Thursday, August 17, 2017

Courage

We met for our last lab of the season, gathering one last time to share the stories that enrich our artwork. There were rich stories behind each piece, personal stories that resonated. We came at our topic from many angles – Inside, Outside, Boundaries, Otherness.  

Many were disturbed by the events in our political environment, dividing our country and families. Suddenly otherness felt very real as we struggled to reconcile differences. What is real? We longed for a time when core facts were not up for debate, when we didn't perch on an anxious edge.

Others spoke of death, an impermeable barrier of loss, the ultimate boundary.  Many of us lost parents over the past year.  The loss thrust us into a liminal state, new territory to navigate with uncertain tools.

We talked of feelings of otherness. They were generated by many things; parental protection from unpleasant truths, feeling outside because we weren't raised Jewish,  feeling outside because we were raised Jewish, being called upon to kill in a war.  All were different facets of otherness, all deeply-felt.

And we talked of our artistic process, sometimes working together to find new ways to tell stories, an iterative process that took us deeper into our subject. Our work was often layered with doorways, folds and multiple planes. We applied lessons from our teachers, finding material in the leftover elements of past work.

We talked of reconciliation, loving through our differences, having the courage to reach out to one another.

So what to do with all of that?  I jotted words from each of us. Many of them felt poetic, so I have taken the liberty of assembling them below.


Courage

A cardinal chirps,
Speaking of Grief, our common muse,
Story lives between life and death.
It is a liminal space, this life,
A Minoan maze,
A twisting labyrinth to wander,
Using our compass 
To find our way.
We choke back tears.

Death is part of the cycle of life,
Killing is not.
Reminded 
That war looks different 
From inside.
Dividing us
In experience, 
And understanding.

Wear your emotions, 
Wrap yourself in them,
Throw off your veil,
Let your dark hair flow.
You can’t always tell from the outside,
What someone
Is going through 
Inside.

The prophet as outsider,
Child as outsider,
Warrior as outsider.
Jew as outsider,
Non-Jew among Jews,
Feeling incognito,
Not belonging anywhere.

Teetering on an anxious edge.
Nostalgia for a time
of agreed upon facts.
Puzzling contents 
wrapped in noisy cellophane,
Is it real because I say it is?

Seven steps take us to the edge,
Occupying space in memory.
Doorways open,
Working together, we find a way in,
Transformation awaits
in the liminal spaces,
A new story out of process.
Reclaim the residue 
of past work,
Organic forms spiral,
Don’t worry, 
It will be what it will be.

You will find inspiration 
When not looking.
It will surprise,
A glimpse out the window
Discovers beauty,
A garden blooms.
Be a beauty maker,
Love through our differences,
Always changing,
Reach out, reach across.

Courage.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Folding the Corners


Our last lab discussion!  It is always a little bittersweet as we prepare for our ending show and the close of the lab. We have become attached to our fellow artists and enjoy the regular contact the lab provides and the ideas it introduces. The lab has a five-year history during which it was generously funded by the Covenant Foundation.  As we wind down that grant we look to a future that will sustain these important connections in a slightly different form. 

For the final lab on this topic, Meryll Page began with an exercise.  We each were given a sheet of paper and asked to fold the corners.  Some of us did fancy folds, some tiny corners to preserve a writing surface. Still others had generous folds that left little room at all.  Meryll asked us to imagine the paper as a field of grain as we discussed the Law of Peah.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Lord am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.

The law is about generosity, to the land, to animals and to the poor. It is about regeneration of the field and of those in need. It is a faith statement that is a requirement of a belief in God.

So how much of the corner?  What is the minimum?  The law specified one sixtieth of the crop, but inserts a little flexibility tying it to the size of the field, the number of the poor and the abundance of the crop (see handout-Megillat Hesed-The Book of Loving Kindness).  Interestingly, the passage is tied to the concept of stealing, for to not be generous in this manner is in fact stealing from a stranger.

