Rob Shostak’s exhibition Parchment recently opened at the FENTSTER window gallery in downtown Toronto. The installation is a community effort made from parchment papers showing the marks made by baking challah bread for Shabbat. The project explores memory, mark-making, time and ritual. We caught up with Rob to learn more about baking challah, community participation, dressing up as his favourite Toronto landmarks, and his mother’s hummus.
Kultura Collective: Hi Rob. Can you tell us a bit about you, and your work as an artist / designer?
Rob Shostak: I am a Montreal-born, Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist. Much of my work examines the interactions between memory, time, and place. I’m interested in how memories change or fade, how they are preserved or recalled, and how geography and personal history mark these memories. I have a design background as a trained architect so exploring the urban environment is also a part of my work. I’ve created a series of maps made of yarn including one focusing on my childhood neighbourhood and some looking at unexpected urban conditions. I’ve collaborated on some larger scale installations, most notably for the Winter Stations and Ice Breakers exhibitions in Toronto. I also make costumes of Toronto landmarks which are my love-letter to the city that has given me so much.
KC: What sparked your interest in baking challah?
RS: I grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Montreal among a large extended family that celebrated holidays and Shabbat every Friday night. These elaborate meals would fill a home, most often my grandmother’s, with generations of our family seated at the large dining room table with the overflow (me, my brother, and my many cousins) on stairs with plates on our laps. For every holiday meal, the first morsel of food enjoyed would be the challah: oven warm, blessed, torn, and salted, with pieces thrown across the table to every person.
A decade and a half after relocating to Toronto, I moved to an apartment where I could finally comfortably host gatherings of my own. I aspired to have casual dinner parties every Friday with friends, both Jewish and not, as a nod to the traditions I experienced. A month later I met my partner who shared this sense of community and home. This was all in early 2020, before we knew what was to come.
Undeterred by the global pandemic, he and I started the tradition of making Shabbat even if only with each other. Like many, I tried my hand at sourdough, making a few successful loaves we would bless on Friday nights. But my starter gave up on me (or was it the other way around?) and I set my sights on challah and braiding.
Celebrating Shabbat, and spending part of my day baking bread, brought order during that era of timelessness when every day could easily blend into the next. And like many artists I had a bit of a creative hibernation during the early months of the pandemic. The artistry of baking, and specifically challah with its multiplicity of forms, helped maintain that artistic, creative spirit in me.
KC: How did your love of challah lead to the inspiration for an art project?
RS: After one of my bakes I noticed the golden-brown print left on the parchment paper. I took a photo of it because I felt drawn to it and kept it in the back of my mind. The pandemic proved to be generally uninspiring artistically for me, but I knew there was something there to be explored. Evelyn Tauben, the curator at FENTSTER, had approached me in early 2020 to do an installation for her. Coincidentally, the idea I was working through at the time had an element of bread in it but was more introspective.
When she came to me again in January 2022, my partner Noah and I had our weekly Shabbat traditions, and I was baking on a regular basis. I felt the need to explore these new connections, traditions, and community and that initial parchment print immediately came to mind. I wanted to create a collection of these traces left behind from making Shabbat. The parchments are tangible artifacts of memory where the act of baking becomes a form of mark-making, as if a darkroom photographic process on the papers lining the baking sheet. They are part of the evidence of Jewish life which historically was often made to be disappeared by assimilation, oppression, or attempts at erasure. Here, I am presenting and preserving these fragments of time and memory.
KC: Your project for FENTSTER relies on community participation. What makes you most excited about opening your exhibition to public interaction?
RS: The communal aspect of baking challah for shabbat and the memories that Shabbat creates is at the core of this artwork. Baking challah is a purpose-based act that goes beyond physical nourishment. Whether you’re at home making one for your family, or at a huge bake-along gathering, you are part of a collective of people across the world doing the same thing, with different recipes and traditions, but for the same intent.
