Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Farewell to Stan Lee

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
I grew up reading comics. (Full disclosure: I'm still growing up reading comics.) Stan Lee, alongside some fabulous artists and other fabulous writers, created some of the characters and stories that have thrilled and inspired me all my life, and continue to inform my art and outlook. His memory will be a blessing – and a reminder to all of us that with great power must also come great responsibility. Seriously. His stories told us to embrace those that are different from us, to embrace our own differentness, to embrace the awkward within ourselves, to celebrate our differences and use them to save the world.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Paper Midrash at Temple Israel of Long Beach

The obligatory selfie out front

Rabbi Shawna had an amazing Paper Midrash weekend at Temple Israel of Long Beach this past weekend – praying, studying, and creating with the whole community. What a pleasure it is to be able to find so many different ways to connect with people, no matter what they're into; it's the secret to the best Paper Midrash weekend, really: bring us in for a weekend and let us do EVERYTHING with EVERYONE.

What did that include in Long Beach?

Accompanist David York at the piano under the VT screen

Lech L'cha and Star Trek: a beautiful intersection

Friday night Rabbi Moskowitz and Cantor Hass led services with our "Paper T'filah Visual T'filah" (now available for purchase from the CCAR web site), and Rabbi Shawna and I gave a visual sermon on parasha hashavua called "Lech L'cha: Boldly Go."

Yes, that's the The Thing becoming an adult bar mitzvah in that comic panel

Saturday morning we spent time with the pre-b'nai mitzvah students and their parents, talking about "Getting More Out of Your Torah Portion" by studying midrash and talking about the deeper meaning in Lech L'cha – as an analogous process to what they'll all be going through when they have to write and teach about their Torah portions when they become b'nai mitzvah.

Rabbi Shawna working with the adults in our workshop

Saturday afternoon we led a papercutting workshop for adults in the congregation. It's always wonderful to see how we can all start with the same bit of text, but have such different and fascinating midrash we make from them.

Abraham is told to "count the stars in the sky"

"You shall be a blessing."

Abram and Sarai head out on their journey

Finding just the right comic books to tell our stories

Sarah will be the mother of a great nation

From Abram and Sarai setting out on their journey, becoming Abraham and Sarah... filling in gaps in the narrative, addressing apparent contradictions and exploring word choices... some very thoughtful Torah and midrash came out of the workshop.

Talking about the patriarchs (Siegel, Shuster, Lee, Kirby)

Saturday night at the house of a congregant Rabbi Shawna and I gave a presentation (with slides!) about Jews in the comic book industry, which we call "People of the (Comic) Book." Jewish comic writers like Stan Lee, artists like Jack Kirby and Siegel & Shuster, and publishers like Max Gaines... Jewish heroes like Ragman and Moon Knight and Batwoman... and some hilarious "Jewish-adjacent" moments from Spider-Man, Robin, and more... we could have talked all night (but there was wine and cheese to be enjoyed). It's an incredible little history lesson, filled with connections between the Jewish tradition and stories of heroes trying to save the world... and how and why so many Jews got involved in a tiny little industry and made it the powerhouse it is today.

At work in our high school workshop

Sunday morning we led a workshop for the Temple Israel high school students, and again: same Torah portion, but so many new ideas!

So many paths to consider, so much responsibility

A student searching for meaning in comic books

The journey to a land God has shown them

A student with his superhero midrash

After the workshop, the students taught each other their midrash

And we had a little pop-up gallery going in the lobby and social hall all weekend, for people to see my work up close. A big thanks to Sharon Amster Brown and Temple Israel for bringing us out, and to everyone in the community who came to pray, study, and create with us!

My three "dreamers" in the pop-up gallery

Friday, October 12, 2018

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Oak of the Golden Dream and Other “Dreams, Prophecies, and Visions”

He Dreamed – 18" x 24" – 2018

JOIN THE GOLD RUSH! MAKE MONEY FAST! These and other enticements to “get rich quick” are found surrounding a twisting, twining papercut oak tree made of cut-up comic books in Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik’s new solo exhibition, “Dreams, Prophecies, and Visions” at The MAIN Gallery in Newhall, California (September 18 – October 12, 2018). His work is strongly anchored in myths and stories — often those of the bible, but also extending past those borders into a broader exploration of cultural narratives. His papercuts are a riot of color and voices, made of cut-up comic books he has reassembled to tell stories of dream and prophecy.

