Friday, October 10, 2014

A Sukkot Mystery

Every Sukkot since visiting El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, Spain in 2008 I remember a particular treasure in its women's gallery. 

The women's gallery upstairs was intimate and touching. A wooden chair was  so tiny it looked child-sized! Most astonishing, in the exhibit of life-cycle and holiday objects, was an actual etrog, (a yellow citrus fruit), together with a lulav, (palm, myrtle, and willow branches bound together). These ritual objects are shaken together in a prescribed manner during Sukkot, a Fall harvest festival. I had seen many etrog boxes, both ancient and modern, in Jewish museums - elaborate silver, ceramic, or inlaid. I had never before seen just the plain ancient piece of fruit itself. This etrog was shriveled, dry, slightly reddish like brick, almost looking like a large nut. The branches of the lulav were dried and brittle, no longer green. How long since that particular etrog and lulav were held in the hands of Jews of the Toledo community?  

Jews were expelled in 1492, and El Transito, built around 1400, was converted into a church.  Now it is part of the Sephardi Museum, which explores Jewish culture of medieval Toledo.  Were that shriveled lulav and etrog somehow preserved since before 1492? If so, how did they survive?  What were the travels of the hands that had held and shaken them, if they dated from descendents of expelled Jews who had since returned?  There was something about seeing actual dried up plants - a fruit and branches - that felt like a more personal and immediate connection with the people whose hands had touched them, than with objects like candlesticks or torah decorations that one sees more often in museums.  It was poignant and real.

Following is the official ritual:  Stand facing the east (or whatever direction is toward Jerusalem from where you are). Take the etrog in your left hand with the stem (green tip) up and the pitam (brown tip) down. Take the lulav (including the palm, myrtle and willow branches bound together) in your right hand. Bring your hands together and recite the blessing below. After you recite the blessing, turn the etrog so the stem is down and the pitam is up. Be careful not to damage the pitam! With the lulav and etrog together, gently shake forward (East) three times, then pull the lulav and etrog back in front of your chest. Repeat this to the right (South), then over your right shoulder (West), then to the left (North), then up, then down.  In recent years, some have added a seventh dimension :  Inward.

Waving Procedure - Animated GIF

Spending time with Native American people in the San Diego area has deepened my appreciation of rituals that honor the four directions, as well as sky and earth. Although there are various mystical interpretations in Jewish tradition for this ritual of Sukkot, East, West, North, and South, Sky and Earth are common to us all.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Skyspace: James Turrell's Jewel in Philadelphia!

If thundershowers hadn't been threatened, we wouldn't have seen the extraordinary "closed roof" Skyspace light show by James Turrell last night at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting (Quakers).  "Sorry you missed the real thing" said one of the volunteers afterwards.  But we did see the real thing - one aspect of it.  We'll go again for open roof another time.  But considering that the light changes with the seasons and time of day, most dramatically at dawn and dusk, rewarding repeat visitors with different experiences, maybe we'll go back more than once. The electronics are so delicate and complex that if rain is threatened they don't risk opening the roof. 

We had brought our yoga mats and pillows so we could lay on the floor and just let the colors soak into us. I never felt so completely infused with pure color, sometimes so intense you could taste it. The pacing of the color changes induced a change in perception, a kind of meditative state vibratingly alive with color.  I had been sorry to miss Turrell's show at the Guggenheim. In contrast, this venue is intimate and spiritual. Skyspace is a profound experience in a place of worship resonant with deep quiet and simplicity. Turrell himself is a lifelong Quaker.  This installation gives new meaning to "seeking the inner light!"

The Chestnut Hill Skyspace, called Greet the Light, is a permanent art installation in the Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse which simply requires registration:  What a treasure both for Philadelphians and visitors to Philly!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Newark, the Paradox: everything from crime to a world-class collection of Tibetan Buddhist art

My taxi ride from the Newark train station to the Newark Museum was most unusual.  Sitting at a light, a white BMW pulled up to the right of us.  My cabbie jumped out and handed the driver, a portly gray-haired man wearing a gold chain with a tiny cross dangling from it, a wad of bills, while thanking him by name.  The light was long enough that the man had a chance to look it over and hand a $100 bill back saying "I don't know if this one is good."  My cabbie spent the rest of the ride holding the bill up to light, squinting at it, mumbling in his African accent that he didn't know how to tell if it was counterfeit or not.  I found myself wondering if it wasn't "good" if he would owe the man another $100?  Just what was the back story?

Then I entered an environment that has an extraordinary collection of Tibetan Art - an oasis in the midst of poverty and crime.  The lighting was dim, only flicking on when movement censors detected someone there.  The altar below is a sacred space designed in the traditional manor by a Tibetan artist in residence, 1989-1990.  His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, performed a consecration ceremony for the Altar on September 23, 1990, which was his third visit to the Newark Museum.

A sense of reverence and calm pervaded the galleries which even the children seemed to sense.

There  was a play area with a child-size tent.  I wish I could have crawled inside myself!

A  feeling infused the Tibetan Galleries that was different from any of the many other galleries.  Delicately climate controlled, so well conserved and documented, the Newark Museum is an important part of Tibet's cultural diaspora.  Yet another reason I fell in love with the Newark Museum!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Newark Museum - I Love It!

I was thrilled that the Arts of Africa section at the Newark Museum included contemporary art!  I had seen a lot of the work of Moroccan-born UK-based Hassan Hajjaj online.  His series 'Kesh Angels, on the biker culture of the women of Marrakesh, had made a big splash this year at a New York gallery. He's one of those international superstar artists who also does performance, fashion, interior design, and furniture. This was the first time I had an opportunity to see his work in person.  I somehow hadn't realized that his borders aren't flat.  The metal cans are intact in their cubby holes - fully 3-D objects.  Art on a monitor just isn't fully seeing.  (Better than not seeing it at all though I guess.)

