Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Imagery of the Natural World

by Susan Weinberg

Today’s Artists’ Lab addressed some of the imagery and metaphors that we find within Jewish text. Much of this beautiful language lends itself to using text as a creative engine. We had been asked to think about some passages that inspired us with their natural imagery. Given the wealth of material, many of us offered metaphor-laden passages within the Song of Songs and Psalms. 

Others referenced the Hebrew alphabet, Jewish stories and folklore, the sequence of the creation story and the blessings one says upon seeing natural beauty. The Tree of life was also mentioned by many. In fact trees play a significant role in the Hebrew text and begin this beautiful passage within  Psalm 104 (16:22) 

The trees of the LORD have their fill, the cedars of Lebanon, which He hath planted;
 Wherein the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the fir-trees are her house.

The psalm goes on to address the homes and nocturnal habits of the animals.

The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the conies.
Who appointedst the moon for seasons; the sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God. The sun ariseth, they slink away, and couch in their dens.

Can’t you just picture those lions slinking away to their dens?

We turned our attention to our handout (Conjuring the Natural World) which presented several passages with powerful imagery. 

Marc Chagall - Deux Pigeons 1925
The Gemara relates a story in which phylacteries are miraculously changed to dove's wings, saving a life. Psalms 68:14 paints a picture of a dove in words: You shall shine as the wings of a dove covered with silver and her pinions with yellow gold. Doves are metaphoric in that the wings of the dove are likened to the congregation of Israel, protected only by mitzvot, just as the wings of the dove serve as its protection.  This passage spurred creativity in Marc Chagall who used this imagery in his painting Deux Pigeons. The imagery of the dove was also used in poetry by Yehuda haLevi with the addition of an important adjective, the wandering dove, an adjective applied both to the Israelites and birds. 

Cosmology offers yet another reference, but first we are encouraged to pay attention. Our contemporary focus on mindfulness echoes a focus found in Judaism. What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight...those who see the sun set...those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing --Tanhuma, Berakhot, 7

 One of the most beautiful passages from the Maariv Aravim gives us the following:

who speaks the evening into being,
skillfully opens the gates,
thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons,
and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan.
You are Creator of day and night,
rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light,
transforming day into night and distinguishing one from the other.

More passages from prayers can be found at The Sefaria Library at sefaria.org. (Note: both this link and the Hebrew Bible can be found to the right of this blog)

What's A Jew To Do?

Our environment is a topic with meaning to many within our group, some who have been deeply immersed in it for some time, others who are using this exploration as a way to deepen their knowledge and understanding. There has been a desire to explore what we can do to further our concerns about the environment so we turned to the topic of taking action (see final page of handout).

We began by visiting the passage where the focus on Tikkun Olam originated.  In the Alenu it speaks of perfecting the earth. This work has gained traction throughout Judaism. 

But it is such an overwhelming task. Where to start? We are cautioned in the Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Tarfon: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.

So our call to action is to begin, much as we begin a painting without knowing where it will take us. It is the one foot in front of the other approach, trusting that we can make a difference even if it is incremental, even if we never see the result directly.

One of the aspects of Judaism that I personally resonate with is that while there is much attention paid to study, we are also called to act. We are not a passive people, we are doers. The Torah talks not only of study, but of good deeds and we are admonished that if we study and do not implement we will ultimately stand trial. Knowledge solely for knowledge's sake is not sufficient. It is the first step towards improving the world.

So how do we do this? We will be doing a virtual show at the end of this year's lab. How can we reach a larger audience and generate dialogue? In many ways the new tools that this pandemic encourages us to use, also enable us to explore in new ways. We are no longer limited geographically and can present to and engage with a much broader audience both visually, but also in dialogue. That also opens the door to more partnerships. We discussed other organizations that might share a common sense of purpose.  As we flesh out possible directions, partnerships may have the ability to give our efforts wings.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Creative Compost

by Susan Weinberg

We gathered for the lab around a familiar face for many of us who are old timers in the Lab. Anat Szendro Sevilla, a facilitator during our early years of the Lab, led our session. This is one of the benefits of Zoom meetings. Since her Minneapolis days, her life has expanded to include three children and a sojourn in Israel. Now she is in New York, with many family demands on her time, but still the energetic and creative soul we so fondly remember. 

Anat spoke of her learnings about Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) which is a psychological approach that analyzes strategies employed by individuals who are considered successful in their field. It examines thoughts, language and behavior patterns used to reach personal goals.

