Jubilation in Bronze: Sculpture honoring Charles and Marian Weisberg back on display at the Trager Family JCC

By Andrew Adler
Community Editor

When you come through the front doors of the Trager Family JCC, swipe your membership card and stroll into the Weisberg Family Lobby, you see it: a bronze sculpture of a tree growing up and outward, its branches extending left and right, topped by figures in motion captured for an instant, forever frozen in time. 

 Created in 1989 by renowned Louisville sculptor Barney Bright, the Tree of Life was commissioned by Weisberg brothers Frank, Ron and Alan and their respective families. They wanted to honor their parents – Charles and Marian

(L-R): Brothers Frank and Ron Weisberg at the Trager Family JCC, with Barney Bright’s bronze sculpture Tree of Life honoring their parents, Charles and Marian Weisberg (Photo by Robyn Kaufman)

Weisberg – and chose Bright to be their muse. (He died in 1997 at the age of 70.) 

      For more than three decades, the sculpture occupied a spot inside the former Jewish Community Center. When the old JCC closed in early 2022, the piece was brought to the Trager Family JCC and put in storage. But the intent was always to put it back on public display. 

     A few things had to be taken care of before that could happen, principally crafting a new base that would complement Bright’s sculpture. Interior designer Robin Miller, a former Federation staffer who now sits on the board, was tasked with finding an appropriate person to take on the assignment. 

     The project fell to Logan Blankenship of The Spalty Dog, a young Cincinnati furniture maker who on this day was preparing to secure Bright’s sculpture to an imposing slab of veneered white oak. Tape measure in hand, he made some final calculations “because we want to make sure it fits perfectly,” he said. 

     A mere block of wood simply wouldn’t do. White oak “is a higher quality wood,” explained Blankenship, who’d been hands-on since the preceding October. “It’s very durable, very strong. You can basically make white oak about any color you can imagine, from extremely light to extremely dark. So that gave us flexibility when I sent samples over, for the group to pick out what color they wanted to go with.” 

     The trick was figuring out how to secure the sculpture to the base without any distracting elements. “The focal point is the sculpture, not the base,” Blankenship emphasized. 

     In other words, what’s most important is how Bright depicts figures in various activities: orchestra musicians, swimmers, a circle of dancers whirling à la Matisse. A figure stands at a lectern, speaking to a group of men, women and at least one child – the warm family dynamic celebrated in cool metal. 

     There was still one major question left unanswered: Where in the Weisberg lobby to display the Weisberg sculpture to its best advantage? Should it be near the front windows to capture the morning and afternoon light? Or perhaps against the broad, white wall to the right of the Shapira Foundation Auditorium? It needed to be accessible, while at the same time protected from unintended bumps and minor collisions with curious visitors. 

     “The sculpture obviously is three-dimensional, and we’d like to view is from different angles,” Miller said, as the piece was wheeled out from a side corridor into the main space. “So I have a couple of ideas – some of them are artistic, and some of them are logistical.” 

     She gazed around the veranda facing those lobby windows, fixing her eyes on a small assemblage of chairs and couches. Nearby stood Frank Weisberg, along with his older brother, Ron. Alan, who lives in Florida, would join them for a formal dedication ceremony slated for June. 

     With assurances that furniture positioning was flexible, organizers tried several additional spots for the sculpture. “We’re looking to give it a little more of a prominent spot,” Miller said. “And wouldn’t it be cool if people could literally walk around it 360 degrees. But I don’t think that’s a really safe idea – with the amount of children, you could have someone go clunk.” 

   Eventually it was decided to locate the piece – at least for the time being – just beyond the Minx & Sy Auerbach Veranda. It’s angled slightly so visitors can peer around it without feeling cramped. 

     Moments after the sculpture was wheeled into place, Frank Weisberg – himself a longtime painter and a generous local philanthropist — stepped up to share a favorite story about its genesis. 

    “When my dad was retiring as president of the Jewish Community Center, I said to my brother Ron and my brother Alan, ‘This is a big deal – we’ve got to do something really, really nice. Barney Bright was the most well-known sculptor in the state of Kentucky for years and years and years. He knew my dad, he knew my mom and he knew my grandfather, and I was friendly with him. Every Saturday I would go and visit Barney and another sculptor, Paul Fields, on Frankfort Avenue. 

    “So anyway, we call and say, ‘Barney, we’d like for you to look at the Center.’ The executive director (Al Cheistwer) took us through the entire building, and showed us all of the different things we do at the Jewish Community Center. And Barney says, ‘all right…I’ll call you in a couple of days.’ 

   “Well, a couple of days go by. A week goes by. Two weeks go by – but I don’t hear from him. So I call him and say, ‘Barney, what’s going on?’ And he says, ‘Frank, I gotta tell you, I’ve been a little pissed off at you.’ I said, ‘Wow.’ He said, ‘You gave me a task that was just too hard to be able to capture in one sculpture piece. But last night I had a dream – I dreamt about it’ So he built a clay model and says, ‘These are the things the Jewish Community Center is all about.’” 

     There are a few sculptural Easter eggs as well. When you look at the orchestra conductor’s face, it’s Bright’s. Other figures bear faces of Weisberg’s parents, with one man, cocking his ear, representing Bright’s hard-of-hearing grandfather. 

     None of them realized they’d been immortalized in bronze until the sculpture was unveiled. “They were just so amazed and happy,” Weisberg recalled. 

    “So anyway, that’s why this was made,” he said, looking at the Tree of Life with evident pride. “And I just love the story behind it.” 



Leave a Reply