Tuesday, December 23, 2014

From Torah to Kaballah

Joint Lab - December 23, 2014 by Susan Weinberg

I must confess that I often take a deep breath before I begin one of these blogs. Our sessions are frequently so rich in content that I consider them much like a mountain climber in search of a foothold. Where to take that first step? Today my trek began with Torah and ended with Kaballah.

Rabbi Davis began our discussion with a simple question about the Torah. What is it? We began with descriptors; laws, values, 5 books, teachings, a cultural repository. Then we began to drill down to what it represents to us; our people's history, how we are unique, who we are and how we treat each other. Rabbi Davis noted that it begins with the story of a family of five generations. Then it follows us into Exodus as we become a nation, a people.

Torah means instruction, teaching. We noted that we are taught to question so it is a conversation starter, a living document that is still applicable today. It presents a model of behavior, choices and pathways.

The rabbi pointed us towards Exodus 15:22, a passage where Moses and the Israelites have emerged for the Red Sea. Miriam and the women have sung their song of praise to the Lord, dancing with timbrels. Now three days have gone by and they are in the wilderness of Marrar where the water is bitter. They cry out for fresh water. God points out some wood which Moses throws into the water and it sweetens it. What does this mean?

Perhaps we need to participate in miracles. They require our active involvement. It is not a remote God, but one who interacts with us. Participation is required.

Interestingly the Hebrew word for wood in this passage translates to the tree of life.

We reviewed Betachot 61b, a story of Rabbi Akiba where the water that fish live within is equated to study of Torah in its essential nature. Water is often used as a metaphor for knowledge. It is vast, much is hidden, offering life and nourishment, but also danger. You can drown in Torah if you fail to apply it to life. A story was shared which noted the importance of "hearing a baby cry", essentially staying connected to the world even in the midst of Torah study.

In the second part of our session Joy Gordon introduced us to Kaballah. Kaballah means "that which has been received" and is part of a lengthy Jewish mystical tradition.

Some of the key concepts in Kaballah are interconnectedness, flow between points of connection, balance, boundaries/containers and multiple levels of reality. The story which embeds many of these concepts begins with "the infinite". God contracts, creating space within the infinite, a withdrawal called the Tzimtzum. Within that vacuum light enters, refracts into ten Sefirot and shatters vessels of light because of its intensity. The breaking of vessels symbolizes the disorder of the world. The shards became sparks of light trapped in the material of creation. Tikkun is our effort to restore the world through good deeds and study of Torah.

The key concepts relate closely to water. Water requires a container and finds it in lakes, river beds, oceans and clouds. It flows from higher to lower. Balance is necessary also lest we have floods or drought. Much of water is hidden as in icebergs or wells.

Joy shared with us the cosmology outlined by Isaac Luria who lived after the expulsion from Spain. The components of this cosmology include the following concepts:

Chochmah-wisdom, can represent the flash of an idea
Binah-understanding, represents building,developing
Da'at -knowledge ( not one of the ten Sephirot, but central none the less)
Gevurah- Judgment, boundaries/containers
Tiferet-Beauty, balance, harmony
Hod-glory, pulling back to make a space, to appreciate something, how does it feel, look, to be in awe of what is there, editor, refinement
Nezach-victory, energy that keeps you moving towards your goal, passion
Yesod-foundation of your work, ego, a secret part of you may be embedded in your work.
Malchut-manifests in everyday world when hanging on wall

With this structure in mind we considered how it applied to the artistic process. To create requires a space, but a space on many levels- a physical space, an emotional space, an intellectual space and a spiritual space. We may use a studio or a room in our home. Perhaps we clear our mind by going for a walk. Many of us struggle to clear our minds of activity and find such mundane tasks as washing the dishes or straightening up make the necessary space for creative ideas to emerge. Some shared that their best ideas arise when they are doing something totally unrelated.

In any case the creative act requires differentiation. We cannot create without first creating space for a dialogue with our emerging artwork. Just as when we lead a discussion, we need to leave space to engage others, to make room for the unknown. And we need something or someone else with whom we create dialogue.

