Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Making It Our Own

I just returned from a trip to the West Coast where I had an opportunity to visit the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. With Passover approaching, they had a timely exhibition on the beautiful Haggadah illustrations of Arthur Szyk. Szyk created his Haggadah in the 1930s as Hitler came to power and often incorporated imagery related to the troubled state of the Jews of Europe. His work represented the preservation of the Pesach story, but adapted to the times in which he lived.

My return to the Artists' Lab picked up on that exploration with another dive into the Haggadah. To set the stage our facilitator Meryll Page shared several stories with us to illustrate the assumptions that we carry that may not be universal. She related a story of a local rabbi who was a chaplain in Morocco in the 1950s. When Passover was approaching the local people offered to cook a Pesach meal for them. All they needed to do was to share the recipes. Their assumptions were obviously not universal. They ended up with gefilte fish floating in the matzo ball soup.

The Pesach story has been handed down to us and with its passage through time incorporates issues that modern day eyes may find challenging. The assumptions that may have been the norm in earlier times may no longer be as shared by today's world. We were asked to consider how we approach parts of the story that may be repugnant to us. For example plagues were visited upon the Egyptians, plagues that ultimately destroyed their first-born child. How can we rejoice in that destruction? 

Over time we have created adaptations that seek to acknowledge that discomfort. As we count off the plagues, we dip our finger in the wine and spill a drop. This reminds us that our cup of joy is not complete because people had to die for our freedom. 

The Seder has developed in response to such issues. Each of us can make it our own. Meryll noted that there are five approaches that are often taken when we encounter a conflict with modern day sensibilities.

1 Study the word more.
2 Think of alternatives. For example there are actually two beginnings, one which deals with physical slavery and one which addresses spiritual slavery.
3 Replace something real with symbol. Today we use a lamb bone instead of slaughtering a lamb.
4 Avoid it. We don't paint blood on our door posts.
5 Make it child friendly.

In the spirit of adaptation, Anat led us in an exercise to add two additional commandments to the original ten. The exercise was inspired by a section of a poem by Yehuda Amichai that begins with My Father Was a God and Didn't Know It (#4 of My Parent's Motel). We debated the meaning of the additional commandments in the poem. Our translation differed slightly from this link with #11 Thou shall not change and #12 Thou must surely change. I understand this to mean one is to preserve the essence of who one is, but continue to grow and develop in response to one's environment, an interpretation quite consistent with our treatment of the Pesach story.

So what were our additions? Caring for the environment loomed large as well as kindness and not being passive or silent in the face of injustice. There were fewer "thou shalt nots", reflecting a call to action, less focus on sins of commission, more on those of omission. One spoke to me personally in encompassing all of the issues we raised, "Seek out and treat all of creation with an eye to its divine origins".

As we concluded our exploration of adaption, Anat shared a site with us created by Madonna on the theme of freedom. The focus is especially timely with Pesach approaching as its purpose is to encourage creative expressions that bring attention to human rights violations.

 To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to theJewish Artists' Laboratory website.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Plague of Darkness

With Pesach fast approaching, our focus in the Artists' Lab was on how darkness is dealt with in the Passover story. But first we began our session with a song based on a phrase about light; Yom Zeh l'Israel orah v'simchah, Shabbat m'nuhah. This day for Israel is joyous and blessed with light, happiness and Shabbat rest.

Rabbi Davis often uses song to mark the beginning and end of a discussion and I found myself wondering if the ability to carry a tune is a rabbinical requirement. Fortunately I don't aspire to such.  Having sung of light in a happy context, we then turned our attention to its opposite, darkness, specifically the plague of darkness visited upon the Egyptians as a prelude to the release of the Israelites (Exodus. 10:21). 

What does the plague of darkness represent to us? we were asked. "Fear, the unknown, hopelessness, a violation of the laws of nature (darkness during day) " we responded. This evolved into a discussion of our experiences with darkness, some which were quite unusual. One of our group recalled eating at a restaurant in Israel at which the wait staff was blind and the meal was served in darkness. A light code of sorts was enforced with a guest asked to remove his glow in the dark watch.