Here's two more of his that weren't at Newark, just for fun because he is so cool:

I also enjoyed this "Sparkplug Lady" by Olu Amoda (born 1959, Nigeria;  lives and works in Nigeria).  Welded used sparkplug, screw driver, and steel.  Talk about found object art!

This textile commemorates Barak Obama's election and his first presidential visit to Ghana in 2009:

And of course, "Dry Season" by Nnenna Okore (born 1975, Nigeria; lives and works in Chicago). Handmade paper, jute rope, burlap and dye. "Okore transfigures urban detritus into art...A former student of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, Okore belongs to an artistic movement concerned with the culture of recycling in her Nigerian homeland."  So beautiful and iconic.

One more reason I fell in love with the Newark Museum today.

A Jewel of a Museum in Newark!

I couldn't stop watching this installation by Andrew Demirjian called "Morning Light".  I don't know how long the loop was, but every time I looked it was different.  He used more than twenty unwanted televisions.  I've seen these kind just sitting by the roadside..

It is part of the NJ Arts Annual, called Ready Or Not, with work by 40 New Jersey-based artists.  It wasn't why I went to the Newark Museum today, and I wasn't ready for it!  What a total surprise and treat!

I got carried away.  I couldn't help myself.  I'd leave, go to another gallery, come back - and see something I hadn't seen before.  The blurb said all kinds of stuff about examining excessive consumption and an analogy to elderly humans in a capitalist culture.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  For me it was about sheer visual beauty!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Sacre Bleu! Who Knew?


We had no idea that St. Jean Baptist Day, otherwise known as Fete Nationale, would take place on June 24th during our Montreal vacation. It celebrates the French culture, heritage, and history of the Province of Quebec. The English newspapers made no mention of it that day, but at least included the picture above on the following day - with no article.  The French newspapers were another story!

Everything was closed.  The downtown business district was deserted as if it were a Sunday.  Shops and museums were closed.  The post office was closed:

Even the grocery store was closed:

Places to celebrate and party, like restaurants and bars, were open. It made the history of Quebec very real, including the history of its separatist movement.  Today the separatist political party is a minority.  As one French Canadian told us, "we don't need separatism anymore, because Quebec is essentially autonomous under the umbrella of Ottawa,"  implying that the goals of the separatist movement were achieved without secession.

It was fun to be there to catch the spirit.  I understand why an English speaking resident of Montreal, although a minority, said that there's no where else he would rather live!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Montreal: Graffiti and Murals and Public Art - Oh My

Art of every kind is everywhere on the streets of Montreal.  Some murals are even funded by the government, if an artist's proposal is accepted.  One percent of the cost of buildings is set aside for public art. 

On this wall in Chinatown, I love how the graffiti peeks out above the bas relief of gracious musicians.

These large sculptural blocks were all over town, in a variety of bright colors, alerting people that a new public art work would soon be seen in that location.

By checking out I found this image from Stephen Schofield's studio and the work in progress that will ultimately be where the green block is now:

This landmark public art work, The Illuminated Crowd, is by Raymond Mason, done in 1985 in stratified polyester resin with polyurethane paint.  I don't particularly like it, but it is definitely a phenomenon:

It's a little creepy..

Even the firehouse had its own murals:


It was great to be in a city that  values art and artists!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Conserving Stories: A Mixture of Science, Art, & Love

Getting the personal tour by my conservation guru, Lara Kaplan, of the twenty-six conservation studios, laboratories, examination rooms and workshops in the Research Building at Winterthur Museum & Garden was an amazing experience.  She is faculty on the Winterthur/University of Delaware Art Conservation program as well as a graduate of it, so was able to arrange for my mukluks to be treated in their freezer. Here she is examining an everyday item from the early twentieth century.  I remember my mother wearing rain boots like that!  As a conservator, she is part anthropologist, part art historian, and very much part scientist. 

Above is the textile lab. The freezer is against the wall to the left of the yellow box marked "flammable".  The items in front of it which looks like they are sitting on dish drainers, are in their 24 hour thawing period after being in the freezer for 72 hours.  My mukluks will have two cycles like that before I pick them up.

Here is another shot of the textile lab.  It has the largest bath I have ever seen.

This is the graduate student classroom.  It is a three year program, with pre-requisites in chemistry, as well as anthropology, studio arts, and more.  Ten people to a class, with two years here, and a third year interning anywhere in the world makes for a very special club. 

This is the painting restoration lab, where people know how to identify forgeries, and would know how to make forgeries.  Like black hat and white hat hackers, these are the white hat painting restorers!

Is it a chemistry lab?  Is sure looks like one, but it's a conservation lab!

   Books and paper conservation each had their own labs.

This lab repaired broken ceramic and china objects, and I'm not sure what else.  There was so much that my head was swimming.

The students present posters at various conferences.  Some of them lined the hallways, like this one.

The furniture conservation lab was extensive.  An interne from a local college was working in it.


It was special to finally meet Lara after all our email correspondence, and it was a treat to get the tour of the conservation labs.  It was serendipity to also meet Bruno Pouliot, Winterthur's Senior Conservator of Objects.  It was the first time in forty-five plus years I had the opportunity to speak with someone who had also lived in the Arctic! He had been a conservator in Canada for six years, and it turned out that in my journey through three referrals to finally find Lara on the fourth try, he was the connecting link!  A man who knows mukluks and Inuit culture from experience, he understood that it is not the object alone we are conserving, but the stories that go with it...  The bond between us in just a few minutes of conversation is beyond words.