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Norwell couple re-creates a piece of Jewish history

The Gwozdziec project in Warsaw.

Czarek Sokolowski /AP

The Gwozdziec project in Warsaw.

They have studied every curve of the wood, every beam, peg, and brush stroke that made up the centuries-old structure.

For the last 10 years, Laura and Rick Brown have been immersed in the art and architecture of Poland’s historic Gwozdziec synagogue, as well as that of many other Jewish houses of worship built during the 17th and 18th centuries. At one time, as many as 200 such wooden buildings dotted the Polish-Lithuanian landscape. Of those that made it into the 20th century, none survived the destruction of the Nazis during World War II.

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Now, after a decade of research and building small-scale models, the Browns and their international team of 300 carpenters, artists, and students have created a nearly full-scale replica of the the triple-tiered roof and intricately painted ceiling and cupola of the Gwozdziec synagogue, considered one of the most magnificent, well-documented of the wooden synagogues of the era.

In March, the 25,000-pound, 85 percent scale replica was hoisted into place as the centerpiece of Warsaw’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which will trace the 1,000-year legacy of Poland’s Jews. This weekend, the Browns are in Warsaw to join international dignitaries and the public for a preview of the synagogue exhibit.

While the museum is not scheduled to open officially until next year, it is offering cultural programs as part of the city’s monthlong commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the 1943 Passover-eve revolt against the Nazis by Jewish fighters confined there.

“Seeing [the replica] in the museum is like a birthing,” said Laura Brown after a January trip to oversee the installation of the replica. “You’re giving this object its own new life.”

Artist Rick and Laura Brown at their studio in Hanover.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Artist Rick and Laura Brown at their studio in Hanover.

“They really have done something miraculous,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, who was tapped to lead the museum’s exhibit development team. “Nobody in their wildest dreams would have imagined that such a structure could have been built in such a way, to be part of a brand new museum, which is also unique.”

The Browns’ approach to building, using traditional tools and techniques dating back to the time the synagogue was built, offered something beyond having a copy of the synagogue roof built as a prop, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.

“The value is in the recovery of the knowledge of how to build it,” she said.

Both sculptors, the Browns came to the Gwozdziec project as founders and directors of Handshouse Studio, an educational nonprofit in Norwell that replicates historic objects using authentic methods. Rick, 64, is a professor in the fine arts 3-D department at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Laura, 61, teaches in the same department.

“By looking closely at a historic object and trying to build it as accurately as possible, you inevitably learn about the social, political, and economic forces that were present at that time,” Rick said in an interview at Handshouse, located on the grounds of the Browns’ 17th-century farmhouse. “That’s what we are uncovering.”

The couple were introduced to the idea of replicating one of Poland’s wooden synagogues at a 2003 conference on Annihilated History in Poland, organized by that country’s Ministry of Culture. While they are not Jewish and have no Polish heritage, they were drawn to the beauty of the synagogues and the magnitude of this all-but-forgotten history.

Rick and Laura Brown (below) came to the Gwozdziec project (above) as founders and directors of Handshouse Studio, an educational nonprofit in Norwell that replicates historic objects using authentic methods.

AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

Rick and Laura Brown (below) came to the Gwozdziec project (above) as founders and directors of Handshouse Studio, an educational nonprofit in Norwell that replicates historic objects using authentic methods.

In 2004, they created a workshop and course at Mass­Art in conjunction with Hands­house, building a small-scale model of one of the wooden synagogues and creating a meticulous copy of a section of the ceiling art of the Gwozdziec synagogue. They brought in scholars to broaden their knowledge of the art, architecture, and history.

Over the next five years, they expanded their course offerings, building more small models of synagogues, and creating larger copies of the entire ceiling and cupola art replica of Gwozdziec. They also led numerous travel programs to Poland, documenting church art and architecture of the period. Their models have been exhibited across the country, including the Vilna Shul in Boston and the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.

Their primary source of information was a collection of photographs, measurements, and illustrations made in the early decades of the 1900s by Polish historians and architectural students.

Two years ago the Browns finalized a contract to build the Gwozdziec synagogue replica as a key exhibit for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, then in its early phase of construction. The replica project is funded by a $1 million donation to the museum by Irene Pletka, a philanthropist whose Jewish family fled Poland in 1941 . Born in Shanghai, Pletka lived in Melbourne, London and for a time, in the Boston area. She now divides her time between Melbourne, Jerusalem, and New York.