We discussed how darkness makes one appreciate its antithesis. But darkness is not always a negative. When one is in the womb, we float in darkness. It is light that shocks us upon the moment of birth. And in a world without artificial light, the phases of the moon were especially important for a full moon allowed one to see.

Coming back to the plague of darkness we were asked to imagine the response of the Egyptians when the power of their sun god was extinguished by darkness. The rabbi shared the relevant passages from the Torah together with excerpts of medieval commentary.

The interpretations sometimes grew out of disparate translations of words. Rashi argued that the verb in a key passage came from the word meaning "to grope" as in "you shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark (Deuteronomy 28:29)" arguing for a thick darkness, one of mass. Still other interpretations spoke of the darkness as a blinding light. 

Interestingly the Israelites were noted as having light in their dwelling, even as the Egyptians did not. We considered whether the term dwelling meant a home or perhaps our body, the home of our inner light.

In addition to the Egyptians, the plague of darkness also affected those Israelites who did not want to venture out of Egypt for forty years of wandering. According to the Midrash, twelve million Israelites died in the darkness.

So what are we to learn of darkness? Hiddushei haRim notes that the greatest darkness is when we fail to see another person, a failure to empathize. Yet another interpreter Even Haezel references language that states the darkness was as thick as dinars (gold coins) meaning that chasing wealth "increases selfishness and darkens the eyes".

Meryll Page then shared a Haggadah created by David Moss. As we are asked to imagine ourselves as someone who came out of Egypt, Moss assists us in this effort by embedding mirrored sections among images of Jews. Traditionally Jews have added to the Haggadah through illustration, thus illuminating it. As we learn in different ways, Passover makes use of many methods. We talk, taste and look. Our final exercise of the evening was to consider how we would add to our Passover Seder through image or text and what our message would be.

 To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to theJewish Artists' Laboratory website.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Exploration of Memory

This week's Artist's Lab began with an introduction to Keren Kroul whose colorful watercolors hang on the walls of the Tychman Shapiro gallery. Her brightly colored geometric segments repeat and twist, moving forward and away. White space is carved out, drawing one's eye to the negative space that defines the larger image. Complementing her work are large sculptural forms by Jeffrey Haddorf, assembled from ceramic and metal. Through the open space within his sculptures you glimpse Keren's colorful imagery and realize that each echoes aspects of the other.

Keren began by orienting us to the concerns that inform her work. With one parent from Argentina and one from Israel, Keren spoke Hebrew at home and Spanish in her daily life in Mexico and Costa Rica. As the only Jewish child in her Spanish speaking school, identity became a central focus of her artistic exploration. Keren explores identity through the lens of memory, reconstructing it through fragments that repeat, creating emphasis.

Along one long wall hung watercolors that captured forms that tied to memory, the reflection of Israeli blinds on the floor, a braid from her grandmother's twin who died in the Holocaust, figures curled in the ground. It is a storyboard of sorts, replete with iconic imagery. The colors change, becoming brighter, more optimistic as figures begin to connect to the landscape. In the last panel are geometric forms which Keren carried over to her next body of work, expanding on the forms as if a meditation, a repetition, but with variations of form and color.

Keren began as a painter, but when she was pregnant twelve years ago she sought a non-toxic medium and shifted to watercolor on paper. That practical decision opened up a dialogue with drawing and paper and became an ongoing exploration. She abandoned the physicality of the large stroke of painting for very focused work with small brushes applied as she stands. Always open to happy accidents, Keren creates forms that conjure neurons or perhaps a coral reef.

What is the relationship between memory, art and history? How would we draw it? These were the questions that were posed to us as we broke into groups following Keren's discussion; familiar turf for me as my work focuses on memory and I have often contemplated the linkage to art. Several of our groups drew double helixes while a third created sculptural forms to express the interrelationships between memory, art and history.

Memory seems more immediate than history, there is someone who remembers an event that presumably occurred in their experience. Both memory and history are created through the lens of the viewer and thus can differ among those recording it. Each is also subject to distortion. History represents more of a collective view, not necessarily universal, but codified and reinforced within a group. It in turn begins to create a collective memory, less immediate and more subject to being shaped by art or history.

