Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Simply Unfinished


Inside a Burl - Susan Weinberg 2021
Process has always fascinated me. How do we get from here to there? And how does our understanding of process allow us to move forward? To replicate a successful experience? Or to get unstuck and start again when things don't work? 

In painting, much of the process occurs long before brush meets canvas. That is especially true of work within the Artists’ Lab where we use Jewish text to identify concepts related to a specific topic. This year the topic is from Brokenness to Wholeness.  

As we explore texts I try to organize learnings in my mind by forming them into statements. We carry our brokenness with us. When Moses came down the mountain with the commandments, he encountered the Israelites worshiping the golden calf and in anger threw the tablets to the ground, breaking them. The rabbis considered where those broken shards were housed, concluding they accompanied the intact replacement in the ark. This is indeed an exercise in metaphor. We carry our brokenness with us and it is the companion to wholeness.


The next lab session was during Hanukkah and we explored the lesser-known story behind that holiday. After the battle by the Maccabees, who fought for the right to practice their religion, they came to the temple which had been sacked, defiled. They began to set it right. They used their own efforts to clean, purify and rededicate it. Hanukkah in fact means rededication.  We had that discussion in December and upon my re-reading it a month later, I had a much more visceral sense of what it meant. I had watched the impeachment hearings and the videos of the mob attacking the congressional building, I had a new understanding for what sacking and defilement meant, for the emotions that accompanied it. When Congress resumed later that evening to finish the certification, it was an act of rededication. It is with our own agency that we set things right, decide to move forward into wholeness.


The most recent discussion was about related words and their meanings in both Hebrew and English. This came at a time when we have a deep appreciation for how words matter, how they can incite or conversely calm, console and unite. After the lab session, I met with my two granddaughters on these themes. They too are participants in this year’s lab topic, partnering with me in discussion and creative work for the lab exhibition. While the lab introduces me to text, I also explore more broadly. I had been awed by Amanda Gorman’s poem and her presentation of it at the inauguration and realized that it addressed the concept of brokenness and wholeness, a perfect vehicle for a discussion about words.  I began with an exercise where I colored each word of brokenness in her poem grey, each word of wholeness green. For example, Amanda asks, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”


After I did that exercise through the rest of her poem, I looked at the words that remained in-between. They were words that spoke to the passage from one state to another. I colored that sea of words blue. I thought back to a discussion in the lab about how there are really three parts, brokenness, wholeness and that liminal passage in between. 

Within her poem, Amanda offers us an important line about process: We've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished.”  Brokenness need not be a static state, it is a point in time and a point in time speaks to a hope for the future. I gratefully added Amanda’s line to my learnings.

There are many examples of brokenness surrounding us, far fewer of wholeness. But some have managed to reflect both. As I watched the impeachment trial, I was moved by the manner that Congressman Jamie Raskin channeled the emotion surrounding the recent loss of his son into meaning and purpose. His emotion gave his presentation power and authenticity. 

While I am mulling these ideas over, I am also painting. It is a left brain, right brain endeavor. Sometimes I find it helpful to take an image and explore it in a small painting. Each effort is a stepping-stone to a deeper understanding. What I’ve been working on recently is a piece called Inside the Burl. I painted it over a painting that never really worked, a new beginning. In the prior blog, I included an image of the inside of a burl, an image of many paths, some of which dead-ended and had to begin anew. I learned that a burl begins out of a bud unfurled, a potential not fully explored. 

The meaning of the word burl is derived from a knot. When we run into a knot we are stopped and need to redirect, our path is disrupted. The image itself reminded me of a labyrinth which of course led to me to look up the term. A labyrinth is an ancient symbol related to (drumroll!!) wholeness. It combines circles and spirals into a meandering, but purposeful path. It is often used as a meditation tool and my painting did indeed feel like a meditation, requiring a level of mindfulness that doesn’t come to me naturally.

But a labyrinth has a single continuous path that leads to the center. It is related, but distinct, from a maze which has dead ends, those obstacles you must maneuver around. Perhaps a burl is more truly a maze. That took me back to the question I've written of previously that Bruce Feiler posed in his book Life is in the Transitions.  What shape is your life? My life is a burl, probably most of ours are. There is potential unexplored, those paths not taken or partially explored until they fail to unfurl. There are disruptions that force us to find a new path and to redirect. The end point is not pre-ordained and there is most certainly not one path. We carry all of our experiences within us and we need not consider ourselves irrevocably broken, but simply unfinished.