Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Upward Reaching

In response to my prior post on visualizing wisdom through artwork, I invited lab artists to share their thoughts on why they selected a particular image as representing wisdom.

Carolyn Light Bell shared her thoughts on why she selected the work of Milwaukee Artist Lab artist Berit Engen as expressing wisdom. The following work from left to right is Exile (By the River of Babylon), Yiddish Wisdom: If everyone pulled in the same direction, the whole world would fall down and Yiddish Wisdom: It is easier to guard a sack of fleas than a girl in love.
by Carolyn Light Bell

Berit Engen has depicted the upward reaching toward a greater energy. A supplication. Wisdom comes in knowing when and how to ask for help from powers greater than mine. The burning that comes from fire can be seen as both destruction and creation. Blueberries only grow from earth where fire has added nitrogen to the soil. In the same way, we bear new fruit from the death of our deeply-rooted hopes and dreams.

Ms. Engen’s work combines the elegance of Nordic design, which captures the order and simplicity of distilled natural beauty, with the movement and passion of Jewish experience, our constant striving toward God.

Her color and style are pleasing to the eye, capturing the insistent stretching up of all impulse. Her wisdom lies in knowing where to focus her talent—on what aspect of the human condition.

Rosyle Utan was particularly drawn to Barnett Newman's work and felt it expressed the concept of wisdom through challenging us to engage with the unknown. Below are her comments on her selection.

by Roslye Ultan

My response to making the selection of Barnett Newman, ONEMENT IV, 1953 (part of a series), for Art Lab discussion on the theme of wisdom – is/was indeed a formidable task. How does one begin to grasp in visual terms the ungraspable concept of wisdom? My first inclination was to go to the most expressive abstract works (Abstract Expressionism) of the Jewish painter/philosopher Barnett Newman—partly because our investigation is/was to search the annals of “Jewish” wisdom, and secondly because Newman did not try to offer an answer, but challenged us/the viewer to engage in a conversation with him/the art object in a vast spatial field unencumbered by any preconceived limitations. Rather, Newman offers/as well as seeks to understand the mystical inner workings of humankind through an ecstatic expanse of space into which he invites us to participate. I chose to go beyond what is known or seen into a more authentic source of primal inspiration – the awesome unknown/the place of doubt, of dreams, of myth which are conjured up when faced with a grand-field of intense blue divided by a white line (a Zip), me/you, struggling to find signs that might lead somewhere.

By Lynda Monik-Isenberg

I chose James Turrell's Skyspace in Austin Texas. It was an immediate reaction to the call Jay and I made for submissions. For me, James Turrell's artwork engages wisdom in intellectual, conceptual and emotional terms.  He 'provides' light the ephemeral substance that bring us life, that marks our days and actions, that allows us to 'see'; he isolates and focuses it and us - allowing his participants to consider light in its wholeness (color, shape, time, sustenance, insight...). The work is contemplative and quiet with meaning made by the participant. This piece reminds me  that wisdom is often simple, elegant, slow in coming and is born from interaction, reflection and quiet.

"My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing." --- James Turrell

Youtube video

Phil Rosenbloom contributed Rodin's Gates of Hell and offered these thoughts.   

by Phil Rosenbloom

I chose Rodin's Gates of Hell because it depicts Rodin's concept of the Artist's role in society.  In the middle towards the top sits "the thinker" and he looks down on the rest of humanity in the form of Rodin's interpretation of Dante's Inferno.  The artist's job is that of the thinker, looking, observing and thinking about the human condition.  

Image by Anabelle Dureau

By Ann Ginsburg Hofkin

I found this on the Internet.  It made me gasp a bit, since it is an image that portrays various elements, some of which may be difficult to define and impossible to contain. That is how I view the concept of wisdom...attempting an understanding of this is an enormous and exciting challenge.

Several offered Ted talks which elaborate to a much greater degree on the piece they selected.  Anita Konikoff who chose Crochet Coral Reef (right) provided the Ted talk below on her selection.  More images are available on this site.

And Paula Pergament offered this stunning Ted Talk by Jason deCaires Taylor which gives new meaning to wisdom as an interaction with nature and time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Visualizing Wisdom

December 22, 2015 by Susan Weinberg Our session actually began a few days ago with an assignment. We were asked to send in an image of someone's artwork that represented wisdom. Not so simple. First we had to think about how we visualized wisdom, then find an image that represented it. If you are a believer in "I'll know it when I see it" you likely spent some time scanning the universe of artwork in search of wisdom.

I began my search in the figurative and symbolist world looking at artwork by William Blake and Gustav Moreau. Interesting work, but nothing that said wisdom to me. Then I thought back to a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that I went on last week. The visit was prompted by one of their book based tours on the book Rez Life that took me to the Native American galleries.