With a flash of an idea (Chochmah) we move into developing it (Binah). Perhaps we temporarily suspend judgment (Gevurah) while we allow our eye for color and form (chesed) to move it forward, only then evaluating it through the more critical eye of Gevurah. Our application of both Chesed and Gevurah hopefully achieves balance and harmony (Tiferet). Then we take a step back and create space (Hod). I think of how I set my painting across the room, positioned by the door so I can see it through fresh eyes when I enter the studio. We are pleased with our result, we've succeeded (Nezach). Perhaps within it lies a part of the artist (Yesod) and ultimately we share it with others (Malchut).

From Torah to Kaballah, quite a mountain for one session.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Memory and Metaphor

Lab 2.0  December 16, 2014   by Susan Weinberg

Today was our first artist led lab and I had the pleasure of co-leading it with my fellow lab member Susan Armington. It proved to be a good partnership as both of our bodies of work deal with memory and we are located in the same studio building.   You've heard of progressive dinners, well this was a progressive lab as we began our session in my studio and halfway through went up a floor to Susan's.  That afforded us each an opportunity to share our work as part of our working session.

Our session began with a review of twelve quotes from the Bible which look at water as metaphor.  Each person selected three that spoke most to them and the following two passages were clearly favored for further discussion by many in our group. 

Proverbs ch 20:5  Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.   

Jeremiah 2:13
For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. 

We then discussed the metaphor within each of these and found multiple interpretations.  For example the Jeremiah passage was seen as focusing on such varied topics as our destruction of the environment, spiritual being and the politics of Israel.  Metaphor is a topic that lends itself to artistic interpretation and our brief foray found the Bible to be rich in metaphoric content.

We then looked at the way we use water metaphorically in our language.  Our use of language was what first drew me into the idea of memory and water.  We talk of things bubbling up and streams of consciousness.  We widened our view beyond memory and were a bit dismayed to realize that water is often used to represent a challenge.  For example:

Drowning in work
Going upstream
Treading water
A fish out of water
Coming up for air

Conversely we use it in a more positive sense when we speak of floating, particularly "going with the flow".  Water is buoyant and sustaining and allows us to combine our strength with the force of the currents.

We then took a look at a powerful quote from Toni Morrison, "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was".  We discussed our understanding of that quote and then turned to Morrison's interpretation.

"Because, no matter how "fictional" the account of these writers, or how much it was a product of invention, the act of imagination is bound up with memory.  You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage.  Occasionally the river floods these places.  "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering.  Remembering where it used to be.  All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.

Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.  It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared.  And a rush of imagination is our "flooding".

At this juncture I shared some of my work on memory, specifically the series from the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project, a series of paintings based on memories shared in interviews by Jewish elders.  I also spoke of my new focus on loss of memory as I examine the question of what happens to our identity as we lose memory  I harkened back to the Morrison quote as I thought about how my mother who is losing memory clings to aspects of her identity as a teacher, remembering her past identity even as the Mississippi remembers as it floods its banks.

The second half of our session took place in Susan Armington's studio where we viewed her work which is very much based on water, geography and culture.  She asked what we saw in her paintings metaphorically and different imagery was noted, forms echoed by rivers snaking gracefully across her work.  We then recalled experiences we had where water figured prominently.  Our memories were ultimately captured on a clothesline of decorative papers where we noted the body of water and the metaphor it was associated with through our story.

Our exploration discovered that metaphor is a way to distill and explore meaning, to take a concept and broaden and enrich its usage through associations.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Lab 1.0 December 9, 2014
by Robyn Awend

Meryll introduced the theme of borders by sharing an excerpt from the poem: To Live in the Borderlands Means You by Gloria Anzaldua.

“To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras (without borders), be a crossroads.”

This led into a discussion about mythological cultures and water (deities, sea Gods, etc.) We referenced Genesis 32-33 and explored the relevancy of water, the river location, and its boundaries. 

