Saturday, May 3, 2014

How the Light Gets In

This weekend we gathered for a retreat of the Jewish Artists' lab. Forty-five artists from Minneapolis, Madison and Milwaukee gathered to celebrate and foster community. We had decided to meet over Shabbos as our theme is light, a central aspect of Shabbos.

The retreat began for many of us with a visit to the Walker Art Institute to view the Edward Hopper show which included 20 of his paintings and many of his drawings. Ever notice how once you focus in on something, it seems to appear everywhere. Such it is with our theme of light. Many paintings had multiple light sources, often coming from an unanticipated direction. In a letter to the museum about the painting it had recently purchased, this was the detail Hopper chose to highlight. Hopper was fascinated by the voyeuristic glimpse into the buildings he passed on elevated trains and the little psychodramas that he witnessed and painted. Often the light followed the artist/voyeur's gaze.

We had been given a few assignments for the retreat. One of them was to bring candlesticks which we now aligned on the table in preparation for Shabbos. We were asked to speak to someone we didn't know and address our choice of topics, among them the story behind our candlesticks. So here's my story. Multiply it by 45 unique stories and you will get some flavor for our retreat. 

When I was a child, my grandmother lived with us for several years. She had lost her memory. She only spoke Yiddish so I really never understood the extent of her memory loss, but I can still picture her gnarled hands nervously twisting the buttons of her sweater. I grew up in a pretty secular family where Shabbos blessings were not part of our Friday night routine at home, except in those few years when my grandmother lived with us. When I did a series of paintings on family history I painted my grandmother saying the blessing over the candles. It was called Memory of Blessing as it represented my childhood memory of her saying the blessing and her residual memory of something which was still very central to her life even when so many memories had fled. When I viewed the painting, I invariably assumed my position at the imaginary table of my childhood, never standing in front of the painting, but rather to the side. My mother, touched by my recollection of her mother, had given me the candlesticks over which my grandmother had said the blessing, now imbued and polished with the story of memory.

But now we needed something to light. We were each given two flat pieces of beeswax, two wicks and two pieces of paper. Our assignment was to write on one piece of paper what we wanted to get from the retreat. On the other we were to write what we wanted to let go of, much like setting an intention in yoga. We wrapped the paper around the wick and rolled the paper and wick within the paraffin to form two candles for our Shabbos candlesticks, each containing a wish or hope to release in smoke, just as we release our yoga intention with breath. Then together we said the blessing over the candles and welcomed Shabbos into our midst.

Andrea, the rabbi from Madison, led us in a Shabbos service and then joined by Rabbi Davis we gathered around a meal, followed by a piece on light by storyteller Carla Vogel and a celebration of singing and dancing. Joel had begun our retreat by speaking of the four immutable gifts of the spirit ... singing, dancing, storytelling and ...... silence. By the end of our day 1 Shabbos celebration we had shared a little of each.

Day 2 also had an assignment. We were to bring something that inspired us that we were willing to part with. At a loss, I had taken a step back to contemplate my source of inspiration. History, mystery, story and image, those are the themes that engage and excite me. What would connote that? I recalled some amazing photographs that had found their way to me upon the death of my father's cousin. As the family historian, I am the repository for all such family detritus, grateful to receive it lest it be lost. These photos were not the typical family images, they connoted young revolutionaries, deal making cronies, each reminded me of the many stories I've read in books over the years and now attached to this unidentified imagery.

Inspiration in hand I arrived in time to participate in a morning exercise of movement and song as Judith Brin Ingber and David Jordan Harris led us in the morning prayers. Judith incorporated movement, as we gave thanks for sight and the use of our bodies. As she guided our movements, David sang the morning prayers. He also offered this little nugget as we counted the Omer, the days to Shavuot, even as Judith incorporated the count into our steps. The word for count is found in many words for story, some examples are account and recount. Judith then had us break into groups and create a movement for light and then for strength. She then joined them together into a modern dance that seemed far more graceful than any of us anticipated.

Later we broke into groups by media and responded to quotes about light, identifying those that spoke to us. Anthem, a poem by Leonard Cohen offered us this inspiring refrain,"there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in".

In the afternoon we gathered to discuss this week's parsha on you guessed it, "light". How does that happen? Chapter 24:1-4 of Leviticus addressed establishing light in the Tent of Meeting. Our discussion focused on what it means to do something consistently, with intention, for Leviticus offers directives that we are to follow.

We concluded our Saturday meetings by gathering with the artists in our sketchbook group and admiring the many beautiful sketchbook creations within the lab.

Later we gathered for dinner at the lovely art-filled home of one of our group, closing our evening with the Havdallah ceremony and the exchange of our inspirational gifts.
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 25 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.

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