Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Writing with White Fire








Rembrandt 1659
Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
 When you think of breakage and the Torah, one of the first images that may come to mind is that of Moses flinging the Tablets of the Law to the ground in both despair and anger. Below him were the Israelites, dancing around a golden calf. 

Our lab discussion (handout-Searching the White Space) centered around two passages, Exodus 32:1-19 and Deuteronomy 10: 1-5. Exodus tells the story of Moses going up the mountain to converse with God for forty days. In the meantime, the Israelites become impatient and assume Moses will not return. They gather their gold jewelry to melt down to create an idol,  a golden calf. God observes what transpires and in his anger threatens to destroy the people, but Moses dissuades him, giving new meaning to speaking truth to power. Even better, he was heard and altered the path of potential destruction. Later in Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the steps God then required of him to create a second set of tablets.

 

In the Talmudic tradition we began with a question, a conundrum of sorts. Moses pleaded with God to still his anger and not destroy the people, yet when Moses came down the mountain to discover the golden calf, he too gave way to anger, flinging the tablets to the ground and breaking them into shards.

 

We distinguished between destruction and the passion of anger. Anger can be softened while we may not be able to come back from total destruction. Not all breakage is fixable, but anger may allow for a redo, in fact that is what was granted to both Moses and the Israelites.

 

We moved our attention to a midrash that spoke of the Torah being written in black fire on white fire. It is not just ink on parchment. It is alive and vivid. And that white fire is just as important as the black fire. It is the negative space, what is not spoken, but is created in relation to what is said. As artists we know that concept well in a visual way. It is the subject of much midrash, looking for the story within the story, the unspoken underlying content. It begins with curiosity, with a question and looks carefully at both what is written and what is not. Often the conclusion is evaluated through a metaphoric lens.


It is not coincidental that this process closely resembles the creative process. We are creating visual midrash through our artwork as we explore these topics. We too, begin with a question and our artwork explores the space around the text, the nooks and crannies that frame that black fire.

 

One of the questions posed was what happened to the shards of the tablets. In Judaism we bury or preserve and store damaged texts that contain the name of God.  It seemed unlikely that Moses left those shards at the foot of Mount Sinai. This was a question which also occupied the rabbis. Rabbi Meir read between the lines of “there was nothing in the Ark except the two tablets of stone which Moses put there” and concluded that it also included the broken pieces of the first set of tablets. They too were sacred in whatever form.

 

So, what does this all mean for us metaphorically? 

 

We bring our brokenness along with us as we move forward to wholeness. They are not discrete states, wholeness incorporates brokenness. We build on it as we find our way to wholeness.

 

Sometimes we can’t replace what is broken, a good reason to respect the fragility of what we value.


We may find that chipped Seder plate with a rich story more valuable for its very brokenness, its near brush with loss.


Perhaps brokenness is a necessary step that must occur to find wholeness. It is in our brokenness that we learn compassion, perhaps something Moses learned from  his own struggle with speech. And quite unexpectedly, at that critical moment he offered that teaching to God, in their own partnership, their hevruta, turning him away from destruction.  


And yet wholeness is not a static state, nor is brokenness. Moses continued to struggle with brokenness, literally breaking all the commandments into shards. He too was given the opportunity to rebuild into a new wholeness. 


We closed our discussion with a visual midrash, a look at the work of Yaron Bob who took the phrase "swords to ploughshares" to heart, repurposing brokenness to wholeness by turning bombs into menorahs and roses. 








A Rose of Her Own by Yaron Bob



 


A few additional art connections and more on Rembrandt's painting and Yaron Bob . . .


Rembrandt’s painting of Moses breaking the tablets.

Virtual  and Visual Midrash

Raiders of the Lost Ark could be considered a very long midrash about what happened to the Ark of the Covenant

Creative approaches to broken objects

visual of what it takes to put together an archeological find

Mend Piece by Yoko Ono  creative approaches to broken objects

Rockets into Roses:  Yaron Bob.




Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Beauty out of Breakage: Filling the Cracks

by Susan Weinberg

 
How to start? We met today to find the answers to that question. We will be partnering with a young adult of a different generation than ourself, to explore the concepts of brokenness and wholeness. We will meet both as a lab, but also separately with our teen partner. It will culminate in the creation of artwork for a virtual and possibly in-person exhibition. We will be working across generations and often geography. Some of us know our partners or at least have a familial connection. Others do not. How will that affect the result?

