When the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona began designing its new building, not only did Federation leaders want to modernize their workspace, they wanted to create a sacred landmark, says President and CEO Stuart Mellan.
“We really wanted the building to be a place of meaning,” says Mellan. “We understood that we’re creating an office building, but we wanted some of the architectural elements and the art to reinforce the sacred and inspirational aspects of our work.”
The Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, which houses the Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, officially opened its doors on Oct. 15.
The planners designed the new building with four symbolic and functional factors in mind: unity, keeping the Federation and Foundation centralized in one, large space; visibility, having the building act as a landmark that signifies the vitality of the Federation and Foundation; security, providing an adequately secured office; and professionalism, creating an upgraded facility that will provide a modern and comfortable setting to host community events.
Various artistic touches are still being installed and acquired. Within the next month, the far end of Lee and Jane Kivel Promenade — a walkway that now connects the Tucson Jewish Community Center and the Federation building — will feature a metal and glass sculpture by an Israeli-born metal artist Tidhar “Tidi” Ozeri.
During the planning stages of the Federation’s new center, Frank Mascia, owner of CDG Architects and chief planner of the new building, attended the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival. Mascia found his inspiration for the Enid and Mel Zuckerman Grand Foyer after watching “Raise the Roof,” a documentary about artists Rick and Laura Brown reconstructing the Gwoździec synagogue, an artistically fashioned wooden synagogue that was destroyed during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Mellan explains that Mascia was intrigued by the architectural elements of the Gwoździec synagogue, which utilized a “Turkish tent” structure to “welcome the stranger,” adding “this concept made a perfect metaphor for how the entryway to the building should be.”
Mascia suggested they find an artist who could install a piece to complement the arched ceiling. Mellan called on Jeff Timan, a local metal sculptor who works under the pseudonym Art Neptune, and his son, Zak Timan, an accomplished glass artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The father-and-son team created “Infinite Possibilities,” a glass, aluminum, steel and acrylic art installation, which evokes the mysteries of the universe and humanity’s interconnectedness.
Neptune has been a metal sculptor for more than 40 years. He’d been looking for a project to take on with his son, and this piece provided the perfect opportunity.
It took about six months to conceptualize the installation, he says, but incorporating glass into the work was essential. His son was deferential at first, but during the three-month construction process the dynamic changed, says Neptune. As the deadline approached, he leaned on his son more than the other way around.
“It’s a very complicated piece; it may not look it, but it’s extremely complicated,” says Neptune. “A lot of the engineering was possible because he had the expertise.”
Working with his son was a watershed moment for them, Neptune explains. The project was an intellectual exercise that piqued a massive amount of passion from both men.
“We’ve never been closer,” he says. “I got so much more out of working with him than I did out of actually making the piece — it surprised me.”
Metal sculpture, especially welding, provides instant gratification, says Neptune, who started developing his penchant for this craft using MIG (metal inert gas) welding, where a solid electrode feeds through the welding gun, suturing almost anything together in a flash.
Neptune graduated to a technique called plasma cutting, where a welding torch’s accelerated jet cuts through electrically conductive materials like steel, brass and aluminum. He used the plasma cutting process to etch various figures and symbols into the centerpiece for “Infinite Possibilities.”
Mellan says the piece mainly uses primary colors, inspired by the color scheme used at Gwoździec and other Polish synagogues constructed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Federation provides essential programming for the Jewish community in Tucson, as well as for its stateside and international partners, says Deanna Evenchik. She believes the Federation is boundless, so naming its artistic centerpiece “Infinite Possibilities” is pitch-perfect.
“When I saw it for the first time, I actually walked into the building and I cried — I got very verklempt,” she says.
She recalls how touched her late husband, Harvey, who passed away in September 2011 at age 82, was by all that the Federation does for the community.
It’s vital to say this project wouldn’t have come together so gracefully if it wasn’t for the strength of the local community, says Evenchik. “It’s almost like there’s nothing we can’t accomplish together; and the support was overwhelming.”
As guests look up to admire “the crown jewel of the grand foyer,” says Mellan, they’ll also notice a bronze sculpture by David Unger, “My Beloved,” on the second floor balcony. The sleek 4-foot-tall statue features a man and women embracing, intertwined like the roots of a tree. The sculpture was donated by Unger and his wife, Kathy, who dedicated the art to Mellan.
The Federation wanted the lobby to set the tone for what visitors would see and experience, says Mellan. Adorning the foyer’s western wall are biographies of eight lead donors along with three inspirational quotes. He says the assortment of names is not hierarchical, which offers a true sense of community, while the biographies offer a learning opportunity for anyone who visits.
The facade of the building, leading through the foyer, was meant to suggest Jerusalem stone and the Western Wall, says Mellan, further cementing the Federation’s connection to Israel and signifying the sacred elements of its mission.
The Shaol and Evelyn Pozez event room was added to the plan for the new building when the Federation learned that the Tucson J needed more meeting space for the growing community, he says.
Just off the Pozez event room is the Milton and Tamar Maltz patio, where a tile mosaic gifted by Gail M. Barnhill, Mellan’s executive assistant, will be installed later this month. The patio space is enclosed by the Eric and Liz Kanter-Groskind values wall. This raw steel fence is inscribed with words and phrases such as “tikkun olam,” “community,” and “Israel.” This installation was drafted by graphic designer Noah Cohen of Cohen Creative, and was another brainchild of Mellan’s. The structure, he says, “articulates the values that are important to us and to our work.”
The values wall has a practical function, and its design brings a sense of inspiration into the space, Mellan says.
“And in general, people are inspired, excited and proud that our community came together to create this space — I think they’re in awe of the building,” says Mellan.
Michael Kasser, a local developer and donor to the center, says he was moved by “Infinite Possibilities” and the new facility overall.
“A great building is defined by what makes it exceptional and unusual,” says Kasser. “To me, Jeff and Zak’s exceptional piece defines the building and gives it a special cachet — mazel tov!”
The Donald L. Baker board room offers a breathtaking view of the Santa Catalina Mountains, says Mellan. Nika Kaiser, a local artist and curator at the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center, designed an installation that commemorates former Federation presidents; she also fabricated the art that recognizes local Jewish women on the Lion of Judah Endowment wall.
Instead of simply collecting headshots of local Jewish leaders or inscribing a collection of names on a plaque, Kaiser created a more artful representation, Mellan says, adding this was “consistent with our thinking that we wanted to elevate beyond the function of it to something that would inspire people when they walked through.”
Multiple works from local artist Lynn Rae Lowe are also on display throughout the center. And a vivacious abstract painting gifted by Brenna Lacey adorns the Foundation’s waiting room.
The center was an aspiration for decades, says Mellan. When the Federation finally began to make definite plans, everything came together almost overnight, from the planning to fundraising to the construction. Tucson is a very generous community and many people are invested in the success of the Federation and its partners, he adds.
“The community came together so quickly to support the project and the response to the building has been very affirming,” he says.