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Milwaukee Jewish Artists' Laboratory

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
3 – 5 years
Target audience
Community Building

The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory has two parts:
1) Creating a Community of Jewish artists. Artists are of diverse media who meet twice monthly to study Jewish texts (traditional like Torah and Midrash, but also modern works like art, music or film) revolving around a selected theme. They delve into the texts’ meanings and relevance to their lives, personally and artistically. The artists create works over the nine-month program, culminating in an exhibit.
2) Reaching the entire Jewish Community. The Lab’s exhibit and ancillary activities elevates the exposure of art in the Jewish community and puts a spotlight on Jewish text.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Each biweekly session of the nine-month Lab examines a different Jewish text, which comes from a wide range of ancient and modern sources. Artists spend part of each session with JCC Judaic Education Director Jody Hirsh to study the text, and then together they explore artistic ideas with facilitator (and participating artist) Marc Tasman, journalism professor at UW-Milwaukee. We select a new theme each year; we are just finishing the program’s fifth year. Since its inception, Jody Hirsh has expanded the Artists’ Lab into five cities (six beginning in fall 2016), creating a Midwest Artists’ Laboratory Network. Artists and educators from all participating cities meet annually for a joint retreat.

Following are the themes by year:
2011-12: “Wandering”
2012-13: “Light”
2013-14: “Reading Between the Lines”
2014-15: “Water”
2015-16: “Wisdom”

Examples of some of the work we have explored are offered below.
In this most recent program year (2015-16) we had chosen “Wisdom” as the theme to explore. One of our sessions, then, included study of text from the Book of Exodus; specifically, we read the passage about the building of the tabernacle. In this reading, we see that the artistry of Bezalel is connected to Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. Why is there such a connection? Do you as artists agree with that? Where does your talent come from—training? Intelligence? Intuition? Inspiration? Family? Nature? Somewhere else?

In the 2013-14 program year, our theme was “Reading between the lines.” Here are two examples of how we used Jewish wisdom as a critical part of our program:

1) We used a work by Ben Shahn, Thou shalt not stand idly by (1965), as our text. The questions we discussed with the artists included: What is this piece about? How does it relate to the original quote from Leviticus 19:16? How does the piece deal with both ancient and modern concerns?

2) We studied material from the Zohar that deals with the very first line of the Torah. The Rabbis were fascinated by the fact that in the first four words, the first two start with “Bet,” the second letter of the alphabet, and the second two words start with “Alef,” the first letter of the alphabet. Why? Why not start the Torah with an Alef? The Midrash from the Zohar tells a story of the competition among the letters of the Alef Bet in which the humble Bet wins and has the honor of beginning the Torah and the story of all creation.

The second excerpt from the Zohar explains how the beginning of the Torah begins with Bet in order to show that the passage isn’t really the beginning of creation, but the middle. The part of creation before the first line of the Torah is a mystery full of awe. It’s this Jewish tradition of reading between the lines in sacred texts which has enabled us to create wisdom and promote dialectic thinking.

Our very first Artists’ Lab theme was “Wandering.” As part of this program year we studied a document (attached as a work sample) that quotes chapters 11 and 12, in which Abraham is commanded to leave his father’s land and commence a mysterious journey. In addition to studying the actual words of the Torah, we looked at maps and artistic renderings of the call to Abraham. The wisdom of travel and wandering permeates all Jewish thought and history.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Our work to make wisdom accessible and directly applicable is a two-pronged approach:
1) The artists meet twice each month to study Jewish texts and grapple with the relevance to their lives as Jews, as human beings and as artists.
2) The artists then create work that makes Jewish wisdom accessible to the public who views their work. We produce an exhibition booklet (attached as a work sample) which includes statements from all of the artists, helping the viewing public to better understand the artists’ work and how it connects to the theme. Additionally, some of the art is interactive for the public, allowing them to more fully connect to the work.

A great example of this is the work of artist Bev Richey from our current program year (please see the attached image of her work as one of our work samples). She undertook an examination of the concept of “happiness” in Jewish tradition. She discovered that Hebrew has nine separate nuanced terms for happiness: Simcha (generic happiness), Osher (deep happiness), Orah (light) Gila (discovery), Rina (singing), Ditza (sublime joy), Sasson (sudden happiness), Tzahalah (dancing). Bev then created a work of art integrating all nine terms. In addition, she created “playing cards” to accompany her work. Each set has nine cards with a word for happiness on one side, and the exact definition of that word on the other side. There is always a stack of card packets on a stand next to her art, inviting people to take them home. In addition, Bev inspired another one of the artists—a jazz composer and musician—to compose nine interconnected pieces, one for each of the definitions of happiness. The full composition was performed at the opening exhibit, as well as at one of our ancillary activities (see below).