Hevruta is a traditional form of Jewish learning, learning in partnership. This was to be a partnership, not a mentorship. We will learn from each other. Meryll reminded us of the confidentiality that we agreed to at the beginning of the lab and to consider establishing ground rules in our partnerships. She cautioned against promoting a point of view. There were questions about whether we created one piece together, two pieces in conversation or separate pieces. All and any of the above was the answer. Technology will allow us to share ideas and potentially incorporate them into one artwork if desired. 


We will meet again November 17th as a lab and meet with our partner(s) by December 14th. You will note partners plural as I am working with two granddaughters who are close in age, 15 and 16. Both are now in California so I have a geographic span as well. We are a bit broken as a family at the moment, at least by geography, as the remaining half of our family recently moved to California joining family members across the country. We look for ways to navigate that distance so I welcome this project as a means to unite us in conversation.

 

This age group was selected because they would have the ability to go beyond the literal into metaphor, a skill which comes with age. Meryll pointed us to a quote on Noah’s ark and discussed how younger children would understand it in a much more literal way. Then she segued into that metaphorical Noah's ark which we all occupy as  we attempt to evade the covid virus, seeking a place of safety and wondering when we can step out on solid ground again. We await the return of our dove.

 

To get our wheels spinning, Meryll provided us with a source sheet with four different beginnings. She began with a quote “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart,” then asked us to share our reactions. Some noted the difference between two states, whole and broken, and the need to experience each to understand them. Others spoke of vulnerability and how it opens us up to a full spectrum of feeling, making us fully present. Some were touched, recalling such experiences within their own lives on a visceral level. The homonym of whole and hole was suggested for contemplation and Leonard Cohen’s lyric was recalled---“the bell is cracked ---That’s how the light gets in.” 

 

A second pathway to this topic is through word analysis. This is a gateway that I often use as it prods me to think more broadly and begin to build word maps of associated concepts. While I default to English for lack of any fluency in Hebrew, I am always interested in the Hebrew roots. The Hebrew for wholeness is shalam, derived from the same root as sholom, meaning peace. It is an interesting correlation to our expression “peace of mind.”  

 

The third approach is brainstorming and Meryll presented a number of suggestions in the handout (Brokenness-Wholeness -SourceSheet-4Beginnings) such as Jewish rituals, history, prayers and laws related to breaking and wholeness as well as contemporary issues such as Israeli politics. I was especially intrigued with her comments on the shofar call, one of which is a series of broken notes. The shofar breaks the silence, calling us to attention. Perhaps that is the purpose of brokenness, to get our attention.

 

A fourth direction is through art forms. Those include mosaic, but also those which have an accompanying philosophical element such as kintsugi and wabi-sabi.  Kintsugi takes broken pottery and emphasizes the break by filling the cracks with resin and powdered gold creating something of beauty out of breakage.  Andrea Mantovani speaks of it as “an art form born from   mottainai — the feeling of regret when something is wasted — and mushin, the need to accept change.”

 

Wabi-sabi is a related concept that finds beauty in imperfection. It is captured within a piece that Yoko Ono did called Mend Piece, no doubt another homonym with “peace.”


And so we begin . . .

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Collaborating With Nature

by Susan Weinberg

Enter Exhibit
Our show is up in its virtual form! You can access it here for now. Today we gathered to hear a few more artists share about their work and to explore how to keep this effort alive.

Diane, a self-proclaimed frugalarian, shared her often whimsical poetry (p42) with us on a variety of themes all dealing with waste. They ranged from La Cucaracha to her "time-capsule home" with its stories to tell. She also includes a one day waste footprint where she documents every non-frugal gesture she takes. It made me cringe as I contemplated my own.

Robyn, our fearless leader, has moved into new territory with her collaborative work with nature, using maple copters and the sun to create Awakened by Dragonflies (p10). She shared a compelling story of dragonflies swarming around her home on the very night fires lit the city with the anger of our people.  Did nature sense something was amiss?

While accustomed to incorporating text in her work, this time she used the language of nature captured in the flutter of those dragonfly wings. Using pre-coated fabric she laid maple copters out, moving them periodically in the strong sun to get the sense of layering.  I had just taken a photo of a dragonfly in my garden the day before. When I set it side by side with Robyn's artwork, I could see how well one form of nature echoed another.