With this introduction, we turned to the Book of Ruth and explored the role of Boaz who was far more generous (Ruth 2:8) than the law required. He offered food, safety and extra gleanings to Ruth, topping it off with a blessing (Ruth 2:12).

In the next act, Ruth returns to Naomi with her generous gleanings.  Hearing that it is Boaz who was the source of such kindness, she too offers a blessing: Blessed be he of the Lord who hath not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead. This blessing has an element of foreshadowing as it anticipates the fact that a child from a marriage of Boaz and Ruth carries on the name of Ruth’s dead husband. The child is considered the son of the dead man and ultimately it is yet another act of generosity as Boaz gives up his own patrimony.

So, what is the lesson of this passage? Be open to otherness. Be present in the act of giving by recognizing and valuing the other. All of this sets the stage for what David will be, descended from two people infused with loving kindness.


The second part of our session took place in the studio of Toni Dachis. When we entered her studio, we were asked to take a place at a table. There we found a variety of instruments. Before me was a toothbrush while other posts had paints, pastels, a plastic template, scissors, hole punches and other marking implements.  Each station had ten small squares of paper printed with a variety of words that we had explored in our labs, words such as Connection, Ostracize, Change, Limits, Frame, Refugee, Crossing and Inside.  We were given a short time to respond to the words using whatever tools were before us. Then we passed our creation to the person next to us and they added to it with their implement.  Boundaries were fluid as we shared with our neighbors in a collaborative effort.  At its conclusion, we were given an accordion folded strip of black paper on which to affix the images, creating a small book that memorialized our year of crossing boundaries.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Trail of Breadcrumbs

Our last session began with an artwork by Chagall on the book of Ruth.  We had quickly identified it, drawing on our familiarity with his work, well within the frame of our knowledge. This session, Meryll held up an unfamiliar, but striking work, a papercut of the story of Ruth.  We were at a loss to name the artist (Diane Palley), this was unfamiliar territory, a precursor of our exploration of Judges which would take us outside of the frame of Ruth in order to better understand its meaning.

Meryll guided us to our first clue in the first line of Ruth 1:1 And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. (handout-Ruth & Judges) "Anything unusual?" she asked.  We focused in on the doubling of the words, judges judged. Perhaps this doubling was intended to draw our attention. Was famine a judgment? A punishment?  The Hebrew word vayahi seemed a bit of a lament, much like oy vay, pointing us outside the frame of Ruth to the book of Judges.

We read through Judges 21:5-24, a difficult passage of murder and mayhem, unconscionable behavior. It began with a building of an altar, a violation of the religious rules. Then it progresses to murder and the kidnapping of virgins as wives. At the end of the passage  in Judges 21:25 the author adds his own judgment and our second clue: In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

The people of Israel were lacking leadership and immersed in both religious and moral chaos.

In Judges 1 we get yet another clue. The tribe of Judah is presented as a preeminent tribe.  Who is from the tribe of Judah?  Boaz.

Finally we turned to Baba Batra in the Talmud (handout-Ruth & Judges). Through a series of retorts, Rabbi Yohanan underscored the fact that those being judged were judging the judges. This was a time of chaos, a time without leadership.

Clues had been strewn across our path, a trail of breadcrumbs that led us to Bethlehem, where Ruth and Naomi were now housed. In fact, those breadcrumbs led to a house of bread, the meaning of the name Bethlehem. Our solution is implied by the commentator of Judges 21:25. We need  a king to offer strong leadership and of course Ruth birthed the line that led to David. We'd come full circle.  The story of Ruth was a precursor of a future where kindness, loyalty and recognition of the other were underscored. God sat back and let the people find their way, treating each other respectfully, with kindness and generosity. What began in famine led to abundance and sharing.

Still more clues were scattered within the story through the meaning of names. Ruth means friend, Boaz-strength, Naomi- pleasantness.  When Naomi first returns in her grief, she asks to be called Mara which means bitterness.My favorite though was Orpah, the back of the neck, what she turned to Naomi as she returned to her home in Moab.