“He Dreamed” is the centerpiece of the show, based on the story of the first discovery of gold in California, in nearby Placerita Canyon. According to the legend of the Oak of the Golden Dream, wandering laborer Francisco Lopez fell asleep under an oak tree and dreamed of gold, then awoke to find some in the very ground he had slept on.

“But that’s not the whole story,” adds the artist. “Lopez was a university-educated metallurgist, and his success wasn’t from luck or a vision, but from actual training and experience.” Brynjegard-Bialik’s papercut is a gorgeous, sexy oak tree spreading its branches across the sky, and includes the super hero Sandman — who operates in the land of dreams — as well as cut-up get-rich-quick advertisements, “because I want to play with the distinction between prophetic visions in dreams and the realization of those dreams through individual work and effort.”

The rest of the show plays in that same arena; Brynjegard-Bialik’s work is a mash-up of traditional sources and contemporary story-telling techniques, recontextualizing bits and pieces of his childhood comic book collection to delve deeply into our oldest and newest stories. He uses Superman and other undocumented aliens in portraits of American immigrant dreamers, he builds a protective whirlwind of cloud and fire from comics featuring the Invisible Woman, and imagines Doctor Strange wandering the rocky hillside of the ancient and mystical city of Tzfat.

“Brynjegard-Bialik brings these different types of stories together in the complex but clean layers of his papercuts,” wrote Shana Dambrot for KCET Artbound, “creating new meanings for the world's oldest stories as he engineers these combinations with the architectural presence of stained glass, the whimsy of gilded-age fairy tales, and the meditative aura of illuminated manuscripts.”

The opening reception for “Dreams, Prophecies, and Visions: You did WHAT to my comics?!?” will be held at The MAIN Gallery on Thursday, September 20, from 7 to 10 pm.


“Dreams, Prophecies, and Visions: You did WHAT to my comics?!?”
Exhibition dates: September 18 – October 12, 2018
Opening reception: Thursday, September 20, from 7 to 10 pm
The MAIN Gallery

24266 Main Street
Newhall, California  91321
(661) 290-2255

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Kavanah – Captain America and the Flash Under the Hupah

Congratulations and mazal tov to the newest Jewish family – Captain America and the Flash! Or, Hillel Smith and Joshua Matz – whose rings include the symbols of those heroes. I'm proud to share with you that I was commissioned to create their wedding contract, and I'm excited to share it with you here.

It's driven by the concept of kavanah — intention. It’s a reflection of how Hillel and Joshua feel about themselves and each other; it’s about their choices about life, work, and their relationship — and how they relate to the world around them. It’s made with the tools and ritual objects of their trades, and the ritual objects that unite you at your wedding. In the same way that Joshua (a lawyer) uses words and laws to fight for justice and Hillel (an artist) uses pigments and pixels to create beauty, so they take these rings and drink from a shared cup and stand under a hupah. Our tradition is about making intentional choices in who we are and how we lives our lives, and no moment exemplifies this more than the wedding – in front of family and friends, living your kavanah. Hillel and Joshua both invest so much in themselves and in each other and what they do: their passions, their intensity, their dedication... their ideas and words, and the actions that bring them to fruition.

Speech bubbles from the first mainstream comic book same-sex wedding
(and Kirby Krackle in the kiddush cup!)

The structure is meant to evoke the Art Deco feel of the Majestic Hotel, where they got married, in an abstracted hupah arrangement, incorporating the tools of their kavanah (actual and metaphorical): pencil and quill, scales, compass and calipers — as well as the ritual objects that will be a part of the wedding: the rings and the wine cup. The tools are all meant to apply to each of the grooms — pencils and quills are used to write words and draw pictures; compasses and calipers allow us to measure and to create, and so on.

The lower corners feature many of the places they have traveled together

The background includes cut-up maps featuring many of the places they’ve traveled to together, as a reminder that whatever place you are in, that’s your home: with each other. The hupah is a representation of that home, and your marriage is that home — wherever it may be. Hence the speech bubble reading “this is the place.”

