Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Folding the Corners

Our last lab!  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.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bearing Witness

I can tell the wheels are spinning in the lab based on the many articles that members have submitted to share with the group.  Several of the articles relate to similar themes so I thought it might be worth sharing some of the issues that they raise for you to consider.  Often I find that multiple perspectives help me to find my truth. I encourage you to follow the links to the original articles.

At our last lab an article was shared  that ran in the New York Times titled Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed? by Roberta Smith. My initial response to that title is that there would be much less artwork through time if that were the case.  A lot of art is supposed to stir things up, to make people think by providing new pathways into a subject.  If it is making us uncomfortable, some would argue that it is doing what it should. This subject rears its head periodically, usually around perceived irreverence towards religion as in Piss Christ by Serrano, or Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, a black Madonna surrounded by  pornographic cut outs and balanced on feet of elephant dung, Other paintings that we accept as important works of art once aroused that same ire, in this case sexuality was the concerning element; Manet's Olympia, Picasso's Les Demoiselle's d'Avignon and Sargent's Madame X were all once considered disturbing and for some infuriating.  When you read the article you will see that the real question underlying this fury is about who gets to tell the story.  Can a Caucasian person tell the story of a black person who was murdered because of his blackness?

In this case a white artist, Dana Schutz, painted a response to Emmett Till's battered body in his coffin. Some African-Americans felt that this was not her image to appropriate.  Read the article by Smith and then take a look at a counterpoint by Christopher Benson titled The Image of Emmett Till also in the New York Times.  He considers what the response would be of Emmett Till's mother who insisted that her son's battered body be shown in an open casket, taking control of the image and forcing a national discussion. Benson is in a good position to conjecture having co-authored a book with Mrs. Till-Mobley titled “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.” He argues that she would have viewed this as an American story and thus artistic responses from different perspectives are part of the national discussion.  If it generates discussion through protest, all the better.  The point of artwork is to create dialogue and remind us that we are all part of this discussion, one that touches each of us regardless of race.

A third article was shared on a different subject, but one that had echoes of this as it questioned what was acceptable as art in a museum by yet another yardstick. The exhibit it addressed is at the MFA in Boston and is pictures of the Lodz Ghetto taken by Henryk Ross, a Jewish photographer who served in that role for the Nazis during his sojourn in Lodz.  His responsibilities included taking photos for identification cards and recording the productivity of the Jews.  He was able to secure excess film by doing his ID photos in groups and cutting them into individual images.  The excess film was used to surreptitiously record the truth of life in the ghetto.  When he expected to lose his life, he buried his photographs, living to dig them up after the war. The title of the article Is Evidence from a War-Crimes Tribunal Art? by Matthew Fishbane.

I was recently in Boston for the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums and they allowed us access to the exhibition before it officially opened. Ross was a talented photographer and he used his skills for an important purpose. Many of his photographs deteriorated and some of those shown were even more visually powerful because of that, echoing the loss reflected in the imagery.  Having read Fishbane's article several times, I am a bit puzzled as to whether he is opposed to photo documentation in museums or whether he thinks it unseemly to view Ross as a talented artist lest that minimize the horror of what we are viewing.

Perhaps the MFA anticipated these questions as they artfully addressed them by sharing the artistic tradition of bearing witness. In the room following the exhibit was a related show titled I Must Tell You What I Saw: Objects of Witness and Resistance.   Within it is Turner's painting Slave Ship and artifacts from the Armenian genocide. An Assyrian relief shows the deportation of Babylonian women.

The juxtaposition with this work was meaningful and kept the focus on the many ways we resist and bear witness, photography being no less a tool than paint or stone carving.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hidden in Haggadot

With Passover fast approaching, our lab turned its attention to this important holiday. Noam Sienna joined the Artists' Lab to share his knowledge on the meaning hidden in medieval illuminated Haggadot. A talented calligrapher and illuminator, Noam pointed to his parents as a significant influence in his chosen direction.  His mother Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is an active feminist rabbi and writer. His father Baruch Browns-Sienna is a calligrapher who now works digitally. Noam grew up in a home filled with words and image.

Noam also was influenced by his professor Max Michael Epstein whose approach he supports and follows.  The approach says two things: 1) The makers of Jewish art were intentional in the choice of the images they used and 2) We need to bring an attitude of humility towards the art and consider what the original audience knew or saw that we might not know.

Most Haggadot have Biblical themed illustrations focused on the story of Exodus, often on full pages.  There are also images of the celebration of the Seder and the preparations for it. The third visual element often relates to the parts of the text, the four children or maror next to the blessing for it.  The Medieval Haggadot from before 1500 were luxury products, but were actively used as evidenced by wine stains and candle wax.