The wooden roof was constructed in Poland in 2011, by 30 expert carpenters and a student crew during a six-week workshop, in partnership with the Timber Framers Guild, a national organization based in Alstead, N.H. The brightly colored liturgical ceiling art was reproduced during painting workshops held over two summers in synagogues across Poland. The students, who applied for the competitive workshop spots, came from more than 20 US colleges including MassArt, as well as more than 20 Polish universities. The completed roof structure and painted boards were stored in Poland. In January, the Browns presided over a carefully orchestrated process to fit together the outer roof structure with the interior painted ceiling boards, on site, at the museum, where it sat temporarily on wooden blocks.

The synagogue was originally built in the mid-17th century, in the southeastern edge of the former Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth in what is now western Ukraine. An extensive renovation completed in 1731 transformed the interior of the building. creating a towering, tent-like cupola, most likely the first in the region.

The exterior of the Gwozdziec synagogue borrowed from Polish vernacular architecture of the time, according to Thomas C. Hubka, author of “The Resplendent Synagogue,” about the art and architecture of the Gwozdziec synagogue published in 2003 by Brandeis University Press. Hubka is a professor of architecture emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

In a phone conversation, Hubka said Gwozdziec was similar to other wooden frame buildings of the region such as churches and manor houses. But inside, it was Jewish, he said. Elaborate paintings of mythical beasts, backward-gazing deer, a wolf devouring a small goat, and signs of the Zodiac adorned the ceiling and cupola in highly saturated hues of ochre, reds, and blues. Large Hebrew text panels of prayers painted in black were boldly set against a white background.

“These are remarkable buildings and reflect how Jews were influenced by their surrounding culture,” said Antony Polonsky, the Albert Abramson professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, and the author of a three-volume history, “The Jews in Poland and Russia.”

The vivid imagery, Polonsky and Hubka suggest, reflects both local lore and folk art as well as the influence of mysticism even before the dominance of Hasidism, a religious movement that was emerging at the time that emphasized spirituality and messianic yearnings.

This synagogue was built and renovated during an extended period of relative stability and prosperity for Polish Jews of this region, Hubka said. While the synagogue was built by Christian laborers — Jews were not allowed into the building guilds at the times — the paintings were made by Jews, including two artists who signed their names and wrote brief passages inside large oval ceiling medallions.

By the 1800s, the architectural and artistic style of the large wooden synagogues was abandoned in favor of simpler and smaller prayer halls, Polonsky said. Some wooden synagogues were preserved, others left to disrepair, but the style was not replicated.

Two hundred hand-hewn logs were used for the timber frame roof. Painted images include more than 1,000 floral motifs, 67 animals, and many meters of ropes, vines, and trim details, according to Laura Brown. The boards were covered with gesso and painted with a rabbit-skin glue mixed with authentic pigments. Over many years of color research, the Browns’ team discovered that the most likely source of the unusual blue pigment found in the synagogue art was the woad flower, used at the time in the local tent-making trade.

Two more projects associated with the synagogue replication are in progress. The Browns are recruiting students to participate in one last series of painting workshops in Poland to complete a full-size hand-carved replica of the Gwozdziec synagogue’s bima, a free-standing, round prayer podium. The bima, made of poplar, measures 16 feet high by 14 feet at its widest point, and was built in a 2007 workshop at Handshouse. The Browns plan to donate it to the museum, where it will become part of the synagogue exhibit.

A film of the replication project is being made by local filmmakers Cary and Yari Wolinsky, of Trillium Studios, in collaboration with Cambridge-based John Rubin Productions. Shot in Boston and Poland, it was partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign that ended last spring. They hope to raise additional funds to complete more of the film, Rick said.

Looking back on the journey, Laura and Rick say they are humbled by the hundreds of people, including many MassArt students and graduates, who have given so much time to this project.

They are grateful to MassArt for allowing them the flexibility to create courses designed for the project including a series of “Lost Historic Paintings” classes analyzing and replicating quarter-scale, then half-scale models of the Gwozdziec synagogue ceiling panels.

The 85 percent scale replica represents more than the grandeur of a long ago synagogue, Laura said. “This object speaks to a very painful history that is still very alive,” she said.

The Browns anticipate the exhibit will generate conversation and a renewed interest in the historic synagogues in Poland and even around the world.

“Now, it’s like a bird and we’re going to let it fly,” Rick said.

Penny Schwartz can be reached at penschwartz@earthlink.net,
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