“I learned about climate marches and I learned about dancing bubbies,” said my niece Fae, 9, when we were discussing Bonnie Sherr Klein’s new children’s book, Beep Beep Bubbie, over FaceTime. Among other things, my niece Charlotte, 7, learned “you can learn to ride a bike at 53 and anything is possible.… And I learned about grandmothers who can shush a crying boy.”
Amid much laughter, including talk about dogs pooping – Bubbie has a dog – and what my nieces recalled of Vancouver from their visit here last year, Beep Beep Bubbie offered more discussion than I had anticipated. But, before I get to that, I have to say, for the record, that my nieces have dancing bubbies in their lives, and bubbies who can shush crying children, so they more related to these aspects of Bubbie’s character than learned from them. With that qualification and butt covering, I continue with the review, starting with the basic story of the book.
It is Shabbat and Kate and her little brother Nate are going to visit their grandmother, who is going to take them to Granville Island to buy apples for Rosh Hashanah. The kids have been told there’ll be a surprise waiting for them at Bubbie’s. That surprise, though – Bubbie’s new scooter – isn’t a happy one initially for Kate, who “already missed the Bubbie she used to have. That Bubbie danced and took them to climate marches.” However, during the afternoon’s adventures, Bubbie’s scooter not only allows her to venture farther from home than she otherwise would have been able to manage, but has other advantages, as well.
After their trip to Granville Island, Kate shares a library book that she’s brought along for the visit. About American educator, activist and suffragist Frances Willard, Kate and Nate find out that Willard “fought for women to have the right to vote. When Frances was 53 years old, she learned to ride a bicycle to show that women could do anything.” A conversation ensues about why Willard wouldn’t have known how to ride a bike. “People were afraid women’s ankles would show under their petticoats,” explains Bubbie. “Can you believe it?”
Well, at my nieces’ house, this part of the book was met with disbelief and more laughter, as Charlotte was keen to show off her ankles, which were hard to see, given the placement of their computer and her being the height of a 7-year-old. But, before things deteriorated into mayhem, Fae said, “I also learned that girls are tough.” And, she “learned another reason why women weren’t treated fairly in the past.”
“And what was that reason?” I asked.
“Because women didn’t ride bikes because their ankles were going to show. And they couldn’t vote, [it was] like they didn’t have an opinion.”
“It’s definitely not fair,” said Charlotte about people thinking that girls showing their ankles was wrong.
All in all, Beep Beep Bubbie elicited much talk and not an insignificant amount of gymnastics. The illustrations by Élisabeth Eudes-Pascal are wonderfully colourful and fun; full of energy and movement. Both Fae and Charlotte gave a resounding “yes” when asked if they liked the pictures.
One the drawings is a two-page spread of Bubbie, Kate and Nate and the park, where they join in the fun of flying kites. One young person is in a wheelchair, and Charlotte asked why Bubbie had chosen a scooter instead. Not knowing the answer, I asked the author. Here is her response: “I chose a motorized scooter over a wheelchair, btw, because it felt more sportif,” wrote Klein in an email, “and I am lucky enough to be able to transfer, which keeps me a bit more mobile.”
I like knowing, but the reasons aren’t important, as far as the story goes. Art is to be interpreted and my nieces and I talked about a lot of ideas, from serious to silly, during our FaceTime book review session.
Published by Tradewind Books, Beep Beep Bubbie can be purchased from pretty much any online bookseller. Enjoy!
So much of what we do in life we do almost automatically. For better or worse, we anticipate what’s coming next and, often, we’re right. But a trio of children’s books just published by Tradewind Books will amuse young readers and refresh the perspectives of their adults. Crocs in a Box, written by Robert Heidbreder and illustrated by Jewish community member Rae Maté, contains three expectation-smashing little hardcovers: Crocodiles Say …, Crocodiles Play! and Crocs at Work!