Artwork by Robyn Awend
Photo by Susan Weinberg 2020


As our days can feel rather timeless in our current state of retreat to our homes, Meryll Page gave us a framework to consider  how Jewish text looks at time. In the morning prayers there is this line:
 "In Your goodness, day after day You renew Creation."  Each day is a new day, a day of renewal. Similarly the word for month in Hebrew is Chodesh which also means renewal. If there is any constant it is that we create our world anew each day. She reminded us that after each creation, God said that it was good. Creativity in itself is neutral and it is our responsibility to create for good.

Robyn closed our session with a brief, but powerful video, entitled Humility, The Power of the Earth which addresses having humility in order to partner with the earth and with others.



Our lab participants frequently share their reading on relevant topics. Here are a few of their suggestions:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer -explores how the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.

Our Wild Calling by Richard Louv -redefines the future of human-animal coexistence



Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Together We Are The Prayer

by Susan Weinberg

I am always overwhelmed by our final session of the lab where everyone shares their work. Trying to capture it in all its complexity and beauty in no small task. This year felt especially powerful because it is a topic of such grave importance.  Collectively we touched so many different aspects of the environment. There were two passages of Jewish text that so many responded to that I think they bear repeating. 

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

Beware lest you spoil and destroy my world, for if you will spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you.' (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) 

The first means we each add our pebble to the pile of change until we create an avalanche. It speaks to both individual and ultimately collective action. The second speaks to our responsibility to preserve, to first do no harm.

Each of us felt a responsibility to add our voice to repair, together it formed a chorus, a prayer of sorts. Indeed, it did feel prayerful as each added their voice through image and word. I found myself jotting words that spoke to me individually, but that collectively do in fact form a prayer. Hopefully you will recognize your pebble within it.


Together We Are the Prayer
Artwork by Leah Golberstein
We snowshoe due North in search of snow,
Strong enough to support the weight of polar bears.
We move on shoes of bone, 
Carefully preserved by vegan hands.
Forty years ago, you raised the cry
Returning to those smoky clouds for inspiration.
We look out from behind glass,
Safe in our enclosures
We hold our breath.
Plastic geese and turtles take form,
While gloves for safety 
Endanger our world.
It is a blackened world.
The smoke rises from the towers
With ash of rose.
Methuselah sounds the alarm,
We are but a speck in tree time.
Tree rings tell us of the past
So, we can shape the future.
What we need is a symbiotic way to heal.
Stay still,
Breathe underwater.
Artwork by Gloria Cooper
How do we cure this sick earth?
The next generation will lead the way.
We start small.
A blade of grass.
Grow, grow
The angel whispers,
It’s not too late.
We can recover
Bringing color back into the delicate reefs.
We’ll use walkabout water in a canteen,
Let the milkweed grow to draw the butterflies, 
And wash our jeans but once a year 
Lest fabric fibers find ocean depths. 
We will find the answer just three feet out our door.

Every unique green, 
A new shade of hope.
We will wear our flood pants
And find our reflection in the stream.
Artwork by Liba Zweigbaum-Herman
Together we are the prayer.  
Let us build nesting boxes to save the spirit of the forest,
Let us sound the shofar, 
And teach the youth.
Because, we want to bestow a future.
We must begin.
Let us find refuge in the womb of nature, 
Finding our way back from fright, 
To beauty 
And mystery.



In closing, let me share the words with which Meryll concluded our lab:
Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek  (Be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Sound Bath


by Susan Weinberg

It has been a time of much stress.The isolation, loss of routine and fears associated with the coronavirus morphed over night into a nation horrified by the death of George Floyd. An entire world erupted in protest.

We are at a point of change as a nation and that amplifies the stress we carry within us. In light of this unique and challenging moment the lab pivoted to an exercise designed to address that stress. Fortunately within our midst we have many talents. Leah Golberstein led us in an exercise called a sound bath.

A sound bath is a meditation that guides us to a deeper meditative state through the use of vibration. You may have seen Tibetan bowls, but these bowls are made of crushed quartz crystal, silica sand.  The use of sound in meditation is based on the fact that everything has a vibration and we respond to the vibrations around us.

Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, an oncologist and author of The Healing Power of Sound notes that:“If we accept that sound is vibration, and we know that vibration touches every part of our physical being, the way we understand sound is heard not only through our ears but through every cell in our bodies. 

For more information you can explore the resource tab at Leah's meditation website.

Now, sit back and relax while you immerse yourself in good vibrations!


