Monday, October 26, 2015


Over sixty artists from five cities gathered in Milwaukee for the third Artists' Lab retreat. Music was central to this retreat with Joey Weisenberg leading the way, charming us with a joyful smile into participating in nigguns, drawing us closer until we clustered around him and song filled the room. Di, di, di, di we sang, our voices moving up and down with the melody. While the niggun, a wordless melody, is rooted in Hassidic tradition, Joey brings it to different arms of Judaism. Music proved to be the armature on which this retreat was built with our Shabbat services as well as other events enriched by Joey's melodic voice and welcoming manner.

So what else was this retreat? Certainly an expansion of our community. We had many opportunities to interact with our fellow artists, welcoming familiar faces and quickly forming connections with new ones. We started out by gathering close to the familiar people from our own lab, but we quickly broke out of our comfort zone in a session with Helene Fischman. Fischman did a series of exercises that married image and text as well as collaboration within our artist lab community. She moved us from words to image as we developed a visual response to each other's words. Finally we were asked to write of a moment when we felt pleasure in our creativity. We shared our narrative with another participant who was called upon to draw what we described. As I began to build a relationship with a new member from Kansas City I could feel the walls between our individual labs crumbling.

Our retreat was also an opportunity to interact with the city. We walked through the city to our lunch and then along the water to the Milwaukee Art Museum, located next to the water and very appropriately resembling a ship. When it is open the wings lift on either side. You need to wait for specific times to witness this unless you are Mick Jagger, who we were told got a special performance of the wings. While most of the museum was closed for renovation and the addition of a new wing, we were able to explore the Larry Sultan photography exhibition and have a behind the scene's tour of the work in progress.

It had a rather otherworldly feel to see artwork shrouded in wrappings, just hinting at what lay beneath, quite Christo-like with everything becoming a new kind of artwork seen through fresh eyes.While most of the artwork has to be protected from the light, the sculpture gallery is visually extended by the magnificent expanse of water just outside its windows.

After our tour of the museum we gathered for Havdalah, led again by Joey as Robyn held the havdalah candle aloft. As Joey invited us to gather close he told the story of a miracle in the temple where even though everyone was so close, when they bowed down they didn't bump into each other.
We concluded our day with yet more music, music of the Yiddish Theater. The performance was in the Zelaso Center which was once the synagogue for Emanu-El and still had the bones of its legacy with stained glass windows illustrating Jewish themes with a bit of an American twist. Freedom was illustrated by a bell. Wisdom, our theme for this year was of course illustrated by the Torah. As it was night, we had to look closely for the imagery.
Miryem-Khaye Siegel

The performance space was the perfect size, small enough to actually feel the music. It was an extraordinary event with three female vocalists who were each musically talented and had an excellent comedic sense which lent itself to many of the Yiddish songs. David Jordan Harris was kwelling a bit as the talented Miryem-Khaye Seigel had been his student.
Joanne Borts

We ended the day late at night and groaned a bit at the early start time for the following day. In an interesting juxtaposition we were taken to the new Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun campus, the same synagogue that was once housed where we heard the evening Klezmer performance. Our groans were quickly forgotten when we entered the space.

Breathtaking and spiritual best describe it. The first thing you notice is that there are no stained glass windows. Instead large vertical windows slice the walls surrounded by images created by Tobi Kahn. Through the windows trees draw your gaze upward. The overall effect is rather Zen-like.

It was a wonderful illustration of what can be accomplished when you incorporate the arts and represented the work of a number of those in the Milwaukee lab. Philip Katz of the Milwaukee lab designed the sanctuary and shared some of the elements with us. He actually grew up down the street from the old synagogue and his study of synagogue design led into his work with this project. He described the space as a blend of opposites, solid and void.

Nina Edelman did the richly colored Torah covers and the cover for the ark. Barbara Kohl-Spiro played an important role in making it happen.

The landscaping was also an important part of the facility as it functions in lieu of stained glass.

At the entrance to the building lies a sculpture by Richard Edelman. It is a shofar shaped of cubes. Before we left the facility we listened to Tekiah Gedolah blown on a traditional shofar magnified by the large sculpture.

Our sessions concluded at the JCC where we did some small group discussions, had an opportunity to see the lab show of the Milwaukee artists and to share our work with each other. Overall we gave the retreat an emphatic thumbs up and would encourage others to attend the next retreat. The takeaway was certainly a sense of greater connection with the entire lab of artists and a newfound appreciation for the city of Milwaukee.

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