Chagall's White Crucifixion
Mark Rothko Chapel
The second part of our session was devoted to artist-led sessions. Roslye Ultan led us in an exploration of Jewish artists, particularly as they crossed boundaries into more Christian imagery. We began with the quintessential Jewish artist, Chagall. We described his work as dreamlike, free of gravitational pull, often with animals and most certainly narrative. Roslye also referenced  Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross and Mark Rothko's Chapel. Newman was interested in Kaballistic ideas and avoided "graven images" in his work.

We turned our attention to Chagall's White Crucifixion, one of over 30 crucifixions painted by Chagall. Here a talit is around his waist, perhaps hiding his circumcision  as in Christian iconography, yet here it is slyly covered with yet another Jewish symbol. The Christ figure is surrounded by imagery of the Wandering Jew, a rabbi fleeing with a torah and a burning synagogue. The cross is set in a beam of light. Is this a Christian story or has it perhaps been reclaimed? Chagall himself weighed in with these words, "For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr." Chagall identified with Christ saying "Every day I carry a cross/ They push me and drag me by the hand/ Already the dark of night surrounds me/ You have deserted me, my God? Why? . . .I run upstairs/ To my dry brushes/ And am crucified like Christ/ Fixed with nails to the easel."
Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross



Benito Quinauela Martin
La Boca
And now it was time to tango, or at least explore its history with Vivi Szleifer, assisted by  Rony Szleifer. Vivi took us into the world of the gauchos and Eastern European immigrants who populated Bueno Aires in the La Boca neighborhood, an area of meat packing houses filled with heat and stench. This world was captured by the artist Benito Quinauela Martin whose imagery reflects both the heat and the hard life, but also has a celebratory feel, filled with color and movement. Vivi spoke of the music that was later reflected in the music of tango, the guitar of the gaucho, the drums of African music. Originally the tango was danced by two men as if locked in mortal combat.  Women found their way into tango, often as prostitutes originally, and that mortal combat morphed into something else. In the 1920s and 30s singing was added. If you are interested in the Powerpoint on tango, click here.

As always our session covered a broad swath, from following a trail of clues in Ruth, to exploring the crossing of boundaries by Jewish artists, to entering the multicultural complex world of tango.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Riffing on Fences

 
In our recent lab, we welcomed Rabbi Jeffrey Schein who brought a rich energy into the room. Schein is a Jewish educator and Reconstructionist rabbi who has recently made Minneapolis his home.  He began by noting that he was in mourning for his mother who recently died at age one hundred. Together with Rabbi Davis, he had weighed whether he should be teaching during this period of mourning. Together they concluded that this was acceptable if he dedicated his teaching to his mother. A soul is sped on its journey by Tzedakah and study in their memory, thus our session was doubly fruitful, inspiring thought and helping to speed a soul onward.

Schein began our session by talking about an exhibition he attended at the Weisman Art Museum on the artist-scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a Nobel prize winner in 1906. The exhibit was on the art of the brain. People used to think of the brain as a classical orchestra, coordinated and even dare we say, orchestrated.  In fact Cajal said, it is more like jazz with variety in how connections form. Neoplasticity implies that our brains are malleable, not always rigid in which part performs what.  As I reflected back on our session, I realized it too was much closer to jazz as we riffed on the topic of fences from a variety of perspectives.

Riff #1: We began by selecting an image of a fence, some with space between, some visually open, others walled in.  Schein asked us to imagine pushing against it. What did it feel like to push on the fence from the outside? from the inside? Some fences allowed interaction and thus altered social relationships in positive ways.  Others acted as true enclosures, shutting out the outside world, perhaps hiding a secret garden.

Riff #2: We then journeyed into the Tanach to revisit our old friend Ruth who Schein termed a fence rider, one who sits atop a fence, choosing which side to join. Ruth, of course, ultimately joined her mother-in-law while her fellow sister-in-law chose to remain in Moab.  

