Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Glowing Visage

Our recent Artists' Lab began with the question, "Why do people sometimes glow?" That of course led to the often expressed reference to pregnant women glowing. One of our group posited that perhaps that glow is fueled by the addition of the baby's energy. Hmm, glowing for two. Our discussion soon led into auras and chakras.

Rabbi Davis directed us to the text of Exodus 34:29-35 which speaks of Moses' descent from Mt Sinai. This passage talks about how Moses' face became radiant after speaking to God and put forth light. The Midrashim, the sages' interpretive stories on Biblical text, offer several interpretations of this event. One theory was that when Moses took the second set of tablets from God he was only two-hand breadths away and acquired the glow because of this proximity. Yet another theory was that Moses acquired the glow when God taught him Torah. Yet a third theory was that he was born with this shining visage. The light was described as so bright that he lit up a house and one could see from one end of the world to the other.

These rays of light, in Hebrew "keren-or", account for the sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo for in addition to "rays", the word "keren" also means "horn". As a result Moses is often depicted with horns, rather than rays of light as indicated in the text.

The Israelites were initially afraid to approach Moses because of his radiance. When he finished speaking with them he covered his face with a veil or hood. I wondered if this was ever depicted in artwork, but a quick search displayed the familiar bearded visage, occasionally with horns, but no hood or veil. We discussed this separation between the divine and the everyday, a division echoed in the separation of Shabbos from every day. Similarly the Aron Hakodesh, the ark which houses the Torah, is also covered, creating a special moment upon its removal. In the case of Moses it was proposed that he employed the veil so as not to confuse the message with the messenger. He was representing himself as a vessel for God.

We turned our attention to the Zera Kodesh authored by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827). We are told we should hold God before us at all times recognizing a divine light surrounding each of us. Horowitz looks to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and notes that it evokes the name of God linked to mankind in a surprising way, it echoes the form of our face. If we break it down to its component parts we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face.

For the arts portion of our session Avi and Robyn led us in the creation of a group mandala. We talked of sacred space and the mandala with its circular form as a meditative vehicle. Each person selected five sheets of colored paper in colors we preferred. We were then charged with cutting out five forms which could be the same or different. Our choice was to be influenced by three questions: 1) what shape or color represents our creative process? 2) what is the inner core, the image that reflects our inner self? and 3) what are the layers, the rings that build us?

My paintings are based on story and often arise out of a process of inquiry. I listen and then create, building imagery on layers of discarded attempts. My result was an ear-like form with open areas exposing the underlying layers. We adjourned to a circular room where a round mirror created the center of the mandala. First a perimeter was formed, then Hebrew letters were placed in the center ring, both the cutout and the negative space created by the cut form. Those with larger shapes placed them first, then we each placed our forms so that they interacted with each other's. Many of the cutouts expressed a meandering shape, reflective of the typical creative process while also hinting at  the influence of the recently opened Matisse show.

 Slowly we watched the mandala take shape, forming a beautiful structure that reflected a diverse and creative group.  Even as we contemplated this beautiful expression, we knew that the nature of a mandala is transitory.

We gathered the pieces together with a  plan  to shred them and perhaps recycle them to an alternate purpose.

We closed our session with a sneak preview of the first stage of our sketchbook project, soon to be sent to our sister labs in Milwaukee and Madison. Here are just a few of the creations of our multi-talented group.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rolling Light Away From Darkness

At our recent Artists' Lab we turned our attention to the prayer book, the Siddur, to explore the use of light as both metaphor and specific reference.  I am often drawn in by the poetry of the prayer book. I have been known to copy down passages struck by the sheer poetry.  This exploration again reminded me of that impulse.  To give you a flavor, here is the passage from the Sheharit-B'rakhot, Hakol yadukah.

All exalt You, Creator of all. God who daily opens the gates of the heavens, the casements of  the eastern sky- bringing forth the sun from its dwelling place, the moon from its abode, illumining the whole world and its inhabitants whom you created with mercy.  You illumine the earth and its creatures with mercy.

We were asked whether the passage speaks of light literally or metaphorically.  I loved the metaphor of illumining with mercy.  I pictured windows thrown open emitting a yellow-white blinding light.

Bless us our Creator, one and all, with Your light, for You have given us by that light the guide to a life filled with generosity and contentment, kindness and well-being, and peace.

Here we speak of light as offering precepts by which to live, perhaps harkening back to the burning bush and its light that accompanied the bestowing of the Ten Commandments,

And from the evening service we recite this prayer...Praised are you Adonai our God who rules the universe.  Your word bringing the evening dusk. You open with wisdom the gates of dawn, design the day with wondrous skill, set out the succession of seasons, and arrange the stars in the sky according to Your will.  You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Praised are you Adonai, for each evening's dusk.

Here God is the Creator of light, but also darkness and we give thanks for each in their interdependence.  Judaism is a religion that is organized around light or its absence, expressed in both morning and evening prayers and the Havdallah ceremony that accompanies the end of Shabbat.  In fact, the Jewish day runs from sundown to sundown.

After this exploration we attempted a somewhat unsuccessful experiment with bouncing a light from mirror to mirror.  Failing in our attempt we shifted to a drawing exercise using charcoal and a variety of erasers, first creating darkness and then removing it, rolling darkness away from light to create emergent imagery. Faces and hands smudged with charcoal we concluded our evening and emerged into the darkness of our cold Minnesota night.

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.