Murray Zimiles
Murray Zimiles in his studio

In the small world of Jewish folk art, Murray Zimiles is something of a rock star right now. Zimiles guest curated “Gilded Lions and Jewelled Horses: From the Synagogue to the Carousel,” an exhibit up at the American Folk Art Museum in New York that examines the magnificent work of Jewish wood carvers, stone carvers, and other artisans who developed their crafts in Eastern Europe, and then adapted them to new circumstances in the United States. The exhibit has broken all attendance records for the museum, and the accompanying catalogue, which Zimiles wrote, just won the National Jewish Book Award for Visual Arts.

All this attention is new for Zimiles, who spends most of his days painting and teaching painting in rural upstate New York. These days, he creates vast, vibrant landscapes, populated by eerily dispersed herds of animals. But decades ago, his work depicted horrific scenes of fire and destruction, based on the Holocaust. It was in researching those paintings that he first came upon the Torah arks, Decalogues, tombstones and paper cuttings that form the basis of the current exhibit.

On an icy December morning, we made the trip to Zimiles’ studio to find out how he came to be the foremost expert on the work of these all-but-forgotten craftsmen.

carousel horse and decalogue
L: Carousel Horse with Jewels by Marcus Charles Illions (1865/1874-1949), Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, c. 1915. Paint on wood with jewels, glass eyes, leather, metal, and horsehair tail, 46

Carousel Horse with Raised Head by Charles Carmel (1865-1931), Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, c. 1914; paint on wood with jewels, glass eyes, and horsehair tail, 62 x 58 x 14″; American Folk Art Museum, gift of Laura Harding; courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum. Photo of Murray Zimiles by Julie Subrin. Carousel horse photo above by Ken Hicks, courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum. Decalogue photo by August Bandal, courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.