We continued our exploration of these themes with a video which explored how art shapes memories of history and creates acts of remembrance. The work of Shimon Attie was presented as an illustration of the layering of time and memory. Attie projected images of the former Jewish community of Berlin on buildings, matching photos to the original location, juxtaposing time and place to create remembrance.

Equally powerful is his project Portraits of Exile which uses light boxes submerged in water to juxtapose the 1943 rescue of Denmark's Jewish community with present day refugees.

Memory is fostered through imagery and story creating a fundamental linkage to artwork. While artwork may represent and shape history, whose history it represents and with what level of veracity can be an open question.

Author note: Art and memory is my personal artistic focus. I have addressed many of these issues in my personal blog and am providing some of the links below for your reference.

Art and Memory

In 2013 I attended a workshop at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies on the topic of Holocaust memory and its expression through art and literature. The following entries were based on that workshop.

Creating Collective Memory
Juxtaposing Time and Place



To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to theJewish Artists' Laboratory website.


*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Glowing Visage

Our recent Artists' Lab began with the question, "Why do people sometimes glow?" That of course led to the often expressed reference to pregnant women glowing. One of our group posited that perhaps that glow is fueled by the addition of the baby's energy. Hmm, glowing for two. Our discussion soon led into auras and chakras.


Rabbi Davis directed us to the text of Exodus 34:29-35 which speaks of Moses' descent from Mt Sinai. This passage talks about how Moses' face became radiant after speaking to God and put forth light. The Midrashim, the sages' interpretive stories on Biblical text, offer several interpretations of this event. One theory was that when Moses took the second set of tablets from God he was only two-hand breadths away and acquired the glow because of this proximity. Yet another theory was that Moses acquired the glow when God taught him Torah. Yet a third theory was that he was born with this shining visage. The light was described as so bright that he lit up a house and one could see from one end of the world to the other.

These rays of light, in Hebrew "keren-or", account for the sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo for in addition to "rays", the word "keren" also means "horn". As a result Moses is often depicted with horns, rather than rays of light as indicated in the text.

The Israelites were initially afraid to approach Moses because of his radiance. When he finished speaking with them he covered his face with a veil or hood. I wondered if this was ever depicted in artwork, but a quick search displayed the familiar bearded visage, occasionally with horns, but no hood or veil. We discussed this separation between the divine and the everyday, a division echoed in the separation of Shabbos from every day. Similarly the Aron Hakodesh, the ark which houses the Torah, is also covered, creating a special moment upon its removal. In the case of Moses it was proposed that he employed the veil so as not to confuse the message with the messenger. He was representing himself as a vessel for God.

We turned our attention to the Zera Kodesh authored by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827). We are told we should hold God before us at all times recognizing a divine light surrounding each of us. Horowitz looks to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and notes that it evokes the name of God linked to mankind in a surprising way, it echoes the form of our face. If we break it down to its component parts we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face.

For the arts portion of our session Avi and Robyn led us in the creation of a group mandala. We talked of sacred space and the mandala with its circular form as a meditative vehicle. Each person selected five sheets of colored paper in colors we preferred. We were then charged with cutting out five forms which could be the same or different. Our choice was to be influenced by three questions: 1) what shape or color represents our creative process? 2) what is the inner core, the image that reflects our inner self? and 3) what are the layers, the rings that build us?

My paintings are based on story and often arise out of a process of inquiry. I listen and then create, building imagery on layers of discarded attempts. My result was an ear-like form with open areas exposing the underlying layers. We adjourned to a circular room where a round mirror created the center of the mandala. First a perimeter was formed, then Hebrew letters were placed in the center ring, both the cutout and the negative space created by the cut form. Those with larger shapes placed them first, then we each placed our forms so that they interacted with each other's. Many of the cutouts expressed a meandering shape, reflective of the typical creative process while also hinting at  the influence of the recently opened Matisse show.





 Slowly we watched the mandala take shape, forming a beautiful structure that reflected a diverse and creative group.  Even as we contemplated this beautiful expression, we knew that the nature of a mandala is transitory.
















We gathered the pieces together with a  plan  to shred them and perhaps recycle them to an alternate purpose.


We closed our session with a sneak preview of the first stage of our sketchbook project, soon to be sent to our sister labs in Milwaukee and Madison. Here are just a few of the creations of our multi-talented group.



Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rolling Light Away From Darkness

At our recent Artists' Lab we turned our attention to the prayer book, the Siddur, to explore the use of light as both metaphor and specific reference.  I am often drawn in by the poetry of the prayer book. I have been known to copy down passages struck by the sheer poetry.  This exploration again reminded me of that impulse.  To give you a flavor, here is the passage from the Sheharit-B'rakhot, Hakol yadukah.

All exalt You, Creator of all. God who daily opens the gates of the heavens, the casements of  the eastern sky- bringing forth the sun from its dwelling place, the moon from its abode, illumining the whole world and its inhabitants whom you created with mercy.  You illumine the earth and its creatures with mercy.

We were asked whether the passage speaks of light literally or metaphorically.  I loved the metaphor of illumining with mercy.  I pictured windows thrown open emitting a yellow-white blinding light.

Bless us our Creator, one and all, with Your light, for You have given us by that light the guide to a life filled with generosity and contentment, kindness and well-being, and peace.

Here we speak of light as offering precepts by which to live, perhaps harkening back to the burning bush and its light that accompanied the bestowing of the Ten Commandments,

And from the evening service we recite this prayer...Praised are you Adonai our God who rules the universe.  Your word bringing the evening dusk. You open with wisdom the gates of dawn, design the day with wondrous skill, set out the succession of seasons, and arrange the stars in the sky according to Your will.  You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Praised are you Adonai, for each evening's dusk.

Here God is the Creator of light, but also darkness and we give thanks for each in their interdependence.  Judaism is a religion that is organized around light or its absence, expressed in both morning and evening prayers and the Havdallah ceremony that accompanies the end of Shabbat.  In fact, the Jewish day runs from sundown to sundown.

After this exploration we attempted a somewhat unsuccessful experiment with bouncing a light from mirror to mirror.  Failing in our attempt we shifted to a drawing exercise using charcoal and a variety of erasers, first creating darkness and then removing it, rolling darkness away from light to create emergent imagery. Faces and hands smudged with charcoal we concluded our evening and emerged into the darkness of our cold Minnesota night.


To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to theJewish Artists' Laboratory website.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.






Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ear People

This week's Artists' Lab had two special attendees added to our mix. We were rejoined by Rabbi Davis, albeit on crutches after a fall on the ice. Our facilitator Avi joined us also, this time carrying her infant son, the newest creation she has been working on these past months.

In the Jewish tradition of questioning, Rabbi Davis began our session by posing one. Think about a movie you saw that might have been based on a book. Which was better and why?

The jury was mixed. It was proposed that books allow us to fill in the blanks with imagination. This was quickly countered by the argument that a film creates a new space for us to reimagine. We were urged to allow room for the power of a different medium and ultimately acknowledged that there is power to both words and image.

The rabbi directed us to passages in the Bible where there is witnessing versus hearing. We visited the giving of the Ten Commandments and then the retelling by Moses.

In Exodus 19:11 Moses is summoned to prepare the people to see God and in 19:16 God is described as thunder, lighting, fire and smoke.

In Deuteronomy 4:12 Moses retells the experience of witnessing God, yet even then it was as a witness of fire and a voice. "And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice."

With amusement the rabbi pointed out the passage in Exodus 24: 9-11 which concludes with “they beheld God, and did eat and drink”, a not too uncommon theme for many Jewish occasions, apparently one with an ancient tradition.

He concluded this perusal with Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema which means "Hear".

Which is more powerful we were asked, hearing or seeing?

Again we debated. Hearing was perceived as a more communal experience. Perhaps a partial experience, requiring our other senses to be complete. And a primal sense, the first sound we hear is our mother’s heartbeat.

The rabbi noted that there is a bias in Judaism for hearing, we retell our stories as part of a long oral tradition. When we say the Shema we cover our eyes, focusing on the hearing. Ear people more than eye people. Word people more than art people, particularly because of restrictions on graven images which were viewed as applying to figurative imagery. More often he noted Jews adopted the standards of the cultures within which they lived.