The Haggadot were written in Hebrew.  There were no translations until later and images were important as many did not read Hebrew.  Women were not educated as broadly so Haggadot for women were often heavy on the imagery. The Golden Haggadah was likely commissioned for a woman as it repeats an image of a woman throughout the Haggadah even when it is unexpected.

Noam pointed out a couple of interesting features in Haggadah images, some with meaning that we don't fully understand.  He showed one image of a seder with cats or dogs under the table. Both animals carry symbolism.

He also shared a image of the 1320 Golden Haggadah with the plague of frogs. This image is of Moses with his rod tapping a frog who in turn shoots out smaller frogs at the stand -in for Pharoah, the King of Spain.  Whomever was tormenting the Jews at that time became Pharoah in the Haggadah.  A little humor is hidden in this image.  The first frog is turned around, actually shooting frogs out of his behind.

There were often battles being waged with competing religious imagery. He first showed us an image of Mary, her infant and her older husband Joseph seated behind her on a donkey.  Contrasting with that is a similar image with a young Moses with his staff and a tree of life sprouting behind him. It is an image of potency. Behind him on a donkey is Zipporah with two infants. The subtext is this is a fruitful story unlike that of of Mary and Joseph.  There may have also been an element of masking, showing something familiar to Christian authorities who checked the manuscripts and had to approve them.

 Easter and Passover have visual links and the subtext in some Haggadot was that Easter is a mockery and perversion of Passover.  The process of making matzo is often shown to underscore there is no blood involved, an old trope often put forth by Christians of the time.

The more interesting elements are often hidden in the margins quite literally.  There Jews are often represented by hares, the subject of hare hunts, while inversions occur which show pigs or dogs serving the hares. The images above are from the Barcelona Haggadah at the British Museum.

The frequency of hare hunts in the Haggadah is attributed to the convergence of the German word for hare hunt with a mnemonic designed to remind us of the proper sequence of events when Pesach falls on a Saturday and Havdallah must be performed. The mneumonic YaKNeHaZ is an acronym  of the initial letters of five Hebrew words: yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman.  It is a bit of whimsy that carries over to contemporary times, reflected in David Moss's Haggadah.

Moss used the eagle, a symbol for many countries, and in its claws places a rabbit. It is only in the last frame that the rabbit hops to safety.

Following Noam's presentation, Meryll led us in an exercise to think about how we would bring our creativity to our Seders this year.

We then welcomed several of the MCAD students from The People's Library.  The group began as a reading group and morphed into a student organized artist collective.  Their objective is to use art and education to address oppression in its many forms.

 They make use of exhibitions, community building, information sharing and knowledge building to accomplish their goals.

They have used screen prints to create signs for protests and put these skills to work with the eight words Robyn asked us to contribute on our work for our upcoming exhibition.  They took those words and made posters for each of us in a unique idea piece, personalized to our own community.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Always at Least Two

In these times of political turmoil, museums are faced with a question. How do they acknowledge that turmoil and the environment which many of us find disturbing, yet do it in a way that is appropriate and encourages dialogue. I recently returned from the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums, where this question occupied center stage. Our local MIA has found a creative way to respond with their exhibit Resistance, Protest, Resilience.  The exhibit presents 60 photographs of protests and their accompanying movements both nationally and internationally.

The Artists' Lab met at the exhibition where Krista Pearson and Paige Dansinger led us through a series of thoughtful exercises as we digested the content and responded to it from our own experience. The exercises are based on Global Thinking Strategies and Project Zero.  We were asked to break into small groups, explore the gallery and select a photograph to which we responded.  We were then asked to consider the 3 Ys, 1) Why this topic matters to me? 2) Why might it matter to people around me? and 3) Why might it matter to the world?

A photo nearby caught my eye and I motioned to my group to join me.  In the center was a woman, obviously expressing displeasure to a group of men who appeared to be trying to figure out how to respond to her.  Some were laughing, others had their arms crossed over their bodies protectively. Most were young men, but one older gentleman out of Central Casting was looking askance.  I read the nearby text which reported that the photograph by Danny Lyon was in downtown Atlanta in 1963. Demonstrators were protesting segregation and unfair hiring practices while a mob began to abuse them with kicks and burning cigarettes. Note the young man in front holding a cigarette. Was he one of the attackers? A woman was walking by with a box of typing paper and bravely chose to confront the mob. Someone yelled, "If you feel that way, why don't you marry one of them?" She sat down and joined the demonstrators.