What impact has your program had on your participants?

One of our artists—who has participated in the Lab each year—shared with program director Jody Hirsh that she approaches her art differently now as a direct result of participating in the Artists’ Lab. Whereas painter Clarice Zucker used to focus on painting images of nature, she has now become bolder and more abstract in her work, as well as incorporating multi-media into the art she creates. A woman who has been deeply involved in our Jewish community—mostly through her synagogue—Zucker shared how the Artists’ Lab has impacted her Jewish life: “The Artists’ Lab has given me a place to plant my Judaism in fertile, creative soil and has enabled it to bloom.”

Artist Bev Richey is a prime example of someone profoundly influenced by the Artists’ Lab. Her exploration of happiness, described earlier, was based both on Jewish scholarship and scientific scholarship. She learned that there are modes of thought in both that claim that it is possible that “practicing” values and emotions will lead to the acquisition of those values or emotions. She realized that by consciously practicing the nine types of happiness, she became, in fact, happier.

As far as art audiences are concerned, we have seen increased visitor expectations after running this program for so many years. JCC members and other art patrons have come to expect an annual exhibit each spring; Jody Hirsh receives calls and emails requesting the exhibit opening dates. The opening event regularly attracts 200-plus participants, but the total number of visitors to the exhibit during the three month exhibit period numbers in the thousands. Jody printed up more than 500 exhibit booklets in just the first six weeks of the exhibit (see attached work sample). They constantly need replenishing.

A remarkable phenomenon we observe is how people who have experienced the full impact of the exhibit are inspired to share it with others. Some who have been led through the exhibit with Jody Hirsh or a participating artist as docent and curator have brought friends and relatives back to walk them through the exhibit with the same explanations that they learned on their earlier visits. In addition, our exhibit is located adjacent to one of the main entrances of our Jewish Community Center. More than 700 people enter through our doors each day. The art is visible and open to all who enter our facility—including families with young children, who often use the opportunity to spend time viewing the artworks together. It is heartening to see discussion of the text carrying on.

Another exciting component of the Artists’ Lab is that nearly every program year, we implement ancillary activities outside of the JCC that complement our exhibit. Following are two activities conducted this year in concert with the Artists’ Lab:

Artist Stephen Pevnick’s work, “Wisdom from My Father,” is a massive “Graphic Waterfall” in which the designs and texts of prayers about water are actually written in drops of water falling from more than 2,000 computerized nozzles. The fountain was simply too large to bring to the JCC gallery. We therefore held a separate event at Steve’s studio, in which most of the artists attended, and which included a performance of composer/musician Mitch Shiner’s “Nine Pieces for Happiness,” as well as “Wisdom Refreshments”—snacks that invoked the notion of wisdom (e.g., owl cookies serving as a metaphor for wisdom, kugel pops representing wisdom from our mothers). Thirty guests attended the event. The effect was profound. We had planned the event to be a 90-minute open house, but people stayed three hours—in part to engage all of the artists in discussion about the Lab, but also to simply gaze at the wonder of the waterfall. They were totally captivated.

Dancer and choreographer Kate Mann, as her participation in the Artists’ Lab, choreographed a dance for 80 seniors to perform, coming from several of the Jewish senior centers here in Milwaukee. She brought the performers all together at Chai Point, a centralized Jewish senior center, and invited the public to attend. There were more than 120 people in attendance (including the dancers) for this unique interactive performance, entitled “To Everything There is a Season—a time to dance.” The music that Kate used incorporated traditional texts. A video link from that performance is attached as a work sample.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

We have learned that many Jewish artists crave the kind of Jewish artist community that we are building through this program. Those who have always identified as Jewish artists have shared that they are learning new things through our group study; and those who never really thought about themselves as Jewish artists are also enjoying learning with others in this group setting.

The participants found that they have connected powerfully to Jewish learning and discovered the wisdom of antiquity that is relevant to their lives in 21st century America as Jews and as artists. We have learned that this relevance relates to all parts of their lives, their families, and their relationship with the overall Jewish community. And, we have learned that having a strong community in which the artists support each other was facilitated by the program far more than we imagined.