Strength in Art: Tree of Life

Written by Gail Koach

Have you ever scrambled through your photos (print or digital) in search of a specific shot, only to realize that, yes, it’s there – but you can’t tell exactly where it was taken because it has no identifying sign or symbol in the background? That frequently experienced frustration will be addressed by a new artwork, expected to be installed at The Temple around Passover 2024.

The artwork will be much more than a backdrop for “photo ops” of the many family and community events at The Temple. The new artwork will be an 8’ x 8’ Tree of Life metal sculpture that will live outside the building’s entrance. It will be “a Jewish symbol for our Temple, visible to all,” says Executive Director Craig Goldstein, who, inspired by the artwork outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, had the brainstorm for the piece. He shared his vision with Rabbi David, and the idea took hold.

Once the plan was green-lighted, the next step was to commission the work, and there was no question that the artist should be famed sculptor and blacksmith Craig Kaviar. Not only is Kaviar based in Louisville, but he is also a long-standing member of The Temple. His wife, Dr. Frances Weinstock, sings in Shir Chadash.

Craig Kaviar’s involvement in art began when he was young. While in high school on Long Island, he apprenticed to a sculptor, working in wood and stone carvings and fiberglass sculpture. He graduated from Tufts University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, then went on to further study at the Boston Museum School (now part of Tufts). At the Museum School, the husband of one of his teachers got him interested in blacksmithing, and during the summers, he worked as a blacksmith at Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The formative influences were coming together; he also taught himself techniques by reading an English book on blacksmithing, for example.

The results are wondrous. Craig works primarily in iron, but also copper and bronze, and he is known especially for natural themes. “I see God in nature,” he says. Imagine rendering a leaf or a flower or a bird in hard metal, yet still capturing their delicate detail and natural grace. Further, he is not a practitioner of “fine art,” preferring what he calls “functional art,” where form and function literally work together.

While he creates chandeliers, tables, and other interior pieces, he is best known for major architectural installations, and his work is visible all around Louisville. A partial list includes the Holocaust Memorial at The Temple (commissioned by Brotherhood), tall bronze door handles at the entrance of the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Eternal Light at Jewish Hospital, gates and grills at First Unitarian Church and Christ Church Cathedral, pool gates at the JCC, several major pieces at Brown-Forman Corporation, even repairs to the original Olmstead railings outside Brown-Forman.

Beyond Louisville, Craig created the entrance gates to the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Woodford County, and a three-part entry archway for Crab Orchard Animal Sanctuary in Oldham County. He says that commissions afford him the chance to collaborate with his clients, an approach he values. And seeing his work around town and in the vicinity provides him with a lasting connection to the community.

“Really, I just love to create,” says Craig. “The metal tells me where to go.” This passion and joy are evident in the work. But Craig takes it a few steps further: he uses some recycled metal, and powers his forge with recycled cooking oil. He helps to educate and train a new generation of blacksmiths in Louisville and beyond. And he is a dedicated participant in the “Guns to Gardens” effort, turning voluntarily surrendered gun barrels into garden tools (a whole story unto itself!).

Craig Kaviar has been featured on “Modern Masters” on HGTV, in many arts publications, in Courier Journal and New York Times stories, and was part of the U.S. Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Japan; he has also received numerous awards for his work. The Gabby Giffords Foundation has made a film about Guns to Gardens that will show at the Speed Museum this October.

It would be fair to say that Craig Kaviar lives his values, and expresses them through his works. Social justice, nature, religious and Judaic themes; all inform his functional artistry. Be on the lookout for the arrival of his Tree of Life at Temple next spring.