 From there, Liba used the theme of boundaries and borders to explore some experimental movement through improv. We shared moments of laughter, contemplation and synergy. Woven into the movement was dialogue surrounding the boundaries we place on our artwork, ourselves, and others -- for comfort, for necessity and out of habit.

We also spent some time discussing the Artists’ Lab trip to Israel coming up in March 2016!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Water Was Red

Joint Lab - November 25, 2014 by Susan Weinberg

During the joint session of the Artists' Lab, we gathered at the Katherine Nash Gallery where we had an opportunity to view the current show thinking making living, a show that explores the intersections between art, life and social engagement. Consistent with that focus we met with artist David Feinberg and Dr. Ellen Kennedy of World Without Genocide to view a DVD of Voice to Vision V titled Caught Between a Alligator and a Tiger.

The DVD explores the genocide in Cambodia through the artwork and experiences of Bunkean and Bhounna Chhun. Both Bunkean and Bounna lost many members of their family. They met after Cambodia and ultimately married and settled in Minneapolis.

In the film Bunkean and Bounna shared their stories as they painted. Water is a central image in the work of Burkean. He began his story with circles of blue water, later painting the water red because of all of the bodies that were dumped within it. Imagery such as a broken wagon wheel was used metaphorically to reflect his experience while Bounna worked with the image of a tiger in her work. Bunkean joined us after the film and answered questions from the group.

We then moved into the gallery where we broke into groups of four using a process termed The Continuous Line to reflect our response to genocide. We were asked to each draw a line on a sheet of paper and then pass it around our group, each person adding to it. The line was to express our response to the film. Lines represented such imagery as anger, weights, black holes and separation.

We then selected two of the images. We could cut out elements from other drawings ultimately consolidating our efforts into one drawing and adding to it as necessary. We gathered as a larger group and shared our effort and the response which led to its creation.

We were soon engaged in both the exercise and discussion of our response to genocide. It proved to be a successful exercise in processing and reinforcing our response to deeply emotional content.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Words and Pictures

Lab 2.0 - November 18, 2014  by Susan Weinberg

Today a small group of Lab 2.0 participants gathered to watch a film, Words and Pictures, that Robyn and Anat had discovered together. Starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, the film addresses a subject that we had explored in last year's lab. Which is more powerful, word or image? As our lab includes both visual artists and writers and poets, we each bring an understanding of the strengths and limitations of our own respective medium.

Now as someone who relies on both word and visuals in her work, it was clear to me from the outset that the two complement and amplify each other. The two protagonists took a little longer to come to that conclusion, hence we have a movie.

Each of the two characters is disabled in different ways, Owens plays Jack Marcus, an alcoholic and rather arrogant English teacher at a private school. Binoche plays Dina Delsanto, an accomplished artist struggling with rheumatoid arthritis and its impact on her ability to paint. Romantic interest plays out against a competition in the school where both teach. Each seeks to prove which has greater impact, word or image. Along the way there are some great quotes and some fabulous artwork, done by Binoche who is a long-time artist.

Some of the most interesting scenes were those with Binoche as she sought creative ways to apply paint to compensate for her disability. Huge suspended brushes, a kitchen chair on wheels and a brace to hold the brush enabled the creation of the beautiful artwork in the film. Some of the inspiration for these approaches was based on the work of Fabienne Verdier. We sat silently watching the credits at the end of the film wanting to learn who was the artist. Knowing Binoche created the work certainly gave the film greater resonance.

For further information on the work of Fabienne Verdier.

Keeping Warm on a Cold Night

Nov 11-Lab 1.0  by Robyn Awend

Guest presenter and dancer Emily Jarrett Hughes joined our recent Lab, keeping us warm on a cold night. Emily is a dancer, teacher, performer, and activist. To begin the evening, Emily had us moving, swaying, and dancing to the sound of water, creating a synergy of flowing movement in the room. 