Riff #3: We continued our journey to Bezalel, the first all-round craftsman and the chief artisan of the Tabernacle.  The passage in question, Exodus 36:1, had three interpretations.  One speaks of his skill with his hand, yet another talks of his wise heart while the third talks of his wise mind. We concluded that a wise mind brings together both skill and heart. Each aspect has its place.

Riff #4 builds on Riff #3 : Having set the stage, Schein shifted to artwork and our need to be inside as we work on a piece, outside as we assess it. So too we use both our wise mind and our wise heart.  Inside affords us an emotional connection, outside activates our critical thinking. We often need the perspective of removing ourselves to come back refreshed to create. Mordecai Kaplan notes that "The Sabbath represents those moments when we stop our brush work in order to renew our vision of the canvas."

Riff #5: The Pirke Avot tells us to "Make a Fence Around Your Words." We understood this to mean to be accountable, words are important and we must understand the dynamics of communication and speak with intentionality. "Say Little, but Do a Lot," the Pirke Avot cautions us.

Riff #6:Often we create fences around habits.  We were asked to consider a list of habits. "How is this productive?" he asked. "How is it not?"  I chuckled at one he offered on completing an assignment two days before it is due.  I'm more prone to allow a month. I need lots of fence.

Riff #7: He shared a passage with us from Proverbs 4:14-15. Enter not into the path of the wicked...Avoid it, pass not by it; turn from it and pass on. Rabbi Ashi offered this explanatory parable: The verse may be illustrated by the parable of a man who guards an orchard. If he guards it from without, the entire orchard is protected, but if he guards it from within, only the part in front of him is protected, while the part behind him is not protected. (Sefer Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitsky).  We turned to each other and considered the meaning of this passage.  "Bad Feng Shui, " I replied, still not grasping the relationship to the proverb. 

Riff #7 feeds into #8 Another interpretation shortly arose when we closed our discussion with a powerful poem by Amir Gutfreund which raised the question of which way a compass points at the North Pole.  The answer: it goes crazy and points everywhere.  Often we look to a destination from outside and it becomes our North Star.  When we arrive, we need a new set of tools to guide us from within. Israel is such a destination, driving the needle mad. (Handout-Fences). Similarly our man in the orchard sees less clearly when he is too close, better when he takes a step outside to see the bigger picture. 

Riff #8 echoes Riff #6: At the close of our session, the rabbi introduced us to two videos on Tiffany Schlain, Connected, the Trailer and  Technology Shabbat. Together they remind us of the need to create personal fences to manage our dependence on technology. 

Pretty jazzy!


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Liminality: A Passage to Transformation

Meryll stood before us holding a small frame in her hand. Before us was an artwork of three women.  Who was the artist? How did we know?  Would we know the topic from the artwork alone?

We studied the image.  Clearly it was Chagall.  "How do you know?" she asked again. "Is there a signature?"  

"His signature is his style," we replied. 

She reminded us that we have a frame of artistic knowledge through which we view this image. We studied the image, identifying the characters of the story of Ruth.  Naomi, the mother-in-law, stood in the middle, an older woman, hands clasped.  Ruth placed her hand on Naomi's heart while Orpah, the other daughter-in-law stood behind Naomi, embracing her.

 Handout-Inside the Frame

 For more images of the story of Ruth
 
Just as we analyzed the image, we analyzed the story, abandoning our visual frame for time frames and geographical frames.  The Book of Ruth is compact, spanning 2-3 days, a journey on the road from Moab to Bethlehem.  This is a story of women, women on the margins, three widows.