Ah ha! I knew which piece I wanted to share but had a dilemma. I didn't remember the artist. Thus began my search through mediums until I quite by accident stumbled upon my selection, a piece by Ernest Whiteman based on petroglyphs and embodying the heart-line, a red neon line running from throat to heart, a plumb line of sorts. Whiteman talks of the heart-line as a life force that takes one on a path or journey and provides the balance between what we are given by nature and what we take from the earth. The traditions speak to harmony between man, animal and nature. "Clearly a wisdom based piece" I thought.
When we gathered this evening Lynda Monick-Isenberg and Jay Isenberg took us through a slide show of the images that had been submitted. They then broke the artwork into four groups, those that were more abstract, figurative, nature derived and other. We were asked to form groups according to our artwork. My selection was placed in the abstract group along with images of the Rothko chapel, Onement IV (blue rectangles) by Barnett Newman, Black Square by Malevich, Blue Nude by Matisse and tapestries on Exile and Yiddish Wisdom by Berit Engen.
We were asked to employ a process of critical response by identifying what we noticed, what it reminded us of, emotions it generated, questions it raised and the meaning or understanding that was conveyed by the work. For example for Matisse's Blue Nude we noted the ocean-like blue, a mood of contemplation and serenity and the negative space of the image. We were especially intrigued with Matisse's resilience in reinventing his approach in the face of physical limitations, certainly an element of wisdom. Rothko's work generated words such as radiance, reverence and enveloping and reminded us of eggs and shells. We were curious about the differences in creating work for a chapel rather than a museum.

Although all of the work we selected was composed of simplified forms, not all of it spoke to everyone in our group. The simplicity of the Malevich and the Barnett Newman eluded some of us in terms of meaning. Overall the gathering of work seemed to speak to both space and negative space.
We were then asked to move to another group of images, those of the natural world, and found that we struggled a bit. In our time discussing abstraction we all seemed to have turned into minimalists, finding the photographs less to our taste. The questions we asked included such queries as how do you convey grandeur without presenting it on a silver platter? How do you have wisdom without sounding trite? It is a delicate line to walk.

It occurred to me that perhaps our response was a function of the work we had originally selected and I wondered how those who selected the natural world images would respond to our more abstract choices.
When we considered the two groups our preference for minimalist and more abstract work was based on the idea that it allowed room for the viewer to enter. It was more subtle and asked the question, allowing room for contemplation and interpretation. Some of the natural world images illustrated the idea and were more familiar to us and hence we felt were less likely to engage the viewer to do some of the work. Our take-away was that we perceive wisdom in many different ways and perhaps have some innate preferences.

For the last portion of our session we were given a creative assignment, the forced connection. We were instructed to select our original image as well as one other that spoke to us. First we were to list the conceptual, emotional, intellectual, technical and design content of each work and then create new connections visually.
I was intrigued to discover that the work that I gravitated to outside of my own selection was that of James Turrell, a physical space at the University of Texas. Interestingly it echoed many of the themes of my original selection. Both made use of negative space through a cut out form and addressed concepts of duality, inside/outside, people/nature. Both presented a theme of balance and made use of circular forms as focal points. It was an exercise that made conscious some subconscious expressions.

We were then asked to create a visual representation that expressed new connections out of this process. Many chose to work with collage, often selecting Malevich's simple space to introduce another contrasting image. So often we struggle with how to express a somewhat abstract concept. This exercise not only identified imagery that we associate with wisdom, but allowed us to begin to recognize the themes that reside within our subconscious.
If you'd like to see the images we submitted please click here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Wisdom Stew

December 8, 2015  by Susan Weinberg

When I return from a lab, I often feel as if my task is to create a stew, so many different ingredients that somehow must blend into a whole.    My job is to cook them down into something that complements and blends into a savory mix, a wisdom stew.

Rabbi Davis began our discussion with a brief introduction to the Wisdom of Our Parents

Proverbs 1:8 My son, hear the instruction of your father, and forsake not the Torah of your mother.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi hazards a theory, understanding "the Torah of your mother" to mean the Nation of Israel and the sages' words who renewed and added to the Torah, creating fences.

Fences?  Our guest Jon Adams Ross offered a useful explanation of fences from acting parlance.  An instruction to act might cause one to freeze he noted whereas some acting prompts inspire action.  Fences allow freedom.  Boundaries define a playing field enabling us to act.

So are there different teachings from fathers than from mothers?   Some suggested fathers focused on the specifics, mothers applied it to the family.  Fathers addressed how to behave in the outside world, mothers understood the internal person and set the standards for how to interact with others.  Some saw it less as fathers and mothers, more as feminine and masculine energy.