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Imagery of the Natural World

by Susan Weinberg

Today’s Artists’ Lab addressed some of the imagery and metaphors that we find within Jewish text. Much of this beautiful language lends itself to using text as a creative engine. We had been asked to think about some passages that inspired us with their natural imagery. Given the wealth of material, many of us offered metaphor-laden passages within the Song of Songs and Psalms. 

Others referenced the Hebrew alphabet, Jewish stories and folklore, the sequence of the creation story and the blessings one says upon seeing natural beauty. The Tree of life was also mentioned by many. In fact trees play a significant role in the Hebrew text and begin this beautiful passage within  Psalm 104 (16:22) 

The trees of the LORD have their fill, the cedars of Lebanon, which He hath planted;
 Wherein the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the fir-trees are her house.

The psalm goes on to address the homes and nocturnal habits of the animals.

The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the conies.
Who appointedst the moon for seasons; the sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God. The sun ariseth, they slink away, and couch in their dens.

Can’t you just picture those lions slinking away to their dens?

We turned our attention to our handout (Conjuring the Natural World) which presented several passages with powerful imagery. 

Marc Chagall - Deux Pigeons 1925
The Gemara relates a story in which phylacteries are miraculously changed to dove's wings, saving a life. Psalms 68:14 paints a picture of a dove in words: You shall shine as the wings of a dove covered with silver and her pinions with yellow gold. Doves are metaphoric in that the wings of the dove are likened to the congregation of Israel, protected only by mitzvot, just as the wings of the dove serve as its protection.  This passage spurred creativity in Marc Chagall who used this imagery in his painting Deux Pigeons. The imagery of the dove was also used in poetry by Yehuda haLevi with the addition of an important adjective, the wandering dove, an adjective applied both to the Israelites and birds. 

Cosmology offers yet another reference, but first we are encouraged to pay attention. Our contemporary focus on mindfulness echoes a focus found in Judaism. What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight...those who see the sun set...those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing --Tanhuma, Berakhot, 7

 One of the most beautiful passages from the Maariv Aravim gives us the following:

who speaks the evening into being,
skillfully opens the gates,
thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons,
and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan.
You are Creator of day and night,
rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light,
transforming day into night and distinguishing one from the other.

More passages from prayers can be found at The Sefaria Library at sefaria.org. (Note: both this link and the Hebrew Bible can be found to the right of this blog)


What's A Jew To Do?

Our environment is a topic with meaning to many within our group, some who have been deeply immersed in it for some time, others who are using this exploration as a way to deepen their knowledge and understanding. There has been a desire to explore what we can do to further our concerns about the environment so we turned to the topic of taking action (see final page of handout).

We began by visiting the passage where the focus on Tikkun Olam originated.  In the Alenu it speaks of perfecting the earth. This work has gained traction throughout Judaism. 

But it is such an overwhelming task. Where to start? We are cautioned in the Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Tarfon: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.

So our call to action is to begin, much as we begin a painting without knowing where it will take us. It is the one foot in front of the other approach, trusting that we can make a difference even if it is incremental, even if we never see the result directly.

One of the aspects of Judaism that I personally resonate with is that while there is much attention paid to study, we are also called to act. We are not a passive people, we are doers. The Torah talks not only of study, but of good deeds and we are admonished that if we study and do not implement we will ultimately stand trial. Knowledge solely for knowledge's sake is not sufficient. It is the first step towards improving the world.

So how do we do this? We will be doing a virtual show at the end of this year's lab. How can we reach a larger audience and generate dialogue? In many ways the new tools that this pandemic encourages us to use, also enable us to explore in new ways. We are no longer limited geographically and can present to and engage with a much broader audience both visually, but also in dialogue. That also opens the door to more partnerships. We discussed other organizations that might share a common sense of purpose.  As we flesh out possible directions, partnerships may have the ability to give our efforts wings.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Creative Compost

by Susan Weinberg

We gathered for the lab around a familiar face for many of us who are old timers in the Lab. Anat Szendro Sevilla, a facilitator during our early years of the Lab, led our session. This is one of the benefits of Zoom meetings. Since her Minneapolis days, her life has expanded to include three children and a sojourn in Israel. Now she is in New York, with many family demands on her time, but still the energetic and creative soul we so fondly remember. 

Anat spoke of her learnings about Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) which is a psychological approach that analyzes strategies employed by individuals who are considered successful in their field. It examines thoughts, language and behavior patterns used to reach personal goals.