The question that confronted us was "Would we speak out?"  I thought about when I was preparing to attend the DC Women's March and read that you should record a phone number on your skin with a pen in case you got arrested.  My first thought was, "I'm not going to get arrested!" That was quickly followed by the thought, "What if I did? How would I feel about that?"  We live in our safe bubbles, but protest is not always safe.  At what point do we put ourselves at risk to support something in which we believe?

The woman in this picture had clearly made that choice. Her physical safety was somewhat protected by the snide "little lady" attitudes expressed by the smirks of some of the men. They were ill at ease with a woman confronting them, but hemmed in by society's expectations of how one treats a lady.  She was a white woman confronting white men, whether that restraint would be true for a black woman is more questionable. I liked her hand on her hip and the way she leaned forward, occupying her space. I would hope that I would be that brave, but am not sure if I would.  The men felt disempowered by her confrontation and tried to attack her verbally, but she was having none of that.  This image is about the power that one person can exert.

We also spoke of the photographer as witness. He was standing in the same spot we now stood when he took the picture. I wondered if the young man in the center smiling was responding to the camera. The photographer chose what to photograph and the perspective he wished to reflect.

When we looked at the broader world, we talked of the recent photograph of the Republican legislators around a conference table. This roomful of men were discussing the exclusion of  women's health care as a requirement in the recently defeated health care bill.  We noted that in many ways it hasn't changed much since the 1963 photo was taken. Men continue to hold the power and women need to continue to challenge.

We gathered as a group and shared our responses to the different selections. Jonathan  offered this pithy reminder courtesy of Ansel Adams who was asked why he never had people in his photographs. He responded that there are always at least two people, the photographer and the viewer.

Our second exercise was about beauty and truth.  We were asked to select a photograph and respond to these questions: 1) Can you find beauty in this story? 2. Can you find truth in it? 3) How might beauty reveal truth? 4) How might beauty conceal truth?

We found this one more difficult and struggled with how to define beauty. Was it a well constructed photograph? We were drawn to a photograph that was quite strong in terms of composition, but also puzzling.  We soon abandoned the questions, and instead considered how we evaluate it when we don't know the context.

The photo was titled "Demonstration Against War in Vietnam," seemingly straightforward, but less so when you realize it was taken in Beijing by French photographer Marc Riboud in the 1960s.

On the placards are images of Ho Chi Minh and Mao.  We assumed these were anti-American demonstrations. The partially cut off man in the corner, the man with the Mao hat in the middle echoing the image of Mao and the raised hand and open mouth of the third were powerful. The image rose in stair steps with a clear upward arc.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the story behind the image, only recalling bits and pieces of the history we had lived through.

It made me consider the fact that for each of these photographs, my first assessment was who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Often it was an assessment of who had power and who didn't. Race and gender were visual clues. Without a firm knowledge of the context, we were sometimes unsure in that assessment. Not knowing how to frame the image was unsettling. In these times of political turmoil we make much the same assessment, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys.

As we regrouped and discussed the different images selected, some talked of another photograph by Marc Riboud with a young woman holding a flower before soldiers. They asked the question of what if the woman was black or wearing a burkah. Just as in our original photograph, it would alter the perception of danger, the power dynamic.  Sometimes the story is not just about who is there, but who isn't and how that would change the story.

The process by which we interacted with the photographs added a dimension that we would not have experienced had we just walked through the show. The show runs through April 2nd.  Stop by, find a photo to consider and try these questions. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Transgressing the Law

Haleluyahs filled the room as our session began with a song. Drawn from  Psalm 148:1-6, these lyrics ended with an unusual line Chok natan v'lo ya'avor.   Chok natan means the law as given. V'la ya'avor, but it can't be transgressed.

Or as the link translates: He hath also established them for ever and ever; He hath made a decree which shall not be transgressed.  "What does that mean?" asked the rabbi.  In each of our sessions, I always look for the connection to our theme, my personal search for "find Outside-Inside", the "find Waldo" equivalent. Sometimes I have to dig a bit with the ah-ha only coming as I write. This seemed to address it up front, a discussion on boundary transgressions.

Rabbi Davis reminisced about when he was interviewed for his current post.  He was asked,"What is your Chok ya'avor." What is your bottom line?  What won't you do?

"Is there a time when it is OK to transgress the law?" he asked.

We replied...
   To save a life
   An issue of conscience
   When the law is wrong (eg. Jim Crow laws)
   To survive

He noted that there is a hierarchy of laws and Torah law has priority over rabbis' laws.  Additionally it is possible to violate a law intentionally, by accident, or because one didn't know that there was such a law. Circumstances can matter.