I could not have anticipated the huge reaction from the community surrounding this project. I’ve received messages and parchments from around the world with recipes and stories about what makes baking challah and Shabbat dinner meaningful to them. Many people baked their first challah for this project, some have now turned into weekly bakers, creating traditions within their own families that will hopefully live on for generations. We also held an online Bake-Along event in March which had such a great turnout. Baking with everyone was such a special moment for me. It was my first-time baking with anyone other than my partner in recent memory. This project has had an impact on people that I never expected, and on myself too, and I feel so grateful for it.
For some stories behind the parchments, check out this piece in NIV Magazine.
KC: Did you learn anything new during the research for this project?
RS: I learned so much spanning from Jewish traditions to history. Challah goes beyond the Ashkenazi sweetly enriched braided bread from Germany that has proliferated across the world. Different geographies have unique traditions on what type of bread is used for challah because almost any bread can be used for the Mitzvah. I’ve always found it interesting how the Jewish communities across the world adapt traditions based on the communities they are in. This brings cultural richness to everyone. In Syria, where part of my family is from, they would bless twelve pitas for shabbat representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In Ethiopia, they make Defo Dabo in banana leaves. Sephardic traditions are for a spiced round loaf while in Israel it’s an eggless water bread. It’s all challah, and they are all part of Jewish tradition.
Beyond this, I learned so much about baking, the techniques, the sciences, the artistry, and have really fallen in love with it. I know I’ll be a baker for the rest of my life and look forward to expanding my skills beyond challah, and beyond bread. Studying and working in Architecture brought my scientific and artistic sides together. Now that I no longer practice architecture, baking has once again combined those two elements in a new way that I am excited to explore.
KC: As an avid challah baker, do you have any tips for a novice?
RS: I’ve been baking for a relatively short while but have baked several years-worth of loaves during the past year alone. My best advice is to keep at it. With bread there are so many micro-skills to learn from ingredient ratios, to kneading and braiding, and each takes time to develop. So, even when a loaf comes out tasting too salty or underbaked, I might still be able to point at the perfect braiding and be proud of that.
You also don’t need any tools beyond some measuring cups and spoons to bake, and most people have that already. I don’t even have a stand mixer yet and have been doing all my mixing and kneading by hand. This has helped me get a feel for dough and understand what the change in texture means, and when it needs more water or more flour. As you continue your baking journey you can slowly invest in tools like a scale or instant thermometer. They are helpful in getting a better and more consistent bake but not necessary to start with.
For braiding, my best trick is to start in the middle of the loaf and braid in one direction, then flip it and braid the loose ends in the other direction. This will give a more even and symmetrical result that is sure to impress. I have some ropes I dyed in different colours that I practice with. They are helpful for more complex braids and when I want to try something new or of my own creation.
KC: We need to talk about your Toronto landmark Halloween costumes! What started this ongoing project? What’s your favourite Toronto landmark and why?
RS: Since I moved to Toronto, for Halloween I would showcase my love for the city by dressing up as a building, piece of infrastructure, or urban condition. Earlier costumes were not as ambitious but in 2012 some friends from Architecture school and I were talking about various city landmarks when the 1931 Beaux Arts Ball came up. There’s a photo from the event where prominent architects dressed as the buildings they designed, including the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and the Museum of the City of New York. That moment of levity in an otherwise serious industry inspired me to create my first landmark costume of Will Alsop’s OCAD University Sharp Centre for Design. When visiting Toronto to decide if I should move here for Graduate School, I saw the Sharp Centre with its pixelized-bovine body, impossibly perched on these multicolour stilts. I felt like it was alien to the city but somehow crawled around and found a home here, a bit like me. Perhaps this is why it’s one of my favourite Toronto landmarks. So that year, I made an almost true-to-scale costume of it, wearing it as if it just got up and started to walk around.
Since then I’ve looked for inspiration throughout the year, choosing something that has been significant for the city, or for myself. Working through the design and construction of the costumes, I develop a more significant relationship to the entity. Part of the intent is to make architecture and urban design more accessible in a whimsical way. This encourages people to view both the city differently and celebrate it.
I’ve paid homage to Honest Ed’s in the year of its closing, The Cinesphere, Trinity Bellwoods Park, City Hall, The PATH System among others. In 2020, when everything was canceled, I made four augmented reality filters for Instagram celebrating some museums and galleries in the city, allowing anyone to ‘wear’ them as costumes.