Building on this we were each given a jar of fresh water to hold, feeling its fluidity along with our movements, leaving droplets of water on the ground beneath our feet. We were invited to take a large refreshing drink of the water before we added our jars to the table in the middle of the space.

Once we were warmed up, Emily shared with us the great work that she does with The Culture of Water Leadership Summit which brings together a wide variety of culturally-based music and dance groups to deepen the work being done in the community for water.

From there, Liba led us in a collaborative process painting exercise keeping the connection to water. We partnered up and each group of two painted on a large sheet of white paper, keeping in mind, "what does water say to me." We respectfully painted on our own part of the paper, then on top of each other’s work using images and words.

We reflected on the topic as a large group and then were given a circle cut from watercolor paper to personally reflect on, "what would I say to water." For this particular project we used the jars of water that we danced with earlier to create our individual circles, using paint and markers. We then brought our jars to the table to see what colors were represented as a result of our final creations.We quietly studied each of these colors contained in the clear glass jars creating a mosaic of sorts, and feeling complete.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Creating a Universe

Lab 1.0 by Robyn Awend

We began our Lab with Rabbi Davis leading us in a new version of Oh-Say-Shalom. Then we dove into dissecting Bresheit,discussing how water is part of the creation for everything and how G-d used it as a raw material for creation.

"Why is water the focus of creation?" Rabbi Davis asked the group. Some answers included:

"We are made from water and composed of water"

"It flows freely"

"Most of earth is water, land is the exception"

"It’s needed for survival"

We discussed the terms shamayim - heaven and tohu va bohu -without form and void (soupy mixture). Then we went on to talk about, "Why is separation the methodology of creation?" and "Why during some days of creation does it say and it was good twice?" We observed the difference in the days of creation, separating darkness from light and water from water.

We then had the chance to see a beautiful work by artist David Moss, "Prayer for Peace" and how the artist separated components of each letter so that the prayer could only be read when the two panes of glass overlap. We ended our session by circling back and singing O-Say-Shalom.

From there, Liba crowned us all "creators" as we embarked on a journey to assemble our own Ecojars. We followed a specific set of instructions to build a balanced biosphere. First a handful of rocks and a shell or two, then mucky pond water to cover the rocks, then one or more plants, then sea life (snails and other assorted living creatures), then distilled water to top it off. Each one contained similar ingredients but in the end, they all were so very different. We observed our own Ecojars and watched our snails become acquainted with their new environment and wrote about what we observed. We shared excerpts from our reflections and ended with one statement that began with "when I create, I…." creating an ongoing organic poem, one after the next, until the room was silent.

My Ecojar sits in on our bathroom shelf, soaking up natural light to sustain its longevity. I observe it every morning when I wake up and every evening before I go to bed, being reminded that life is about balance, simplicity and beauty.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Creative Destruction

12th century Venetian mosaic
Lab 2.0 - 10/21/2014  by Susan Weinberg

Our first gathering of  Lab 2.0  began with an introduction to the structure of our meetings.  With fourteen members we returned to a more intimate group.  To some extent we will be more self-lead with two artists taking responsibility for a presentation that shares our work as well as incorporates Jewish learning and the theme of water.  Meryll Page is available as a consultant on Jewish content. We can incorporate discussions on themes and challenges of art creation, for example what to do when you are completely uninspired.  Other outside material such as relevant TED talks was encouraged.

As this was the first time in several months that we regrouped we did a bit of an update on what has occupied our energies. Ask artists what has occupied their energies and you get an unusual range of activities.

-An expansion to a new space and the utilization of Dragon, a voice activating transcription program.  The use of technology allows for a different approach to writing, more of a thinking aloud which can later be structured as needed.

-Attendance at a Dream Tending workshop offered by  Dr. Steven Aizenstadt with the objective of bringing dream images to life through art.

-A move and downsizing prompted thoughts of our tendency to want to hold onto things and the need to let go of photographs and other ephemeral.  A rather heated discussion ensued on the value of holding on to such material.  As a family historian I must state my bias for preserving history.