In Crocodiles Say …, it’s the bright, cheerful and iconic crocodiles of Maté that are at odds with Heidbreder’s words. In one scene, for example, we see three restrained crocs, the epitome of manners, “never rude.” The crocs “chew and swallow, their mouths closed tight. Crocodiles say … [page turn] Always be polite!” Well, it has to be said that the crocs are doing anything but eating politely.
In Crocodiles Play!, the crocs get all dressed up for one type of sport, such as baseball, but then play … basketball?! And, in Crocs at Work!, we are treated to a healthy dose of silliness, as the crocs engage in doctoring, cooking, painting and other work, all with a small twist, lots of joy and no little mess.
This collection would make a great Chanukah gift, expected or not!
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah begins, appropriately enough, on the first night of the holiday…. Dad has brought pizza for dinner and Max and Rachel and their parents eat it among unopened and partially opened boxes in their new apartment. (image from book)
Change is a constant in our lives and things don’t always go as planned. Learning how to deal with the unexpected and to be able to ask for help and to be appreciative of it are all valuable lessons. And when such concepts can be literally illustrated and told in story form, they tend to stick better.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, written by Erica S. Perl and illustrated by Shahar Kober, is about home and helping, and takes its inspiration from the ninth candle on the chanukiyah, the shamash (Hebrew) or shammes (Yiddish), the helper candle. At the darkest time of the year, family, friends and community are the main lights that get us through and, especially amid the pandemic, a reminder of the love and support we have around us is particularly important.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah begins, appropriately enough, on the first night of the holiday. But something is different. Dad has brought pizza for dinner and Max and Rachel and their parents eat it among unopened and partially opened boxes in their new apartment. Their cat looks on. “No menorah? No latkes?” the kids wonder. Mom assures them that, tomorrow, they’ll find the Chanukah supplies amid all their things.
On the second night, Max and Rachel make a menorah with some wood, nuts and bolts, paint and glue. Not only is their real menorah still missing but the candles can’t be found either, so the kids – with Mom’s permission – go off to borrow some candles from a neighbour, and Mrs. Mendez in 2C happily obliges.
Each night, the family makes do with the help of a different neighbour. Each night is nice, “but it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah.”
Spoiler alert … eventually, the box with the family’s holiday stuff arrives – but too late. The delivery comes on Day 9. But Max and Rachel are not so easily deterred. They concoct a plan to celebrate the holiday and their neighbours. “And, best of all, it felt exactly like Hanukkah.”
Perl’s text has a rhythm. The repetition each night of how “it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah” accents how hard it is to accept new situations. Yet the fact that the family makes each night special, shows that, despite what we might be thinking or feeling, we can act in ways that still celebrate life and all for which we are grateful.
The illustrations by Kober are colourful, with a retro feel, and have a lot of energy. Creative use of white space helps direct the action. And the two-page spreads have an expansive feel to them, like the reader is right there in the apartment with Max, Rachel and their family and new friends.
The book ends with a nice note from Perl about Chanukah and her family’s tradition, followed by a list of nine ideas of how to make your own “Shamash Night.”
A PJ Library book, which is also available from most any bookseller, The Ninth Night of Hanukkah lights all the right candles and would make a great holiday gift.
Stacy Lederman’s “past present future” is one of the works she will be sharing at the Eastside Culture Crawl this month.
Despite the pandemic, the Eastside Culture Crawl is not only back this year, but it’s offering “an expanded celebration of the creative resilience of the Eastside Arts District’s visual arts community.” The annual free event will take place over two weekends, Nov. 12-15 and Nov. 19-22, with the opportunity to view the artwork online, as well as schedule an appointment to join a limited in-person visit to the studios of your choice.
Participating artists in the Crawl include many Jewish community members, such as Miriam Aroeste, Suzy Birstein, Olga Campbell, Lori Goldberg, Lynna Goldhar Smith, Karly Leipsic, Stacy Lederman, Shevy Levy, Rebekah McGurran (Hive Printing), Lauren Morris, Ideet Sharon and Zohar. The Jewish Independent has featured several of these artists over the years. Lederman is a first-time Crawl participant.