KC: Tell us more about the Toronukkah!
RS: I’ve always said that the best view of the CN Tower is from the CN Tower because you don’t have to look at it. I never liked it as a landmark, and it didn’t feel representative of the City of Toronto I got to know after moving here: a city of fine-grain neighbourhoods where the best parts are not always the tall poppy. But I felt I needed to give it a chance, so I reimagined it as a hanukkiah with each branch as its own CN Tower with space for a candle on top. The hours spent modeling, designing, and refining the hanukkiah gave me a new perspective on the monument through its details, curves, even the lightness of it. I still can’t say I love the CN Tower, but I found a way to like it and make it my own.
KC: What else are you working on right now?
RS: I am currently devouring (pun intended) everything I can about baking. I’ve been making babkas which are similar to challah in process and artistry. I am also exploring my Syrian culinary heritage trying to recreate my grandmother’s ka’ak recipe from the memory I have of their flavour, among other sweets she made.
KC: Who are your creative Jewish role models?
RS: My mother is an accomplished sculptor and artist. Both my parents are very creative and brought art into my life from a young age. They would often take me and my brother to galleries and encouraged my creative side. I remember seeing the art of Chagall and Miro among many others as a kid which sparked my love of vibrancy and colour. In my 20s I was drawn to the monumental works of Richard Serra and the conceptual work of Sol Lewitt based on systems and ideas. While not Jewish, Olafur Eliasson is one of the very few artists whose work has touched my soul and affected me in ways I didn’t think possible.
KC: Lightning round question!
- Hummus vs baba ghanoush? My mother’s hummus, every time. She always has the flavours balanced perfectly. I’ve been trying to match her recipe, but there are no measuring cups for “a handful” and “a bit of”. I do have the texture right which is more coarse and has a toothsinkability to it that I love.
- Pickled herring vs gefilte fish? Gefilte fish topped with pickled herring and a slice of carrot. And lots of it.
- New York vs Montreal bagels? Bagels only come from the Island of Montreal. Everything else is just a torus-shaped loaf of bread. New Yorkers just need to accept that fact and move on.
Rob Shostak is a multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto, Canada, whose work navigates the intersection of place, memory, and time. Shostak’s work has been exhibited at The Gladstone Hotel, the Toronto waterfront, the Bentway, among others, and appeared in Architectural Record, Azure, Domus, The Toronto Star, BlogTO, CBC, CityTV among others. Alongside these professional accomplishments, he is known for dressing up in his own custom designs of Toronto landmarks for Halloween. This ongoing project is the true display of his love for Toronto, and his passion for city building and community. Shostak is a co-founder of (Studio(Venn)Studio) – a queer-led multidisciplinary arts collective.
Learn more and follow Rob at:
Parchment is an installation of community collected parchment papers exploring the mark made by baking challah bread for Shabbat, leaving an imprint of memory. The artist gathered parchment papers from across the country and around the world leftover from the baking process. Usually discarded, these sheets bear unusual golden-brown markings, which reveal the distinctive underbelly of this Ashkenazi bread more typically celebrated for its artfully twisted exterior and a slightly sweet, fluffy interior.
Novices and food industry pros, rabbis and artists, Jews and Gentiles, the observant and secular, children and grandparents viewed these accidental prints as snowflakes, finger and footprints, even Rorschach tests. Each sheet is as unique as its baker while retaining a consistency and familiarity akin to the tradition itself, with the oven acting as the serendipitous darkroom “developing” images onto the page. The fleeting way time is marked by the weekly celebration of Shabbat (the seventh day of rest) is made visible in the parchment papers. Shostak explores the impermanence of memory and Shabbat rituals—candles, wine and bread are all consumed—as these flimsy pages become an archive of that which disappeared months ago.
Parchment will be on view from April 28 until August 2022. Visit FENTSTER @ Makom day & night at 402 College Street, Toronto.
Outdoor Opening | Sunday, June 12 | 2:30 – 4:30 PM | Artist remarks at 3:30 PM
Celebrate the opening of Parchment with homemade challah bites and live music from The Horables
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