Artist paints Jewish images using paper collages

In Ronni Jolles’ “Tashlich,” a collage depicting the symbolic ceremony of casting away sins, a young girl tosses crumbs into a crinkled sea of paper as a breeze rustles her skirt. Across a sunset sky, seagulls fly toward the crumbs while strands of greenery frame the picture.

Ronni Jolles at work in her studio

In “The Women’s Side,” figures in varied garments converge before a Kotel of mottled paper. A young mother wearing a kippah and jewel-toned skirt presses against the Wall. In the foreground, an elderly woman, head wrapped in a scarf, leans against a walking stick, the folds from her skirt cascading off the canvas.

Jolles titles her 23-work exhibit “My Judaism Unlocked: Painting with Paper,” on view through March 26 at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City. In collages “painted” with layer upon layer of cut and torn papers, Jolles has produced pieces so highly textured that viewers are tempted to touch. But please don’t.

“We’ve had to ask people to refrain from touching the artwork because the three-dimensional work is so visually inviting and compelling,” writes Eileen Mitchell, PJCC marketing communications manager. In fact, the cultural arts director, Kimberly Gordon, said she mounted more than the usual number of “Please do not touch” signs. But the flip side is that the exhibit is touching viewers.

Within a week of the show’s Jan. 15 opening, five people had registered for Jolles’ March 26 “Painting with Paper” workshop. In addition, quite a number have inquired about purchasing the works, which range from $600 for framed giclée (high-resolution inkjet) prints to several thousand dollars for original works. (Unframed prints range from about $140 to $200.)

As Jolles tells it, in December 2012, Gordon called her out of the blue, inviting her to create a show from a Jewish perspective. Although she’s exhibited throughout the East Coast, Jolles, who lives in Great Falls, Va., had never exhibited in California.


“I said yes I’ll do it and off I went,” Jolles said during a Skype interview from her studio. “I think I’m a very spiritual person and Judaism is very important to me. That’s probably why I wanted to do this. I wanted to capture some of the feelings I have about being Jewish.”

Gordon, who is always looking for new artists, stumbled on Jolles’ listing through the JCC of Northern Virginia website. Checking out Jolles’ website (, she was struck by her unusual “technique and level of detail. … What she created [for the show] was far beyond anything that I had imagined.”

Over the years, Jolles had created a number of Jewish-themed works, including “A Moment to Remember,” depicting Simchat Torah with a Torah scroll unfurling on a mountain, and “No One Knew,” a Shoah-themed piece that hangs in the foyer of her synagogue.

But for a solo Judaica show, she needed new work. Seeking inspiration, in November she journeyed to Israel on her own. With camera and sketchpad in hand, she took three- or four-hour walks each day, exploring Jerusalem’s neighborhoods. Then she’d return to her hotel room to create, using her papers, fabrics, acrylics and glues.

“I was trying to create Judaic artwork that was different,” she said. Not simply a “Shabbat table with ‘shalom’ in gold letters,” but art that “spoke to me more about being Jewish.”

Jolles majored in art and psychology at Cornell, completing a master’s at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Deciding that teaching would best suit her personality, she taught art for nearly 20 years in Washington-area private schools. But in 2000, she decided it was time to concentrate on her own artwork.

“The Women’s Side”

“It was a tough decision to stop teaching and to go into full-time professional artist mode,” she said, “but I knew I had to give it a try.”

At first, she created her own papers, producing the colors and textures she sought. When that became too time-consuming, she searched for unusual papers from sources all over the world.

Then 10 years ago, she lost all of her artwork in a studio fire. Fortunately, her three children were in school, her husband was away on business, and she got her dogs and cats out of the house. Nonetheless, the loss was immense.

“All my papers, all my sketchbooks were gone. I started from scratch,” she said. “It was very difficult, but ultimately, it was empowering. I never call it a tragedy.”

She and her husband remodeled and turned the former living room into a studio. With her children in their 20s — two on their own, the youngest in college — she satisfies the extrovert side of her personality by taking classes, exercising, meeting friends for dinner. “But once I’m really working, time goes by and I don’t even know it,” she said.

“I still love teaching,” she said, sighing. “For a whole year I did no teaching because I was working so hard on getting these pieces ready.”

Now she’s looking forward to teaching again, leading a workshop at the PJCC and sharing her work with a new audience. “I’m really honored to have this opportunity,” she said. 

“My Judaism Unlocked: Painting with Paper” runs through March 26 at the Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. A workshop led by Jolles on March 26 will be preceded by a 5:30 p.m. reception and gallery tour with the artist. or (650) 212-PJCC (7522)

Janet Silver Ghent