Mae Rockland Tupa: Artist and Author

Mae Rockland Tupa.

Photograph by Richard Speedy.

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.

Topics: Crafts, Non-Fiction
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Hi Mae, i came back from my daughter’s Jewish wedding in Florida and it made me think of you and Music And Art High School. I would love to reconnect with you and catch up! I’m not great with email so I hope this works. Miss you!!!

I met Mae in the early 80s, just as she was launching Metatron Designs. Her art and skill was unique while enduring. She was immensely helpful and generous and her gifts (paper cuts— Daniel in the-Lion’s Den and Friendship - still adorn our living spaces) .We are of necessity anticipating living more simply, and need advice on finding a new home for some of our pieces. I,too would like to be in contact.

I believe I was her neighbor when she lived in Madrid, Spain...and inherited frm my parents one of her paintings...would love to contact her...if anybody reads this message please reply:

Mae is my father’s cousin, I believe. The last time I saw her was in my parents home in Cape Elizabeth, Mainethe 1990’s. I’d love to reconnect.

Somehow the old brain remembered Mae’s name from our early grad school days at the UofM. We interacted socially. We never knew one another at M&A as I was three years older. How nice to know how happy and fulfilled she has been.

So nice to read about the herstory of my long lost friend Mae! Maybe we can connect in Boston next week when I'm there for a would be wonderful to reconnect.  (Would be great to see Keren, too!)  abrazos!

Forty or more years ago, I bought an Artist's Proof of Mae Rockland's woodblock, "god created man because he loves stories".  It still hangs on my wall and I still adore it and its story.  Please let Mae Rockland Tupa know that her work is honored in my home.  Thank you.

This is a very nice start on reporting Mae's accomplishments. Mae, one can also add to your production list your children and grandchildren. You are a wonderful mother and role model. You are gracious, sharing, generous with your time and expertise. You are a true inspiration and a person to be looked up to and motivated by. You have lived and are still living an impressive life - touching and positively influencing many.

A beautiful woman who creates beautiful art for the world to enjoy.

I acquired The Works of Our Hands in 1973 when it first came out. It transformed my ideas of Jewish needlework. I made several projects in the book, then used it as a jumping off point to create my own original works.

Thank you, Mae, for being such a wonderful influence!

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How to cite this page

McGinity, Ph.D., Keren R.. "Mae Rockland Tupa: Artist and Author." 14 May 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 29, 2024) <>.