“I was born in Vancouver and grew up in Tsawwassen. I have lived in Vancouver since I was 17 and also spent one year in San Diego,” Lederman told the Independent by way of introduction. “Obviously, things are different now with travel, but I used to spend a lot of time in New York and spent extended periods of time visiting in the summers. Exploring and being able to immerse myself in such a vibrant, energetic city was what led me to my career in art.”
Lederman has a background in corporate sales and fashion. She said she stopped working outside the home when her children were born.
“I started art lessons after a summer in New York, with the intention of having a hobby for myself and trying something completely new,” she said. “My ‘ah-ha’ moment came slowly, after a few years of learning, when I realized that friends were asking where I bought the art in my home. I would say, ‘Oh, I made that. You can have it if you like.’ After a few times, I realized that I could do this as a career, as people seemed to like my work.
“My first meeting with a gallery, I was offered to do a show and I thought that was amazing and unexpected, so let’s see where this goes. I am so grateful the show was a success and, with this, my full-time art career began. Although I had been involved in creative industries before, such as fashion, starting art lessons in 2014 was my first time giving it a try. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I love and feel like it came to me organically because it was really what I was meant to pursue.”
Lederman has had several solo shows and exhibits since. She works in mixed media, which, she said, allows her “to be creative without expectation of perfection.
“I wouldn’t work well as a literal painter, as I would get lost in the perfection and most likely never finish a piece,” she explained. “Mixed media allows me to feel confident as an artist and make pieces that reflect a moment or feeling. Sometimes, it’s a lyric in a song, or a bit of graffiti, or an image I see on the street or in a magazine that inspires me to create. Blending different mediums allows me to use my inspiration when it comes and evolve the piece organically instead of worrying about the outcome. I can draw on all areas of creativity, from photography, painting, texture, abstract and collage, to create works that are meaningful and tell a story or spark a conversation. Also, my brain is always firing and so different mediums allow me to use different techniques, so I can always find a way to create and grow as a mostly self-taught artist.”
As for her interest in urban settings, she said she often features them in her work, “because, generally, big cities feed my soul. I love to be in nature and have calm moments, but there is something about the vibrancy of a big city, the potential of excitement, and taking a moment to slow down within the chaos and see all the unexpected and overlooked beauty. This environment fuels my creative spirit.”
And her creativity extends to the naming of her works, which doesn’t always seem to match up with what is depicted.
“The names of my pieces either reflect the meaning behind how the idea for the piece came to me, or a detail within it, if I am doing a series and just letting it flow naturally,” she said. “Sometimes, a work of mine comes from a moment or specific image and so then I will then choose a name that reflects the inspiration. Other times, I will get lost in the process of a series and a certain detail will catch my eye and start to dictate the direction of the piece – in that case, I would use the detail, or a representation of the details, as the name. Occasionally, there is a meaning within the numbers and/or letters I use that appear random but they are always intentional. It isn’t often but, occasionally, I will use the deeper meaning that isn’t obvious within the piece and I explain that to the person who purchases it.”
Lederman both sells her work and donates it. With her art, she has supported such causes as Arts Umbrella Splash, Zajac Ranch, Music Heals, Face of Today and York House School.
“Although I was not raised with the idea of tikkun olam, it has always been important to me to give back and I became very involved and aware of the importance of philanthropic endeavours in university,” she said. “There are so many ways to contribute to the greater good, either with time, money or donations. I am happy to help in whatever way I can and love helping to raise funds for such important and necessary causes. Art can bring joy in many ways – being able to give back to the community is something I am grateful to be able to contribute to and brings me joy as well.”