The Biblical convention is to start on the road. It is a transition period in which a critical decision takes place.  Who is going on this journey?  Naomi tries to dissuade her daughter-in-laws from joining her. The story is concise with some key repetition.  One phrase is repeated twelve times in Chapter 1. "Return" (lashuv) is repeated by Naomi as she commands Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother's house (interestingly not their father's) where they can perhaps find husbands. Naomi gives this instruction three times, just as the rabbis refuse three times for a person seeking conversion. The conversion process is in fact modeled on this story. 

Ruth responds with this eloquent passage from 1:16-17. "whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;  where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."

Ruth makes several important statements here.  She assumes Naomi's God and in saying she will be buried where she is buried, she also adopts Naomi's faith as otherwise she would be unable to be buried in the same place. A conversion to Judaism is more complex than other faiths, including culture and people in addition to religion.

This is an unusual story. Its protagonists are women and they are supported by a bit of a Greek chorus, but it is a women's chorus.  Two passages involve the women of the city.  As Ruth and Naomi approached the city, it buzzed with excitement as the women called out,"Can this be Naomi?" (1:19-20)  Later in the story a child is born to Ruth and the chorus again sings the merits of Ruth who is better than seven sons. Throughout the story she is spoken of as possessing chesed (loving kindness)  and Eshet Hayil (a woman of valor). In an unusual passage they speak of the child as if it were born to Naomi, perpetuating her line.(4:14-17). 

The story of Ruth flowed naturally into our next topic which explored liminality, a passage in route to transformation, much as that which Ruth encountered on the road to Bethlehem. 

It was my turn to present to the lab and I focused the discussion on an examination of the passage into the unknown as we leave the familiar to enter something new and often challenging.
Threshold to my ancestor's home in Poland

Liminal means threshold. It is the space between boundaries where the old rules no longer apply, the new yet to be mastered. It is an anthropological term marking rites of passage. Liminal space is often a place of change and transformation, a place of challenge as we face the unknown. While the word resembles "limbo" which derives from a word meaning "border," its focus on passage and transformation is the important distinction. In limbo we are just stuck.

There are stages to liminality. First we must let go of the familiar, deciding what we can take into this new environment and what we must leave behind. Then comes that difficult stage of transformation, neither here nor there. Finally we learn how to adapt to our new environment. Disruption is often a trigger.  Our lives may be touched by change when someone close to us dies or we divorce. Perhaps we move to a new environment or lose our job.  All the elements that turn our life upside down are also triggers for what may prove to be transformative. I have a friend whose husband died unexpectedly, still a relatively young man. She spent a difficult year adjusting to this new reality and when we met after a time she told me that even though she missed her husband, she was learning to like this new life. She had moved through liminality to transformation.

Liminality can happen to a broader society as well.  War and natural disasters are often disruptions on a much broader scale. I would argue that our recent election was also an exercise in liminality, disrupting the things we believe about our country and our neighbors, the form of transformation, yet to be fully revealed.

Marking our crossing of boundaries with rituals is a concept found in our everyday life. When a guest enters our home we might offer them a drink.  A school bell and perhaps the pledge of allegiance marks the beginning of a school day. We have markers, rituals, that highlight the fact that we are entering a new environment. 

Religion uses rituals to honor such passages. In Judaism a "mezuzah" might be found at the door entry. It actually means "lintel" and marks our entry into a home. A bar or bat mitzvah marks our entrance to adulthood. The Havdallah ritual marks the end of Shabbat. 

While ritual marks the entrance or exit, Jewish holidays recognize the passage. What could be more liminal than  the 40 years in the desert that we celebrate at Passover? In Judaism we celebrate the journey, the preparation to receive the law, a period of transformation.  Purim has as its heroine, Esther. As a Jew masquerading as a non-Jew she has a foot in both worlds. As I analyzed each holiday I found they had a liminal state at their center, with the period of transformation central to the story. In fact as any writer knows, the period of transformation is the story.

People can be liminal as well. Immigrants and refugees have a foot in two worlds. So do those who are transgender. Many of those who are viewed as "the other" don't fit into the tidy boxes in which many like to see the world.  Ah, but no one can escape liminality if they have a teenager, caught between childhood and adulthood, the ultimate liminal being.