In support of this perspective one member spoke of her mother's loss of memory and how meaningful it had been for her to read her father's letters to her mother.  Another member offered a creative way to dispose of such belongings.  She parceled out her father's photos to people who were represented in them, many now in their 90s who were delighted to recapture these pieces of their past.  A lovely way to honor the memory of her father.

Meryll Page joined us for the later part of our discussion and reported that she  is working on getting her book Jewish Luck published in Israel and is preparing a second book, Taste of Torah, based on a year's worth of columns linking food to the weekly torah portion.

This is not a static group!

Meryll began our discussion on Creative Destruction by asking if we ever destroy our work when we are stuck.  This is a topic I know well and had to offer the solution I pursue which is to take white or gold paint, often mixed with medium, and provide a light coating over the painting.  Often an entirely new painting develops.  It has the added benefit of making the imagery much more mysterious, forcing me away from my more realistic bent.

The solution depends in part on the medium.  Those who work with paper often cut or tear it and use it for later collages. Those who work digitally save the digital image and rework it into something new.

Other approaches that have been proposed by various artists included determining what would ruin the painting and doing it or finding the place you love the most and getting rid of it.  I'm not sure I have the stomach for either.

It was noted that the approach of taking what you can and moving on resonated with the history of the Jews who were frequently moving on with short notice.  After all, that's how we got matzoh.

Meryll shifted us to this week's Parsha  Genesis 6:9-11:32, the story of Noah and the flood.  I was struck by the imagery within the story, the rainbow as a covenant, the raven and the dove sent to find land.  Meryll asked about the parallels to chapter one in Genesis.  Genesis starts with God's breath hovering over the water prior to his creation of the world.  It is the blank canvas on which creation takes place.  In the latter story we go back to a blank canvas, but only after water becomes a destructive force.  The focus of water ranges from creative to destructive.  There is a delicate balance, even within our bodies which are largely composed of water. 

Creative destruction of worlds or canvases, sometimes we must destroy to create anew, freeing ourselves to see with fresh eyes.  Better canvases than worlds!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Night of New Beginnings


 Thanks to Diane Pecararo, friend and fellow participant in the Artists’ Lab for reporting on this session in my absence. -- Susan Weinberg

It was a night of new beginnings. 
In the beautiful sukkah at Beth El, artists new and old gathered for the first meeting of the Jewish Artist Lab, now in its third year. The weather was cool, the night clear and there was food and drink, of course.

Following is a brief description of how the meeting agenda played out:

Robyn opened with an invitation to be present in the sukkah. She reaffirmed the theme of “water” for the year and introduced Liba Zweigbaum Herman as the facilitator replacing Anat, who moved back to Israel this summer.

Rabbi Davis led us in a song and said the blessing for the sukkah. He presented a parable about a king who prefers gifts made of “clods of earth” to more conventional treasures. He posed the question for discussion: Why would the king find these simple (handmade) gifts so meaningful?

Meryl offered an article on drought conditions in Israel and talked about the importance of water in
the Middle East. She read a prayer for rain from the Siddur (p.156) asking God  to remember our patriarchs and grant rain in Israel in moderation, just the
right amount.

Then Liba introduced herself as artist and teacher and led the group through the activity of sharing personal objects that reminded each of us of water. These brief stories made for lively narratives- some humorous, some touching- all evocative of a place or emotional space we had occupied.  Among the objects, there were rocks, ritual cups, keys, shells, an artist bucket, bath toys, photos, fruit, water as solid, water bottles and even empty pockets. Liba also shared a thought-provoking piece by Rebecca Loncraine called Water and Creativity.

It is important here to welcome the new members-poets, a song writer, painters, multidisciplinary artists. Their voices and creativity will add to the already rich personality of the group.  We are artists of many stripes.  Whatever lake, river, ocean, pond  we favor has influenced each of us in very different ways. I suspect this diversity of perspectives will continue to show itself in the work produced in this coming year. 

~Diane Pecararo