Last year I participated in the Minneapolis Jewish Artists’ Lab and found it both thought-provoking and the genesis of an evolving artist community. I wrote about it in these pages, uncertain if it would resonate with a broader audience, but it seemed there was interest so I will continue to share some aspects of it. I come from each session with synapses snapping, almost too much stimulation to absorb. It is through the act of writing that I am able to integrate it into something to which I can give voice.
This year I was asked to serve as the Resident Writer and write a blog focused on the Artist Lab for the artists. I am writing that blog on a website called mplsjewishartistslab.weebly.com and anticipate going more in-depth for that targeted group, while sharing a more abridged version in these pages.
Recently we gathered for the first session of year two and began to address our new theme of "light". I must confess to some initial skepticism on the topic, but I came away from the session with many directions to explore and convinced that it will provide rich material for creative efforts. Our group has expanded so we greeted our original group with affection and began to get to know our new artists. In some cases I was familiar with their work long before meeting them. I was struck by how many of the artists worked in multiple mediums, using art as a means to explore the world. Curiosity seemed to be the common trait.
The setting truly set the stage for this topic. In fact it was on the stage of the theater, an interesting juxtaposition of velvety black darkness pierced by the glaring beams of spotlights.
One of our facilitators introduced us to the Hebrew word for light “Or” and pointed out that if the first Hebrew letter aleph is swapped out for an ayin it spells “Ivver” which means blindness. She reminded us of the morning blessing that speaks of God opening the eyes of the blind.
My mind wandered to a close friend, the subject of my painting for the last lab exhibition. My friend is legally blind and we have often talked of the gradual encroachment of darkness on her world. I thought of how she keeps her light alive despite that darkness. How would I paint that concept?
I thought of the interviews of elders on which I base my artwork, how sharing story is a way of inviting light in. I've written of Hanna who came to London on the Kindertransport. It was hard for her to open up about her story. For a long time it was sheathed in darkness, sadness. My painting of her story seems to have opened her up by recognizing what she felt and experienced. Now she tells her story to others, proudly identifying her painting. It is as if telling her story brought it into the light. As I considered these different perspectives on light I felt more comfortable with the topic, finding my familiar touchstone of story.
Many of the artists spoke of the fact that light must exist in relationship to its opposite, darkness. Some felt discomfort with darkness while others found it offered a place of quiet self-containment. One of our arts facilitators offered a moving perspective when she spoke of the child in her womb, the source of so much light for her, yet floating in darkness. She imagined that moment when he or she would emerge from that quiet solitude into the bright light of this world.
The photographers among us had a unique relationship with light through their work and spoke of the tension between light and dark. And one reminded us that light is not a simple concept. It can be a particle or a wave and has many facets, infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray. Yet another artist spoke of the other guest at the table, shadow. It was not until I wrote these words that I realized I have a painting in my recent series focused on light (Fire, Light and Legacy) and yet another that addresses the shadow of memory (A Matter of Chemistry). Unbeknownst to me, I had already begun this exploration.
At each session we do an exercise and we were asked to turn our attention to a table which contained objects related to light: a light bulb, an electric flame, a mirror, a glow stick and matches. We each selected one and wrote what it connoted for us. We then gathered with others to discuss what we had written. What to choose? I immediately began an internal exercise to determine “what object is different from the others?" Then I chose the outsider, the mirror. Differences offer more material with which to work. Unlike the others which emit light, a mirror reflects light and cannot exist as a visual presence in darkness. We talked of how we see ourselves in reverse in a mirror and often focus on the superficial. In Jewish tradition mirrors are covered when someone dies and one of our group reported that there is a Hasidic belief that children should not look into a mirror until they can verbalize what they see as they believe it can pose a danger. Others spoke of the impression of softness reflected on a hard surface and the different perspectives a mirror affords us.
Can you hear the synapses snapping?
*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 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 Text/Context/Subtext 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.