Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Praying with Knives in Wonder Valley

[This post was co-written with my wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, and is also posted on her blog, which can be found at www.TorahGeek.com. Photos are courtesy Rabbi Rick Winer and Bill Leifer.]

It is always a privilege and pleasure to worship and create in a new community — making new friends, gaining new insights, and bringing new works of art into being. This past weekend was such an experience, when we joined Temple Beth Israel of Fresno as the scholar and artist in residence for their 2017 Shabbaton retreat (in Wonder Valley, California).

The heart of the weekend was “praying with knives” — meditating on the Saturday morning prayers and then using knife and paper to explore their meanings.

Encouragement from Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik

In our Shabbat morning worship Rabbi Shawna encouraged worshippers to choose a prayer that intrigued them, reflected a personal experience, or spoke to how they were feeling right then, and to focus on it during personal silent prayer: to read it more than once, to connect with the language, to read it slowly to pull out meaning, to imagine what words they would use if they were writing the prayer, to see what images came to mind when reciting the prayer, to meditate on the feelings that it invoked. And when our service finished, we began to pray with knives.

Guidance from me

After a bit of guidance from Isaac on approach and technique, and a little experimenting with their knives, the worshippers began to wrestle with their prayers — first sketching out some basic ideas, and than translating that idea to a papercut design.

Mark and Cindy, hard at work!

No two creations were the same, even when people chose the same prayer. Several people used rays of light in some fashion, but each time it was a part of a different prayer. A few people asked us to figure out which prayer they were working on based on the images they were trying to convey in their sketch, in a pictionary-meets-prayer sort of moment.

The prayer book was explored in its entirety — worshippers weren’t limited to the standard prayers that compose a service, but also explored psalms, readings, quotes and songs in the artwork. The lines that we often skip over because they are placeholders were sometimes the inspiration that reached out and grabbed someone.

Rabbi Laura Winer shares her papercut prayer.

At the end of the Shabbaton on Sunday everyone had a chance to share their artwork. Prayer by its nature is personal, and it can be a vulnerable moment to share a piece of artwork based on prayer, even among friends — but so many people wanted to stand up and share what they had created. The art and stories took prayer to a new level; for some they had a favorite prayer that they were excited to represent, for others something just caught their eye.

Side-by-side with the prayer that inspired it.

We so often think of prayer as written, as the recitation of words written on a page. But all written prayer started out as someone’s inner thoughts — as a spontaneous moment of prayer — and over the years became a part of our standard worship service. In Hebrew school we often begin by teaching prayers; mastering them in Hebrew is often a requirement for bar or bat mitzvah. But beyond familiarity with the words of others, prayer is our attempt to express our deep yearning or to articulate our gratitude or to help us shift our own perspective, and we are able to do those things through art. In their creations participants expressed gratitude, their dedication to helping others, their appreciation for the people in their lives, looking inward, creation.

The retreat coincided with the Torah portion Vayekiel, in which we learn that God assigned Bezalel to create the mobile tabernacle — the mishkan — and the objects that go with it. Bezalel is a craftsman skilled in many art forms, but we learn that each of the Israelites has something to contribute to the creation of the mishkan. God is the ultimate Creator — the Torah begins with divine creation, culminating in the creation of human beings in God’s image — but we have the ability to create as well, and when we do we are connecting with the Divine within ourselves.

[For more information on how you can bring "the dynamic duo" to your community, please contact me via email: isaac@nicejewishartist.com.]

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Nevertheless She Persisted" – Judith

This is the big new piece I made for "High Priestess" – the group show opening at at ArtShare LA this Saturday night, March 18 (details at the bottom of this post). It's a portrait of the (apocryphal) biblical heroine Judith, a "daring and beautiful widow" (h/t Wikipedia) who slays Israel's enemy, the general Holofernes, with his own sword and brings his head back to her fearful countrymen, in triumph; Israel is saved.

I find it astounding how many portraits of strong women use the "head bowed" posture – when men in similar narratives are usually shown with heads held high, basking in their own greatness. Women are traditionally shown as humble or modest in their achievements, undercutting their strength and undermining their accomplishments. Or at least that's the way I see it. So my Judith is shown with head bowed to subvert that model, and her sword shines bright as she contemplates what she's achieved. The handle of that sword addresses the dichotomy of representation of female heroes in traditional narratives – the negative attributes applied to women so that they remain unsure of their power and themselves, positioned above the verses from the Book of Judith which celebrate her. It's like the folks who set down these stories just couldn't handle a strong woman, and kept trying to chip away at female strength with stereotypical insults.

I've titled this papercut "Nevertheless She Persisted" after the words used just last month by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to attempt to silence the voice of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” said McConnell. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Dick move, McConnell – and his words became a rallying cry for those, like me, who will not stand idly by and allow women's voices to be silenced. "Nevertheless, she persisted."

The papercut is made of cut-up comics featuring female super heroes, including Wonder Woman, the first female human Green Lantern Jessica Cruz, Mary Jane Parker, Black Canary, Scarlet, Elektra, and more. The words in Judith's face — "I've got no reason to be afraid any more" — come from a comic book called "The Wicked + The Divine" (written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie) attributed to a character named Inanna – who shares a name with the Babylonian goddess of love, wisdom, and war.

Want to hear more about it? And see it in person? Join me this Saturday night, March 18, from 7-10 pm, for the opening reception of "High Priestess" at ArtShare LA in downtown Los Angeles (801 E 4th Place, 90013.
Femininity is both an energy and an idea, and is not necessarily the same as femaleness — as these hypnotic and quasi-mystical works explore through images of secular mythology and cultural power.).
The show features a bunch of new work by me, as well as some wonderful art by Hagop Belian, Elena Johnson, Mirabelle Jones, Lois Keller, Erika Lizée, Rebecca McFarland, Lauren Mendelsohn-Bass, Lena Moross, Robert Nelson, Jason Pippen, Nataša Stearns, and Tslil Tsemet.

 Click here for more details.

Nevertheless She Persisted
24" x 36"
Mixed media
Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Beware My Power (Asher)

Another day, another executive order – and this time it's a rehashing of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim travel ban. (Yeah, we're getting political out here.)

So to mark the day and to make it clear where I stand – WITH THE TIRED, HUDDLED MASSES – I'm posting another of the papercuts in my new Twelve Tribes series: "Beware My Power (Asher)."

This one is made of cut-up comics featuring the new Green Lantern, Simon Baz – a Lebanese-American, and the first Muslim member of the Green Lantern Corps. Like many of his brethren he is misunderstood, wrongly accused, and generally a target of suspicion and mistrust. And yet he continues to wield his ring to fight for all humanity.

The tribe of Asher is traditionally represented by an olive tree – this one has a strong twisty trunk with Baz's forearm tattoo, the Arabic word for "courage."

I'll be premiering this series (and MORE) at Brave New World Comics (in Newhall, in the Santa Clarita Valley of Southern California) the evening of Saturday, April 8 — details will be posted here once I've got more to share, but please save the date for now.