Having established that some transgressions may be acceptable despite Chok ya'avor, we moved into a discussion of Ruth, both her genealogy and geography. In the handout (Ruth1) we turned to Ruth 1:1-6.  In brief, Elimelech married Naomi and they had two sons, the sons married and then all of the men died leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law
Ruth and Orpah. Now the salient part of this is that both Ruth
and Orpah were Moabite women.

The Moabites, as their name implies, are descendants of Moab who was a child of Lot and his eldest daughter.  The Ammonites descended from Lot's incest with his younger daughter. We turned to Genesis 19:30-38 where we find that after Lot's wife turned to a pillar of salt and Sodom and  Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot and his daughters became cave dwellers, certain that they were the only ones left on earth. Out of that fear, his daughters sought to perpetuate the human race by laying with their father. You can find both the lands associated with the two sons, Moab and Ammon, on the maps of the region.

Where else do the Moabites appear? Well as the children of Israel traveled to Moab, the king of Moab was frightened of their large numbers.  He sought to have a curse put upon them Numbers 22:7.

God had cautioned the Israelites not to mess with either the Moabites (Deut: 2: 8-9) or the Ammonites as their land was to go to the descendants of Lot.

And then we come to Deut 23:4-7 
which instructs us that the Moabites and Ammonites cannot be admitted to the congregation of the Lord.  And why is this?  They weren't good hosts.  They failed to offer the Israelites food and drink when they traversed their land.  Even though the Israelites had plenty of manna, the test is not want, but hosting generously. In addition they went so far as to curse them which turned into a bit of a boomerang with God turning it into a blessing instead.  The punishment is quite harsh with ten generations suffering under this restriction.  And then lo and behold, along comes Ruth, a Moabite.  Not only is she a Moabite, but she ultimately becomes the great-grandmother of David. How does this come to pass after the Moabites are persona non-grata?

Rashi notes while a Moabite and Ammonite are banned, it says nothing of a Moabitess or an Ammonitess.  A more contemporary view is proposed by Lesleigh Stahlberg (Ruth2 handout) in which he considers this story as supporting the embrace of same-sex marriage over strict law abidance. The marriage of Ruth and Boaz, celebrated by the community and God, may mean that this is a biblical precedent for  "communal transgression of a law in the name of love."

The upshot of this discussion is that not all rules are written in stone, despite those two tablets that were. When they are and when they aren't was not always apparent.

Kathe Kollwitz - Woman With Dead Child 1903 (PD-Art-70)
Following this discussion Jan Rubenstein took us into an exploration of work by Kathe Kollwitz and Roger Shimomura.  Kollwitz focused on themes of hunger, poverty and war.  She was an expressionist and the first woman admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Under the Nazis her work was banned and she was unable to exhibit.  War was a central experience in her life and her art, losing both a child and a grandchild to it.  She served as the moral conscience to Germany. Jan shared many of her woodcuts with several from her war series as well as etchings like the very powerful Woman With Dead Child where the woman's body merges with her child.  A museum of Kollwitz's work now exists in Berlin.

Roger Shimomura was born in 1939.  His family was moved from Seattle to the Japanese internment camps in Washington and Idaho and were there from 1941-43.  He was influenced by Warhol and a show recently ended at Augsburg College titled Mistaken Identity.  The name references the identity that was placed upon him, perceived as a non-American, despite being born an American.  A large assortment of his work can be found at the Greg Kucera Gallery. Some is cartoon-like while other work reflects traditional Japanese imagery with a twist that speaks to his experience.  I especially liked one of a young child on a tricycle, the age that he would have been during his internment. that says through barbed wire "Our American eyes, aslant like Kamikazi, blink in disbelief as barbed wire encircles and machine guns take aim."

Jan closed by offering us a source at MOMA if we would like more information on printmaking.

The last part of our session was led by Aaron Greenberg/Silver who currently has a show of papercuts that make use of words at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery.  Aaron grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York, but has been in Minneapolis for the past eight years. He has worked in watercolor, clay, prints, metal sculpture and for the past five years, papercuts. He prefers the ease and accessibility of this medium. Aaron shared a number of his works with us.  Often his inspiration comes from words that he hears in synagogue.  The show is up through March 26th.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Prophet's Life

An appalling and horrible thing has come to pass in the land. There is prophesy in the service of falsehood.Wicked men have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit... they do not seek justice. They do not defend the just cause of the poor.

Hmm,  lies, fat cats and a blind eye to the poor.  "Is this modern day commentary?" some mused. In fact it dates back to 625 CE and our friend the prophet Jeremiah (5:27-31) as he tried to get the people of Judah to pay attention. Some things never go out of style.