Their papercut rings feature Captain America and Flash logos, just like in real life

The background comics include comics from Hillel and Joshua as well as the artist’s personal collection, particularly featuring Captain America and the Flash (in nod to their rings), the new Iceman series they’ve been reading together, a number of quotes from the first mainstream comics gay marriage in the Astonishing X-Men... and Spider-Man, Daredevil, Green Arrow, and so on.

Comics used include:
Captain America #322 (Oct 1986), #600 (Aug 2009)
Captain America: Bicentennial Battles #1 (1976) – Jack Kirby oversize special
Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #1 (Sep 1998)
Captain America and Iron Man #634 (Sep 2012)

Daredevil #501 (Dec 2009), #430 (Oct 2003), #17 (Sep 2015)

The Flash #10 (Jan 2017), #21 (Jun 2017)
Flash Annual #3 (1989)

Iceman #1 (Aug 2017), #2 (Sep 2017), #4 (Oct 2007), #5 (Nov 2017)
X-Men #92 (Sep 1999)
Astonishing X-Men #51 (Aug 2012) – first mainstream comic book same-sex wedding

Web of Spider-Man #126 (Jul 1995)
Spectacular Spider-Man #189 (Jun 1992)
Spider-Man #80 (May 1997)

Justice #2 (Dec 2005)
Green Arrow #2 (Sep 2016), #3 (Sep 2016)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Science, Creation and Paper Midrash at URJ Sci-Tech

When Isaac stood up and ripped a page right out of the comic book, he was met with gasps and expressions of horror. But that was the plan — after all, we were explaining to the campers at URJ Six Points Sci Tech West how they were going to destroy comic books to create their own paper midrash.

We spent several days last week with the campers at at the newest URJ Summer Camp - Sci Tech West, talking about Torah and midrash and creation, and teaching them how to use cut-up comic books to make new works of art.

One of the first things we did with the campers was ask them who their favorite heroes were. We were met with answers ranging from “which universe, Marvel or DC?” to Einstein and Darwin — superheroes of science. We weren’t surprised, because it’s a science camp, after all. That’s one of the reasons we focused on the story of creation for our midrash workshop; it’s often a flashpoint in debates about teaching science in schools, and it was an opportunity to explore how the science of creation and the biblical story of creation can coexist. We were happy to share with these budding scientists the revelation that Jewish thought does not expect them to take the story as written in the Torah literally; even in the middle ages, we taught them, sages like Rashi taught that the story as written in the Torah is not to be taken literally as the order of creation.

We always say a blessing with workshop participants, to give our actions a Jewish context.
(Photo by Rabbi Rick Winer)

After learning how to use the knives safely, the campers began to imagine their own midrash about creation; they explored the separation of darkness from light, the celestial bodies, land and water, animals and our place on earth.

And then we asked them to do what many had thought unthinkable: to tear pages out of comic books and to use the images, thought bubbles and heroes from those books to help share their stories and midrash. Some chose to use their favorite hero, some used a mix of heroes — one camper chose to use all images from female superheroes. While there was some cringing and lots of asking “can we really cut that up?”, the results were some beautiful images and interpretations of Breishit.

In this camper's midrash, the fourth day of creation results in the establishment of time.

The separation of light from darkness: and it was good.

All of the days of creation are found within the continents and waters of this earth.

A butterfly, symbol of change, created on the fifth day.

Separation of the waters above (shamayim – heavens) from the waters below (mayim – seas).

The snake, which "creepeth upon the earth."
With some campers and their finished work.

With some campers and their finished work.

If you're interested in finding out what we can do with YOUR community — for a few hours or a few days — please visit our website at www.papermidrash.com.

[Co-written with my wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik]

Friday, July 6, 2018

All Hands on Deck: Fingerprint Mosaics at Camp Newman

You may have already read the whole story – how this summer at URJ Camp Newman my wife (Rabbi Shawna B2) and I led campers in the creation of new tallitot (prayer shawls) for the camp, one session at a time.

Each tallit is a fingerprint mosaic, where each camper had a chance to add their personal mark. The idea was that fingerprints are personal, but combined together they create a mosaic-like pattern, creating a communal work rather than an individual one — and that it would take the fingerprints of the whole eidah (session) to create a finished work. (And a big thank-you to Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, who worked with us on all of these talliot!)

