson continued exploring the concept of courage during the war, and developed a series of drawings, many using charcoal on linen-backed paper.
“Charcoal is the most telling vehicle to be able to draw with.  You can really feel the energy and how it feels to make the mark the most with charcoal,” she explained from her New York studio.  “Also, I’m not a one-shot person.  I change things as I go; it’s part of my process.  But the most important thing is it shows the energy.”
Gunderson’s work, “Moral Courage During World War II: Denmark and Bulgaria,” a series of paintings and drawings is on display through Jan. 3 at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester.
The exhibit was organized by the late Liz Gwillim.  The first curator of the synagogue’s art space, Gwillim died in June, just days after making arrangements for the exhibit, which is dedicated in her memory.
“Our congregation has a commitment to sharing art.  That’s a big part of what we do,” said Rabbi Cory Weiss.  “The fact that it was the last exhibition organized by Liz Gwillim before she died makes it special to all of us.”
Weiss, who is president of the Valley Shore Clergy Association, said that the exhibit was especially appropriate at the time of the 60th anniversary of the Danish rescue.   

“It has a deeper message that tyranny can be stood up to.  All it took for these countries to resist Hitler was to just say ‘no, we won’t give up our Jews’.  The Danish people, as well as the Bulgarians, simply refused to hand over their neighbors,” he noted.
“Because of the rise in anti-Semitism that we’re seeing, we need brave people to speak out now, as well,” he added.  “We’re continually amazed by the bravery of these people and how such small effort yielded such incredible rescue.  The message is to speak out against injustice.”
The exhibit features everyday people, as well as royalty and others in positions of power.
“I think she’s a brilliant artist,” noted Carol LeWitt, who with her husband, artist Sol LewWitt, was instrumental in bringing the Gunderson exhibit to the synagogue. 
“The image that I respond to the most is one called ‘Friendship.’  It’s an image of defiance, where Christian women and Jews walked down the street to taunt the Nazis.  I find that a powerful image.”
Sol LeWitt, who first met Gunderson in the 1970s, when she was “painting clouds,” especially likes the portraits of King Christian X of Denmark and King Boris III of Bulgaria.

“I think it is very impressive,” he said of the exhibit, while noting that he’s not an art critic. 

“it’s well-thought out, well done.  She has a strong feeling about and I think it comes through.”
Gunderson, who has been exhibited internationally, is pleased that her work is being shown in Connecticut.
“I’m frankly very honored.  Sol asked me to do it –Coming to the synagogue he helped design and is much a part of, meant a lot to me.  He is a very dear friend and Carol is too,”  she said.  “It’s a real honor.  It’s a great space, it’s a beautiful space.”           

Gunderson and her husband attended the opening reception and she was impressed with the warmth of the community.
She also met with the bar/bat mitzvah classes.  “They were brilliant, the brightest kids I ever met, very inquiring,” she praised.
As she prepares for an upcoming exhibit in Madrid, Gunderson took a moment to reflect on the “Moral Courage” exhibit.

“When you do work like this, you start to think about things a lot.  It’s been a life changing experience to do this exhibition.  When you look at what the examples these people have set, the Danes and Bulgarians during the war – It’s such an example of friendship and moral courage.  That permeates everything for me,” she said.  “The key to it all is we really have to stick up for each other.  Friendship in this crazy world we’re in is more important than ever.”

“Moral Courage During World War II: Denmark & Bulgaria” is on exhibit through Jan. 3, 2004, at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, 55 East Kings Highway, Chester.

The exhibit is open during synagogue hours 9:30-3:30.  Monday through Friday; during religious school on Sunday mornings 9:30-12.  Guests are also welcome to attend Shabbat service and view the exhibit.

For information call the synagogue at 860-526 8920