I think many artists and writers are liminal. Living in our world, but seeing the world with outsider eyes. It is what enables us to do what we do.  Part of creativity is often about connecting two seemingly disparate ideas into a new whole.  As artists we need to work through that transformative stage every time we create, leaving the familiar to enter something new. 

Download liminality presentation

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wrestling With Angels


In addition to the Artists Lab blog, I also write a personal blog which at times touches on topics that are applicable to both. This post was originally written for Layers of the Onion, but as it is very relevant to our lab topic, I thought you might find it of interest.- SW
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Hebrew Bible is the supreme example of that rarest of phenomena, a national literature of self-criticism. Other ancient civilisations recorded their victories. The Israelites recorded their failures.-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rembrandt - Jacob Wrestling with Angel 1659
Much of what stirs my thoughts comes from books. Occasionally I experience a pivotal book that leaves me a bit awestruck at what the author added to my understanding.  Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is such a book. 

Part of what I found so intriguing was Sack's analytic skills applied to biblical stories. I'm a lover of story, and what is the Bible between all the begats, but story.  Story is how we make sense of the world, so the Bible is an anthropological dig into the heart of mankind. Sacks believes we have often worked with its stories on only a surface level, playing two dimensional checkers when the truth lies in examining many more dimensions. He then proceeds to examine these stories from multiple angles, as well as longitudinally across stories.  He has us step into the shoes of each person emotionally and dissects the meaning of words. Part of my admiration is for the depth of his analytic skills. The other part is for the destination at which he arrives, one that feels anchored in truth. 

Sacks is an Orthodox rabbi, yet his thoughtful analysis speaks to people across a broad spectrum. He brings an extremely open world view to his analysis and applies his interpretive skills without prejudgments.

His focus is on the human tendency to turn on those we perceive as "other."  He attributes it to our search for identity and for those who we identify as our tribe. Inclusiveness and exclusion go hand in hand. If we have identity, "us", we also see its inverse, "them". When our world fractures, unable to cling to the tracks as we careen too quickly into change, we fall into dualism. Dualism is when we attribute evil to an outside force, simplifying the world into good and bad, us and them. Scapegoats are targeted and we tighten our group bonds by attacking the "other."

Sacks examines this concept through the lens of sibling rivalry as addressed in the Bible. From Cain and Abel, to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers, the theme comes up over and over again. Rabbi Sacks mines this material for meaning as he considers why such violence exists between brothers, looking for the model by which they resolve it. Now, he has far more tools to make sense of this than I do. He knows the intricacies within and between the stories, he knows the context of the times in which they occurred and he knows the meaning of the words that the Hebrew Bible uses to tell the story. I must confess to some Bible envy. I too wish I could dissect the language, but lacking that ability, I am grateful for guides such as Sacks. 

The constant repetition of the theme of sibling rivalry underscores that this is part of the universal human condition. And yet, instead of viewing it as a hopeless repetition, enacted countless times through history, Sacks analyzes the pattern of each occurrence and if in fact each occurrence moves us further down the road in understanding the need for and method of reconciliation.  We begin with a murder between Cain and Abel, then move to a deception by Jacob, but a reconciliation, as the two brothers stand together at their father's grave after Jacob wrestles with the angel, his metaphoric self, and returns the stolen blessing to Esau. Perhaps the most interesting evolution is between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, abandoned by his brothers in a pit and sold into slavery, forces his elder brother to participate in an experience similar to that in which he had been thrust. This time his older brother rises to the occasion and does the right thing. 

Sacks believes that it is only through stepping into someone else's shoes, that we fully appreciate their experience and can redeem ourselves. In short, we defeat dualism with role reversal, no longer viewing the other as outside of ourself, but an integrated whole. He reminds us that in these times where primitive hatreds rage, it behooves us to learn to wrestle with our angels.