Mae Rockland Tupa: Artist and Author
She was born Mae Cecilia Shafter on December 18, 1937 in Bronx, NY. Raised as a “pink diaper baby” and speaking only Yiddish until age five, Mae graduated from Music & Art High School, a public alternative high school that eventually merged into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Married at age 17, Mae took her (first) husband’s surname of Rockland. She continued her education at Hunter College, at Alfred University’s College of Ceramic Design and, after the birth of two sons, earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota where she also was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Mae traveled and lived in Japan, Argentina, and eventually Spain because her spouse worked for the United States Foreign Service. While performing duties as a diplomat’s wife, such as hosting dignitaries, Mae developed her skills as an artist. In March of 1963, Mae had her first solo exhibition at the Galeria El Portico in Buenos Aires. Mae continued to cultivate her artistic strengths as a print maker and etcher in Madrid, where a daughter was born. She subsequently lived in Princeton, NJ, where her work was exhibited at the Nassau Gallery and she taught graphic arts at the Princeton Art Association.
Schocken Books/ Random House published her pioneering book, The Work of Our Hands: Jewish Needlecraft for Today in 1973, which took the world of American Judaica by storm. Finally, here was a book that surveyed the abundant Jewish tradition of art and explained how to enlarge upon that tradition in terms of symbols, colors, and objects. It included ideas for projects in needlepoint, embroidery, appliqué, quilting, and patchwork. Readers learned how to make items for personal use or part of Jewish ritual in the home, such as mizrahim, tallit bags, kippot, matzo and hallah covers, but also secular objects such as guitar straps, pillows, quilts, and tablecloths. Mae also demonstrated how Hebrew names and Biblical motifs could be incorporated. She created the first Alef-Bet sampler. Mae empowered artists to produce veritable family heirlooms and many artists subsequently copied her design for Hebrew alphabet letters. Six more books followed including The Hanukkah Book (1975); The Jewish Yellow Pages: A Directory of Goods and Services (1976); The Jewish Party Book: A Contemporary Guide to Customs, Crafts, and Foods (1978); The NEW Jewish Yellow Pages (1980); an updated Hanukkah Book: Games, Activities, and Gift Suggestions for the Whole Family (1985); and The NEW Work of Our Hands: Contemporary Jewish Needlework and Quilts (1994).
In 1979, Mae remarried and added Tupa to her name. Together with her second husband, also an artist, she established a studio in which the two could expand upon their respective artistic talents. In 1983, after earning a degree in interior design, she founded Metatron Designs and added interior design services to her artistic endeavors. Mae, who received many commissions from individuals and synagogues, eventually transitioned away from paper-cutting and printmaking to tapestry quilts with such diverse subjects as medieval Jewish streets in Spain and the immigrant experience in America. Her quilt, “Promise,” incorporated images from her parents’ Polish and Lithuanian passports and was what she described as a “heritage gift” for her granddaughter. Before presenting it to her descendent, this work toured around the globe. Mae, who joined the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework in the 1970s, founded the Greater Boston Chapter in 1992.
The objects Mae made and the books she wrote helped shape the field of Jewish Americana. Mae’s work, taken as a whole, reflects her view that “just as Jews have become an integral part of the American scene, so can a classical American symbol be used to express a Jewish theme.” A shining example is her hannukiah titled “Miss Liberty”, which is emblazoned with the last lines of Emma Lazurus’s poem “The New Colossus,” and is in the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum in NYC. The Berlin Judishches Museum in Germany, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the National Library of Spain, multiple universities and congregations also house her work. Mae resides in Brookline, MA, and Vilafames, Spain.