He turned our attention to a prayer book that was somewhat unusual. It was filled with photographic imagery. "Did we like it or was it distracting?" he asked. Again there was no unanimous response. He told us that the images are considered a Midrash, a commentary on the passages that they illustrate. Interestingly when we turned to the Shema there was no image, visual silence, a covering of our eyes.

In the book’s commentary Rabbi Grumet notes that Deuteronomy focuses on the world of words because they create meaning and allow for transmission between people and generations. Visual experience by contrast is fleeting.

Rabbi Davis noted that many Christian communities are exploring visual prayer, beginning to think of their buildings as canvases and projecting images. The cathedrals of old certainly grasped the concept embodying the holy in the very structure of their buildings.

In the case of the illustrated prayer book, we are encouraged to respond to a visual of a sunset and when we see a sunset, associate it with the holy. In the everyday there is the holy and the visual itself becomes a prayer.

I often retrace our path as the flow intrigues me. Movies vs. Books. Hearing vs.Seeing. Word vs Visual. Each level drilling down looking at different aspects of a concept. I like this manner of inquiry, circling around looking at it from different perspectives.

The second part of our session was a revisiting of our sketchbook project. Marty Harris joined us and shared examples again. As I looked at these examples I noted that often an image extended slightly into the next page leaving a hook for the next participant to work with and adding to the sense of flow. Some of our group has dived into this project with gusto. I’m still conceptualizing. "Don’t think too much", they advised."Aargh! Too late for that", I thought. I am still circling around my idea, looking at it from different perspectives much as we did in our inquiry today. How to express it is a question yet to be answered.

To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to theJewish Artists' Laboratory website.


*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Our Private Shiviti


Mizrah-ShivitiThis is a difficult Artists’ Lab to capture in words for it was largely about movement and sound. We began the session with a rendition of a poem/song by David Harris. The piece, Arcs of Light, was commissioned by Sher Tikva and created by Jan Gilbert ten years ago based on the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi a poet in medieval Spain. One of the women in the lab had heard David perform it in the one performance that had been done ten years ago, remembered it and suggested he do it for the lab. Its theme was on light, but light through sound, hearing light with different frequencies and distances. As someone who can’t carry a tune, I am amazed when someone opens their mouth and beautiful and harmonious sounds emerge. It seems like magic to me and this performance was indeed magical in a spiritual way. David commented that you never know how something that you performed or presented may have touched another person. Here he was performing the piece again ten years later from just such an occurrence.

The second part of our lab was a light inspired movement workshop lead by local dancer Judith Brin Ingber. Judith distributed richly colored purple scarves and asked us to cover our eyes with them. Scarves knotted around our eyes, we held onto each other’s hands and shoulders as we tentatively shuffled forward following her directions to move through the building. As we entered different rooms we felt changes in sound and temperature, even the floor beneath our feet. Gradually we worked our way to the dance studio, squeezing into what seemed an enormous elevator. In the studio we removed our blindfolds as David sang the morning prayer in which we thank God for giving sight to the blind. As I have been considering developing my artwork around the experience of a friend of mine who is legally blind it seemed particularly appropriate.

Judith distributed copies of shiviti, what is best described as word images which are used as tools for meditation. Many had a menorah as a central image or circles or the suggestion of houses. Some were images of papercuts, all contained Hebrew words. We were asked to contemplate these and then create our own out of movement. With one hand we wrote our name, letting the other hand pick it up as it reached behind us. We then created a unique form that we interjected into our words, a house, a circle, a bird. Reaching high, reaching low, we varied the size and form of our letters, sometimes writing in English, sometimes in Hebrew. Judith divided us into two groups and instructed one group to continue with the exercise while the other watched, then switching from doing to watching. I was amazed at our grace, transformed to modern dance, our movements flowed as we encrypted our names in air, our private shiviti.

Finally we shifted our attention to the morning prayers as she led us through some of them aloud. Many address the physical functions that allow us to go through our day. We bless God who releases the bound (sitting up and stretching), who straightens the bent (getting out of bed) and who creates the very orifices and openings of our body that allow us to function. Virtually everything we take for granted is worthy of a blessing. And of course our theme of light is addressed through a prayer as well in which we address the "Creator of the day and night, who rolls back light before the dark and dark before the light." 


To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to the Jewish Artists' Laboratory website.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.