Monday, July 18, 2022

Inside-Outside: Opening the Door to Community

For the past ten years, I've participated in a Jewish Artists' Lab. Recently I was invited to assist with a retrospective show for the lab and find that it has taken me into my own personal retrospective. 

I had entered the lab with some trepidation. I had felt a bit outside of the Jewish community until I stepped into family history research and began to incorporate it into my artwork. When the lab announcement arrived, I had been showing artwork related to family and cultural history as well as the Holocaust. I didn’t think of myself as a Jewish artist, but rather an artist who was Jewish. There is a subtle distinction between the two. I’m skittish about labels as they tend to constrict paths rather than expand them.

Over time I developed a rather unique role within the lab. In 2012, I began to write about it in this blog. As this has a more general audience, I tended to write of elements of more general interest. As that first year concluded, I wrote a blog on a piece in the show that caused me to consider the importance of naming who we are when the path is still emerging. “I am an artist” or “I am a writer”– tentative announcements that begin to take form in reality by the sheer power of acknowledgement. 

After that blog post, I was invited to create a separate blog for the lab itself. My vantage point changed a bit from a more general audience to one more deeply immersed in Jewish content. I felt a bit awkward at first, finding my voice for this new venue. There is a wide range of observance among the lab members. I’m at the very secular end and I worried a bit about lacking the deeper knowledge of some of my fellow artists who were much more immersed in Jewish practice. I ultimately decided to let the blog reflect my personal lens as I sought meaning in the content for myself, often from the perspective of metaphor. It became a creative engine for me, presenting a different lens through which to contemplate a subject. 

 As part of the lab, we created an artwork for an annual exhibition.  I started each year wondering if I could come up with something thought-provoking. After ten years, I’ve learned to trust the process, but am still relieved when a compelling idea begins to come together. While I created paintings for the exhibitions, the text and the story behind it felt equally important. The process by which it evolved often became an important part of the story as well.

 One of my favorite themes was Text-Context-Subtext. It was in its very name a layered approach, often working itself to the subtext of creativity. We looked at the text of Genesis and the creation of the world, then discussed the difficulty in both beginning something creative and deciding when it is done. I was relieved to learn from my fellow artists that I wasn’t alone in struggling with such things. I began to accept that part of the process of creating is uncertainty.  It is a process of experimentation and being open to possibilities as we find our way. 

Passages in the Torah served as jumping off points for such questions as to how we might compress time, or express sound through a visual medium. I began to step beyond my painting to include poetry, expanding my scope as I drew on a story from a close friend, a Holocaust survivor. I later returned to her story when we examined the theme of light where her experience during the Holocaust flipped our associations with light and darkness on their head. Darkness that hid them was her friend, while light meant exposure. 

I often dove beneath the surface in search of metaphor and tapped a wide variety of sources for inspiration. Sometimes I shaped the theme around a related topic of interest. We explored water, a primordial force of both creation and destruction. I had been painting about memory as I observed my parents’ struggles with its loss and ran across a quote from Toni Morrison that became my raw material for my artwork. "You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places... Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” I explored the linkages between water and memory and put out a memory jar, asking people to submit a memory they shared with someone who had since lost memory. 

The Roundness of Things - Wisdom-2016
Appropriately, wisdom was our theme the year my mother died. For several years she was the source of so much of my creative energy as I processed her loss. She was also a very wise woman, and my artwork was a reflection on the wisdom of mothers, incorporating her notes on the wisdom she gleaned from books.

Stepping into the Chrysalis-2017 

Stepping into the Chrysalis-2017
Two themes were interrelated. The first was Inside-Outside, Boundaries and Otherness. The second was Crossing the Threshold. It was 2016 and we were first seeing the deep divide within our country. There was a lot of “othering” going on and a lot of talk about boundaries. While that was the direction I first anticipated exploring, I ended up delving into the three parts to this topic, inside, outside, and the in-between, navigating the passage across that boundary line. My work became a triptych with an inside, outside, and a meditation on the often challenging in-between. It opened to embrace the viewer much like an ark.The following year, I created a piece that explored stepping into change, a trail of eggshells led into the structure as I stepped into something new and unknown.

Tree Time - 2020
 Our last two years were Covid years. We met on Zoom, and I abandoned the gym for walking. I became enamored with trees as I walked through my neighborhood, a different kind of figurative subject than the people I had painted. And I only realized in hindsight that I had continued with an inside-outside theme for three paintings in a row. 

Burly Tree - 2021
When we explored the environment with the topic of Muddy Waters, I painted a 4700-year-old tree in California known as Methuselah with its tree rings painted as backdrop. We know of global warming in part because of a core taken from that tree. I thought of it as a messenger, much as was the original Methuselah. The following year we addressed Brokenness and Wholeness which I explored through a tree laden with burls. Burls grow out of injury into a thing of beauty, charting a circuitous route, much as we do through life. The burls made up the background of this painting as well.  

When I look back, I realize that the subject that has become central to much of my recent work is the in-between, how to show the inside and outside simultaneously, the liminal state of transitions and the uncertainty that often accompanies it. As someone who has moved between multiple worlds, it is a topic that resonates for me. I also had a few muses, my friend Dora and her Holocaust story inspired two paintings as did my mother. The community of artists has helped me to appreciate the common threads that we all deal with in a creative process and made me feel welcome within the community. And accepting the process has helped me navigate those times when I am stuck and not sure where I’m going next. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot more of the underpinnings of Judaism and have a deep appreciation of its support for questioning, challenging and thoughtful inquiry.

You can find my lab work on my website at Artists Lab.

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