Friday, May 18, 2018

Crossing the "Dalet"

For the past six years I have been participating in the Jewish Artists' Lab. Each year we choose a topic and explore it from a Jewish perspective. Then we create artwork and/or a performance piece that relates to the theme. This year our theme is Crossing the Threshold. That can mean many things, but for me it means how we venture into new territory throughout our life as we expand both our self and our universe. It is like adding rooms onto a house. We enlarge our world with each threshold we cross.

It is a topic that intrigues me in large part because I have reinvented myself quite a bit, especially since I left my career to do things that have meaning for me. The first time I said, "I am an artist" or  "I am a writer," were major steps across thresholds. Similarly, I had flown beneath the radar of the Jewish community for many years and yet now seem to be involved in many segments of that community in ways that seem consistent with who I am.That too was a threshold.  I crossed that threshold through doorways of interests rather than religion; drawn in through art, genealogy and history coupled with a curious nature. I became a public person, presenting frequently and I’m told with passion. That was a huge threshold for a person who used to feel she could fade away quietly without anyone noticing. Being public opened additional doorways that I could never have imagined. It is a big part of reinventing oneself. I like this new life even though it is often stressful, at odds with my private self that needs to retreat periodically for sustenance.

I am intrigued with process and love to make sense of how things work. As an artist who is also quite analytic, there are two components. There is the subconscious process of creating and then there is the rational connecting of dots to create a cohesive understanding. So, let me tell you about my work for the lab on both of those levels.

First, I have to confess that I proposed this topic and apparently wrote a convincing proposal as the artists in six labs around the Midwest voted for it. Then of course I discovered I was stuck on what to do with my own theme! I like to find interesting ideas to develop and no idea was coming to me. When I’m stuck I sometimes find that painting anything gets me unstuck. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, just the act of creating opens doorways in my subconscious.

I had used eggshells in my last artwork and had a container of broken eggshells sitting in my studio. One day I found myself studying them and thinking about the different hues of white within them. I prepared a canvas and began to paint them. Sweeping oval shapes, delicately shadowed at the points where they butted up against each other. They were harder to paint than I had imagined. I had an idea in my head that wasn’t taking shape on canvas. 

One day I looked at that canvas deciding whether I should paint over it, when it occurred to me that eggshells bear some relationship to thresholds. Thresholds often feel perilous, fragile, filled with the unknown. We leave our familiar shell behind as we venture forward. With that thought, I decided to address this theme on this canvas. I like the idea of building new imagery on top of prior images. Life experiences build in much the same way, preparing us to step into new experiences. Nothing is wasted.

I began to paint as I meditated on thresholds. I pictured a row of doors opening into each other into infinity. But no, that wasn’t true of my experience. My doors were more like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Step through one and fall fifty feet, hitting another and sliding down it into yet another that topples more like dominos. I began to paint doors at odd angles, even adding a diving board-like door as that is often how I enter change, holding my breath and jumping.  In looking for a Jewish angle, I did a search on the word for doors in Hebrew only to learn that it was “dalet”, the fourth letter in Hebrew. With that I created a door shaped Dalet.

I began to create shadows, thinking of the fear that often accompanies the unknown. Once I break through that fear there is often a sense of satisfaction, mastery. I added a golden glow to represent that. I don’t always go through doors in the traditional way. If I was just starting out, I suppose I would, but when you come at things later in life, you often do it in a more unorthodox manner.  Sometimes I go around them or over them. It is a fluid environment and I am most successful in it when I can be fluid, not an easy lesson for me to learn. When I feel that I am in sync with the universe, surprising things often happen. We call it Beshert, fate, those things that seem mysterious, but important, things we can’t predict, but somehow feel like they were meant to be.

I studied my doors and felt I needed a presence connoting movement. I tried a figure, but one figure didn’t convey the movement I wanted to represent. It turned into a flow of water moving through the image.  But what is a painting without actual eggshells. I added a sweep of crumpled eggshells culminating in a question mark, the uncertainty we faced. And voila, a very abstracted piece, not at all typical of my work.

Recently a friend who consults with people navigating career changes sent a woman to talk to me who was following a path similar to my own. She was interested in leaving her financial career for something more creative and was interested in whether my experience might inform her own. As we spoke, I looked over at this painting and began to draw on it to share my experience. "Don't let traditional credentials hang you up," I said. You can go over or around doorways. And don't forget to be fluid, leave room for the unknown. That's when the best things happen."

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