We began to consider these tools by first assessing our own experience. We were asked what type of environment causes our creativity to flourish. For many, nature was a source of creativity as was music. Some needed to approach creativity through intentional thinking time, but for others it had to emerge in the unplanned moments, sneaking up on us when we least expected it. Some noted a time of day such as early morning, and more than one noted a place, in the shower, a museum and even wandering a fabric store.  Many proposed unencumbered time to think with no distractions or pressing deadlines or too tight a schedule. Others found they needed some structure with schedules and deadlines to push them forward. 

Sometimes we wanted “a room of our own” conceived of as mental space, organized space or quiet, intentional, contemplative space in which to work. Our state of mind was also important as we sought a quiet mind, a lack of anxiety. Sometimes we needed permission, often from ourselves, but we also wanting to know that it was OK with loved ones. Dedication to others often seemed to rear its head, creating anxiety and time demands that blocked creativity. And there were qualities that we sought in that space to give us room to create, a sense of purpose, freedom from judgment and a positive attitude, turning the gremlins off, those discouraging voices in our head. Physical activity sometimes shook the creativity loose and the ability to play, like a child. 

In this time of disrupted routines, we were asked to color in a circle with our routine: sleep, creative work, day job, food and leisure, exercise and other. I was stumped. I have no regular routine in this new world. I consider sleep to be work, not easy to come by yet necessary to address the rest of my day adequately. And what exactly is creative work?  If it is only studio time, I’d be outing myself as not creating in a room full of artists. For me work, the non-sleep variety, takes over and continues often until late at night. It is easier to work than to create and the hardest thing falls to the bottom. 

I was somewhat reassured when we reconvened and I learned that others also were schedule-challenged. Creativity was defined broadly and often intermixed with other activities, walking or gardening. Even raising children fell into the creativity bucket. We concluded that even if we are not logging studio hours, nothing that we are experiencing now will be wasted. We are building a compost pile which will offer fertile soil in the future. It was wisely noted that there are different stages of creativity. Before we can create, we need to fill ourselves up, to take things in. It is a circle of creating and replenishment.

We were introduced to a book titled Daily Rituals-How Artists Work by Mason Curry. In this book he looks at how famous artists answer the same questions we just addressed. You can view their time breakdowns here. I was much reassured by the fact that my sleep pattern seems to echo that of Picasso. Now if only the creative pattern did as well!

Anat shared a brief but powerful clip titled Where Did That Come From : Talks About Creativity that was created by six Israeli artists. I was struck by the echoes of my own experience, not in each one, but in many. There are many ways of exploring creativity as we learned from our own group. Some of these artists’ approaches included looking for non-perfection, rather than perfection, something that leaves an impression. Free association, following one thought to the next also played a role and when all else fails just start working. It is a process to get to a place where you let go of control and ignore the commotion around you. They also discussed blocks and talked about how we can fall in love with something that really doesn’t work. William Faulkner gave the advice to writers to  “Kill your darlings.” This artist recommended a less deadly fate, take a shower, get away from it and come back fresh. Another advises that sometimes nothing happens, but it comes eventually and it comes out of the totality of our experience.

Lynda recommended several similar videos at the Louisiana Channel.  



A source of several amazing videos, Anat also shared a clip on How To Be A Genius which busts the myth and mystery of geniuses, and it does it as a pop-up book! In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson it offers this: “In the minds of geniuses we find once more our own neglected thoughts.” The clip proposes that we often disavow our most promising thoughts because of anxiety over not wanting to appear strange. The only difference with those we view as geniuses is that they are more persistent in pursuing those thoughts and less hemmed in by a societal view. 

We closed our session with a brief introduction to the Walt Disney Strategy of what successful people do. Walt had an approach of taking an idea and breaking it into Dreamer, Realistic and Critic, evaluating it from each lens. We proposed a return visit to explore that more in depth.

We were delighted with the thoughtful and entertaining approach that Anat shared with us and I think I speak for all when I say we all needed this session. The current circumstances have been ones that require adaptation to a new way of living, disrupting schedules and life patterns and imposing new demands. For many of us it has been a challenging adaptation even when some aspects seem attractive. We are grateful to be able to continue the lab discussion and the lab community as a source of strength and reflection in these difficult times. *



*For those looking for a different perspective on these circumstances, Lynda recommends an article Why You Should Ignore All That.