We began to consider these tools by first assessing our own experience. We were asked what type of environment causes our creativity to flourish. For many, nature was a source of creativity as was music. Some needed to approach creativity through intentional thinking time, but for others it had to emerge in the unplanned moments, sneaking up on us when we least expected it. Some noted a time of day such as early morning, and more than one noted a place, in the shower, a museum and even wandering a fabric store.  Many proposed unencumbered time to think with no distractions or pressing deadlines or too tight a schedule. Others found they needed some structure with schedules and deadlines to push them forward. 

Sometimes we wanted “a room of our own” conceived of as mental space, organized space or quiet, intentional, contemplative space in which to work. Our state of mind was also important as we sought a quiet mind, a lack of anxiety. Sometimes we needed permission, often from ourselves, but we also wanting to know that it was OK with loved ones. Dedication to others often seemed to rear its head, creating anxiety and time demands that blocked creativity. And there were qualities that we sought in that space to give us room to create, a sense of purpose, freedom from judgment and a positive attitude, turning the gremlins off, those discouraging voices in our head. Physical activity sometimes shook the creativity loose and the ability to play, like a child. 

In this time of disrupted routines, we were asked to color in a circle with our routine: sleep, creative work, day job, food and leisure, exercise and other. I was stumped. I have no regular routine in this new world. I consider sleep to be work, not easy to come by yet necessary to address the rest of my day adequately. And what exactly is creative work?  If it is only studio time, I’d be outing myself as not creating in a room full of artists. For me work, the non-sleep variety, takes over and continues often until late at night. It is easier to work than to create and the hardest thing falls to the bottom. 

I was somewhat reassured when we reconvened and I learned that others also were schedule-challenged. Creativity was defined broadly and often intermixed with other activities, walking or gardening. Even raising children fell into the creativity bucket. We concluded that even if we are not logging studio hours, nothing that we are experiencing now will be wasted. We are building a compost pile which will offer fertile soil in the future. It was wisely noted that there are different stages of creativity. Before we can create, we need to fill ourselves up, to take things in. It is a circle of creating and replenishment.

We were introduced to a book titled Daily Rituals-How Artists Work by Mason Curry. In this book he looks at how famous artists answer the same questions we just addressed. You can view their time breakdowns here. I was much reassured by the fact that my sleep pattern seems to echo that of Picasso. Now if only the creative pattern did as well!

Anat shared a brief but powerful clip titled Where Did That Come From : Talks About Creativity that was created by six Israeli artists. I was struck by the echoes of my own experience, not in each one, but in many. There are many ways of exploring creativity as we learned from our own group. Some of these artists’ approaches included looking for non-perfection, rather than perfection, something that leaves an impression. Free association, following one thought to the next also played a role and when all else fails just start working. It is a process to get to a place where you let go of control and ignore the commotion around you. They also discussed blocks and talked about how we can fall in love with something that really doesn’t work. William Faulkner gave the advice to writers to  “Kill your darlings.” This artist recommended a less deadly fate, take a shower, get away from it and come back fresh. Another advises that sometimes nothing happens, but it comes eventually and it comes out of the totality of our experience.

Lynda recommended several similar videos at the Louisiana Channel.  

A source of several amazing videos, Anat also shared a clip on How To Be A Genius which busts the myth and mystery of geniuses, and it does it as a pop-up book! In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson it offers this: “In the minds of geniuses we find once more our own neglected thoughts.” The clip proposes that we often disavow our most promising thoughts because of anxiety over not wanting to appear strange. The only difference with those we view as geniuses is that they are more persistent in pursuing those thoughts and less hemmed in by a societal view. 

We closed our session with a brief introduction to the Walt Disney Strategy of what successful people do. Walt had an approach of taking an idea and breaking it into Dreamer, Realistic and Critic, evaluating it from each lens. We proposed a return visit to explore that more in depth.

We were delighted with the thoughtful and entertaining approach that Anat shared with us and I think I speak for all when I say we all needed this session. The current circumstances have been ones that require adaptation to a new way of living, disrupting schedules and life patterns and imposing new demands. For many of us it has been a challenging adaptation even when some aspects seem attractive. We are grateful to be able to continue the lab discussion and the lab community as a source of strength and reflection in these difficult times. *

*For those looking for a different perspective on these circumstances, Lynda recommends an article Why You Should Ignore All That.