Our discussion focused on this prophet who was first selected by God when he was a child.  God promised that he would put his words in Jeremiah's mouth and sent him out to convince the people of Judah to mend their ways. (Jeremiah 1:1-19) He offered to spare them if he could find a man who sought truth, an unsuccessful effort.  The people who survived were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Jeremiah then wrote a letter to their new abode offering some hope and encouraging them to live their lives, build houses, marry and have children in peace and prosperity. If all goes well in seventy years God will bring you back. And by the way, don't believe those lying diviners. (Jeremiah 29:1-14)

We turned our attention to the poetry and allegory found in Jeremiah's language. His language is simple, clear and direct with easily understood symbolism. (As a cistern welleth with her waters, so she welleth with her wickedness) He makes use of opposites, the rhetorical question and parallel structure. It resembles what we would call spoken word poetry today and stays with you like an ear worm.(Jeremiah Ch 5,6)

Allegory is found in several sections, but let's take a look at one of them, the potter (Jeremiah 18:1-12) who marring a pot merely remakes it to another one. God notes that he is the potter, we are the clay and we best hope we aren't flawed or some remaking will occur. Jeremiah also makes use of a bit of performance art. At the behest of God, he wears a yoke around his neck as he urges rulers to submit to the yoke of the Babylon ruler. (Jeremiah Ch 27, Ch 28) It made me recall the female college student who carried a mattress around campus to protest a sexual assault.

Jeremiah didn't fare well with his message. The people decided to ignore him and "smite him with the tongue"  (Jeremiah 18:18-23) then he was whipped and placed in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:1-2).  Finally he was placed in a cistern to die only to be saved by the ultimate outsider, a black eunuch (Jeremiah 38:1-28).

Being Jeremiah was not easy.  He never married, had no children and saw something that nobody else seemed to think was wrong. He was often turned upon as that unpleasant messenger. Speaking up brings him abuse and yet not speaking up is challenging also.  In Jeremiah 20:7-18 he begins by bemoaning this dilemma and then once again allies himself with God.

A prophet's life is not an easy one.  He is always the outsider. (Jeremiah Handout)

Meryll concluded by asking if we as artists express our anger, dismay, moral outrage and visions of the future in our art.  This was an appropriate lead-in to the second half of our session which was led by Phil Rosenbloom and focused on an artist who did just that. Phil had recently attended a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of work by Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist. Her documentary work Where We Come From asks Palestinians around the world to answer a question.  " If I could do anything for you anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?"     The responses are often poignant, even more so the more mundane the activity that is now not available to them. 

Her responses included:

Climb Mount Carmel in Haifa and look at the Mediterranean

Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you find.

Plant some pomegranate tree seeds in Palestine. My parents came from a village called Dhinebeh near Tulkarm. When I was growing up we would spend the spend the summertime at my grandparents' house there (when we could get visas). I remember the orchards all around the house, the orange trees and the pomeganate trees.

Jacir then performs their request for them providing a photograph of this effort, an actual crossing of boundaries as part of her concept.  In doing this she completes the circuit, making a human connection.  Her project was inspired by the question asked at airports, "Are you carrying anything that someone has given you?"

As I researched her work after the lab I ran across an interesting discussion about a sign that the museum posted (see below). Some objected to their posting of it.  It struck me as fairly innocent and an acknowledgement that there were competing views, perhaps a disclaimer that the views of the artist do not necessarily represent those of the museum.

SFMOMA is committed to exhibiting and acquiring works by local, national and international artists that represent a diversity of viewpoints and positions. Works of art can engender valuable discussion about a range of topics including those that are difficult and contested, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additional information about Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From, including a list of frequently asked questions, is available at the information desk in the Haas Atrium.

We each read one of the selections and then discussed our reactions.  Many were touched by the human aspect of the project, some disturbed. There were also those who felt manipulated.  We all respond to the lives and stories of individuals, but these were presented without context, designed to sway public opinion without presenting facts.  The use of the word exile felt charged when used by those who were not born there.  Some felt that this was more documentation than artistic. 

As I listened to this discussion I found myself thinking of a contrasting narrative, when I first learned of the 800,000-1,000,000 Jews who were forced to leave Arab lands leaving everything behind.  I had attended a film on their experience and was confused and shocked. How did this fact escape the narrative?  Since then I have read of the individual experiences of Arab Jews forced from their home, no less poignant than Jacir's work. A contrasting narrative of their memories of their one-time home would have caused this to present a fuller picture on the experience of relocations driven by political upheaval, two sides of the same coin, but presumably not the message the artist was going for. Because they were absorbed within the Israeli population, rather than used as a political football, they receive far less copy.

We concluded by noting that this can best be extrapolated to reflect the experience of those who are other, regardless of the source or politics.