Monday, July 1, 2013


At the prior session of the Artists' Lab* we talked about beginnings. This session closed the loop by exploring endings. We began with a quote from Rabbi Tarfon (Pirke Avot 2:21) who said "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." (Captured in artwork by Bob Gill for the Voices & Visions project). In the broader scheme of things we take an incremental approach to finishing the work of perfecting the world. What we leave undone is passed to the next generation. In the short term however we were reminded that we had an artwork to complete for an upcoming exhibition and catalog.

We began our discussion with a question, what do we do or say when we complete a project? The first thought that popped into my mind was, "Am I really done?" My work has a way of resurrecting, even when I think it completed. Often I have to live with it for some time before I conclude it is finished or perhaps needs more work. Assuming I believe it to be done, my second thought is "What's next?" I realized I'm not much good at celebrating completion. In fact I skipped both of my college graduations. I think endings make me a bit anxious because I like knowing what's next.

One of the artists spoke of taking a period of "fertile emptiness" after completing a project. I especially liked that phrase as it is that period that I am finding is both fruitful and scary. It is the gestational time when you don't know what is next, but if you relax into it, the "next" emerges. My faith in the next is not quite solid enough to fully relax into it without it being tinged with a bit of anxiety. What if there is no next? In fact I often find the seeds of the next harvest in the project I have just completed. My process is often one of reflecting on whether I need to expand my scope to a bigger question or alternatively narrow it and go deeper into some particular aspect.

We shifted our attention to words related to finishing and pondered the word "deadline" which purportedly comes for a boundary around a prison beyond which prisoners can be shot. Hmmm, gives new meaning to "drop dead date".

So how are endings dealt with in Jewish text? When a section of the Talmud is completed, one says "Just as I finish this part may I be privileged to begin a new one.". The Torah is read through to the end and then begins again. We talked of the word gollel גולל which means wrap around, like a Torah scroll, no true beginning or ending. Beginnings feeding into endings feeding into beginnings. Even the creation story in Genesis 2:1-4a is followed by yet another creation story in 4b-6. And then God still hadn't gotten it quite right and started anew with Noah. So creation is a never ending process with destruction and new starts built in. Perhaps not so different than my process after all.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext 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.

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