ONE summer, while visiting her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild in Italy, Rhoda Kassof-Isaac picked up a stone. In its contours she saw faces: eyes, a high hat, an expressive mouth — people with a story waiting to be told. So the Jungian psychoanalyst and artist painted a face on the small rock.
“It was just a matter of paying attention to what the stone revealed about itself and then drawing it on,” she says.
Soon, it became an obsession, and she began collecting stones in Switzerland, Germany and New Jersey, including outside Stonebridge at Montgomery, where she lives. “It was so much fun, I would put the stones in my pocket and then work on them while waiting in a restaurant,” says Kassof-Isaac, who has completed hundreds of them.
There are humans with curly hair, red hair and blond hair; full figures of men with beards and a cane; women with feathers in their heads; cats and hedgehogs. There are people with Modigliani noses and attire fitting for a queen or a character in Alice in Wonderland. Some are like sun goddesses, some wear babushkas; some have glasses or freckles, others may be in profile. Babies, monsters and princesses — each has its own personality and expression.
Like amulets or good-luck totems, the stones have meaning and talk to the artist, as well as an open observer.
“I wasn’t looking for the devil,” she says. “It was just there.”
While in Germany near Hitler’s bunker, she collected stones and unconsciously started making disturbing drawings.
A photographer, as well, Kassof-Isaac wasn’t content to just create these mini sculptures, but began photographing them, both as a group and in diptychs, pairing them as partners should be paired. Making the stone faces are as large as human heads, she further paints on them in Photoshop, adding detail.
Kassof-Isaac, who is in her late 80s, is the featured artist at the Millstone River Gallery at Merwick Care and Rehabilitation Center, Plainsboro, through Nov. 4. The opening reception is Thursday, Sept. 29, 5-7 p.m.
Kassof-Isaac has been making art since she was a young child. She had her first exhibit at the Riverside Museum, N.Y., in 1962. She grew up on a farm in Tom’s River and studied art at Pratt Institute and through the Art Students League. Exhibiting work she describes as expressionism and abstracted realism, she lived in Switzerland with her husband for 26 years, where she taught art at the international high school. “My work was most influenced by the European landscape and villages and the colors of the earth,” she says.
While there, she became “fascinated by” Jungian psychology and studied to earn the equivalent of a doctoral degree. “My horoscope said I (am meant to be doing) healing and art,” she says.
“Jung talks about images and symbols from different parts of life. My expertise became pictorial interpretation in analysis, like dream interpretation.”
Kassof-Isaac used her photographic prints as the beginning of a painting, drawing on it with oil pastel, inks and dyes, and then scratching into it. “If the picture worked right, you couldn’t see the difference between what was hand worked (and what was photographed),” she says. “Your eye is a major tool.”
Studying the light of J.M.W. Turner paintings, she used oil pastel on landscape photos to enhance her skies. “I don’t want to be controlled by what you can’t do — I didn’t have to,” she says.
For Kassof-Isaac, creating starts from within. “If you don’t do it your psychic system gets out of balance. I studied how creativity is a part of the life experience. When people work creatively their mental health is more in balance. It doesn’t have to be fine art — you can express yourself in dance, writing — and it makes for a greater wholeness… It’s especially helpful for children to work out their inner battles.
”I’m driven,” she continues. “I don’t have any choice. I have to do this work.”