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!