Our attention shifted to our guest, Jon Adams Ross, also known as JAR.  Jon had joined us last spring as part of his work on a Covenant Foundation grant to create five new plays for five cities each inspired by a different patriarch or matriarch.  His way of working is through interaction with others.  Next week he will be doing a play on Abraham, later a play on Rebecca, then Jacob as part of the InHEIRitance project.  This is different than that book you may have inherited that stayed on your shelf, he noted.   His objective is to bring life to this inheritance.

"Let's talk about transmission," he said.  How does that happen in 2015?  How do we transmit wisdom without words?

He started us off with cave paintings.  Music was quickly added.  Food said another... kissing, crying, smiling, handshakes, dancing, eye contact, posture, image, all were added to our list.

He then moved us into an exercise with the assistance of David Sherman.  He whispered a brief instruction into David's ear and David walked briskly across the room.   What did he just do he asked?  This exercise was repeated with David looking over his shoulder and running, checking his watch, screaming and running away.  

Jon made the point that with transmission without words we can't control the story.  We as the actor or artist may have one idea, but it gets filtered through the experiences of the viewer.  They may see something else entirely.  He put this to the test with an exercise where we were to think of something we would want to pass on to the next generation. 

For me that something is family history as my Jewish family is rapidly diminishing.  As the family historian I hope to share that history with nieces and cousins who have some interest in our Jewish heritage.  Now we were asked to draw something that represents that.  I had already done a series of paintings on family history, one that included my grandmother blessing the candles, an image that was filtered through my mother's memory in its creation.  I quickly sketched this image.  We then traded our images to others who wrote what it said to them.  Keeping tradition, routine, consistency was the perception through someone else's eyes.  I chuckled. Totally foreign concepts in my family. I'd be happy with simple awareness.

As we went round the room to determine how each interpreted each other's drawings, a theme of connection was repeated again and again.

We are beginning our artist led sessions and the balance of the session was led first by Jonathan Gross and later by David Sherman. Jonathan’s focus was on the intuitive nature of wisdom, the origin of both hakima (wisdom) and yira (fear/awe).  He started us off with this quote from Albert Einstein.

Where the world ceases to be the scene of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it as free beings admiring, asking, and observing, there we enter the realm of Art and Science. If what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, we are engaged in science. If it is communicated through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind, but are recognized intuitively as meaningful, then we are engaged in art. Common to both is the loving devotion to that which transcends personal concerns and volition. 

Jonathan’s premise was that if wisdom is an adaptive characteristic it will persist.  His perspective was through evolutionary psychology and examined the complex mix of innate and learned behaviors that make up human behavior.  One aspect of the brain on which he focused was the temporal lobe that has the ability to infer intentionality.  Remember that viewer who may come up with a different scenario than was intended?  That’s the temporal lobe at work trying to decipher intention.  This is the part of our brain that comes up with both conspiracy theories and religious experiences.  And it is a touchy creature.  The cost of a false positive, detecting intention where none is meant is low, whereas the failure to detect intention could be much more serious.

One of the questions Jonathan posed was whether hakma (wisdom) was the effect of natural selection?  Judaism has survived through much of history without a common territory.  Has wisdom been essential to that survival?  If so, has it developed as a trait through natural selection? Did a tradition that valued wisdom, harbored within our religion, enhance the survival of those who employed it?  As an example of this wisdom, Jonathan referenced Solomon’s Wisdom, the recognition that ensuring survival of our offspring is a fundamental adaptive behavior.  (click here for a copy of his presentation on the Intuitive Nature of Wisdom).

David then spoke with us about Artistic Wisdom and posed three sentences for us to finish.

Artistic wisdom is….

My last moment of artistic inspiration was …

My last moment of artistic self-doubt was….

Just as the viewer who gets to impute their own perspective, the blog writer gets to do likewise.  So here were my responses….

Artistic wisdom is telling a story that reveals deeper truths and understanding.

My last moment of artistic inspiration was when I reached into my pocket on the way here and felt my mother’s glove.  Now I realize that takes a little more explanation.  As I was tackling the home of my late mother I ran across some fur lined leather gloves we had gotten in Italy years ago.  I took those gloves, molded to her hands and stuck them in my pockets. Now I discovered them once again and thought about how putting my hand in the glove was like holding her hand.  Which then took me into a mental riff on things and the presence they hold of another person. Perhaps that will show up in a blog or painting.

And my last moment of artistic self-doubt was yesterday as I re-read a writing project and debated if I could take it to the next stage.

So quite a savory stew of parents, fences and temporal lobes all blended richly into the wisdom encoded in our DNA and expressed creatively even in the face of doubt.

 Happy Hanukkah!