If you haven't read that post, please go check it out on the camp blog: https://campnewman.org/2018/07/06/all-hands-on-deck-fingerprint-mosaics-at-camp-newman/. But here's something the post  doesn't have: pictures of all of the finished tallitot, which we're pleased to share here.

Avodah is dedicated to community involvement and social justice,
so their tallit is a rainbow flag they took to the 2018 Pride Festival

Tzofim's tallit is a Jerusalem skyline, complete with turrets and archways.

Rishonim is out "nature" session, so they made a tree – with a branch for each of their twelve "tribes."

Bogrim made the seven species: grapes, dates, wheat, barley, figs, olives, and pomegranates.

The CITs are celebrating "C-CHAI-T" this year so their handprints surround a chai, with advisors' hands blessing them from the sides. (This shot is the ALMOST-done tallit; we were waiting for two late arrivals to complete it.)
Hagigah's tallit is an abstract representation of waves,
in honor of Camp Newman's first summer "by the bay."
Faculty and staff made a tallit as well – "Miriam's Well," with a quote from Amos 5:24:
"Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

And if you want more information on what we can do with your community, check us out on the web at www.PaperMidrash.com.

Social Justice Art at Camp Newman

The week before camp started this summer, Twitter exploded with Bible quotes protesting the treatment of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. So much of our Torah seems made for protest signs — because so much of our people’s story is about rejecting the status quo and looking toward a better future.

“Justice; justice you shall pursue!”
“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before God!”
“Love your neighbor!”
“Do not stand idly by!”

So when asked by the URJ Camp Newman director to come up with an activity for the Avodah campers — a session dedicated to community service and social action — Rabbi Shawna and I decided to try something new: social justice art.

We already had a bunch of knives, and plenty of cardboard ready to be upcycled, so we just needed a few more things: breathing masks, gloves, and LOTS OF SPRAY PAINT.

Day one was learning how to use the tools: getting comfortable cutting cardboard stencils and building spray booths to safely (and cleanly) practice stenciling — and then doing some test stencils.

As with every art workshop we lead, this one relied heavily on Jewish text and context. We introduced the idea of Judaism as a religion that encourages questions, and questioning authority — of never accepting things as they are, but advocating for a better world, loudly and clearly. We emphasized that protest does not have to be limited to complaining and criticizing, but can be about inspiring action and change. We combined that with the traditional role of stencil graffiti as a way to quickly and clearly communicate messages to a wide audience, and soon the campers were turning their ideas about the world around them into stencils.

We shared with them Banksy’s quote: “If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal.” Because yes, art can be powerful and dangerous. But we weren’t planning to turn these campers into vandals — we encouraged them to consider how their art could be shared legally: on signs pasted up around camp with removable painter’s tape, as images to be shared digitally, and as signs and posters to amplify their voices at rallies. For instance, every summer Avodah marches in the San Francisco Pride Parade and attends the AIDS Walk San Francisco — and they created art to share those messages. We struggled with how to share Jewish text, and we were surprised with the teens’ discomfort at listing book, chapter and verse; they felt that this was Christian way to share text and instead chose to center their work around the concept of tzedek — “justice” — with the other messages placed around it.

The messages they chose to make into stencils were powerful and familiar:

“Nevertheless She Persisted”
“Never Again”
“She Grabs Back”
“Our Time”

It was fascinating to see how they created their personal messages, but also how they combined those messages together to make a plywood “wall” to share with camp — integrating their messages and imagery into one big collaboration. They chose to overlay their messages with people raising their hands to step up, their hearts united in love.

We also had the opportunity to create protest art with campers from the Hagigah session, which is focused on the arts; I was joined at these sessions by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, the session rabbi, who taught about Judaism being a protest religion and how even our monotheism was countercultural. These campers had more time to experiment with the tools, and to explore more messages — and they wowed us as well.

“Love is Love”
“Dance Out of the Closet”
“We Are All Equal”
“We Fight”

They, too, had individual pieces that were even more powerful when combined with the work of their friends and peers — creating a plywood triptych for display in the annual Hagigah Peachy Levy Arts Festival at the end of their session. I am so inspired by these campers, who are finding their voices and learning to make themselves heard.