While she may not have been raised with the concept of tikkun olam, Lederman said, “Jewish culture definitely plays a role in my family’s life. We celebrate the Jewish holidays and have been involved with the community here in Vancouver in many different ways over the years. Two years ago, my children and I traveled to Israel for the first time. It was an incredible experience and I was so inspired in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that I created a collection based on the experience, energy and imagery from these cities. I felt that Israel was like no other place I have ever visited and the combination of cultures and raw energy inspired me to want to capture the feeling of the country.”
During the Eastside Culture Crawl, Lederman’s studio – Eastside Atelier Building, 14-1310 William St. – will be open for viewing, both virtually and in-person.
“This year has had its share of challenges for us all,” she said, “and I am thrilled to be able to share what I love with local art lovers.”
To see Lederman’s latest collections or schedule a private appointment with her, check out stacylederman.com. For the full schedule and to register for the Crawl, visit culturecrawl.ca. There is also a “sneak peak” of Crawl activities being offered virtually Nov. 2–9, which features a selection of workshops, demonstrations and talks, as well as the annual Moving Art exhibition.
COVID-19 has upended all of our lives in multiple ways. More people work from home. Self-isolation has become customary. Masks are everywhere. The anxiety and fear of infection have spread as widely as the virus itself. To reflect these and other changes, the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery invited Jewish community members – not professional artists but lay people – to share their experiences, thoughts and emotions in both visual and oral formats. The results can be found in the gallery’s current show, What We See: Stories & Moments from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The exhibit, which opened Sept. 10, consists of 15 entries. Each entry, submitted by one person, includes a few photos depicting that person’s new reality and a short essay, in which the participant wrote what has touched them most profoundly. As the deadline for the submissions was early July, everything in the show is about the first few months of the pandemic, before we all got more used to it and the new rules of social interaction became the norm.
Participant Sandra Collet presents her impressions through a poem on the meaning of the current crisis: “… A time of loneliness / A time of LIFE … A time of sadness / A time of hope.” Its last line, “Together apart,” encapsulates one of the most significant changes wrought by the pandemic.
Bob Prosser has written about his “ordinary experiences” and contemplates the days ahead: “… my wife sewed masks, we’re growing herbs and vegetables, we have learned to bake bread.… I’m hopeful but pessimistic about the post-COVID future.” One of the most memorable photographs of the whole show is his: the stockpile of toilet paper in his house.
For Derry Lubell, the hardest aspect of social distancing is her inability to be with her family, to interact with her grandchildren. Her short essay is almost a lament. She writes, “… one afternoon, I went to their house and stood on the sidewalk. They all came out onto their front porch.… I took these shots of our separation.”
Micah Groberman encountered a different challenge. Before the pandemic, his business was focused on tourism and, like most every other business connected to tourism, it fizzled out due to the global travel and gathering bans. He writes, “… before COVID, I would walk my sons – Evan, 8, and Jonas, 5 – to school and then begin my workday, but suddenly, I became my boys’ teacher.” He admits that he is not too good at math, so he decided to teach his sons about what he knew, instead: photography and nature. His older son’s photographs of wild birds, taken under Groberman’s tutelage and included in the show, prove the father’s talent for teaching. The images are outstanding.
Paul Steinbok’s photos capture simple, everyday images. In his essay, he expresses sympathy and compassion for those who have suffered from COVID. His own feelings have become more acute, more attuned to the life surrounding him. “This year,” he writes, “I have observed more closely and photographed the ever-changing colours and textures of spring. In addition, I have photographed some situations that have resulted from the COVID restrictions, such as messages of hope, COVID-style birthday parties and exercise classes.”
Tybie Lipetz, the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, writes about the disappointments young children have faced, the school closures and birthday party cancellations. “Life was turned upside down for the kids,” she notes.
Despite the drawbacks and dangers of COVID, many entries emphasize the authors’ hope and joy. For example, Fran Goldberg, who belongs to the especially vulnerable age group of 70-plus, has found positivity from her family and her dog. She and her children stay in touch by phone daily. “Instead of talking about what I couldn’t do, we started to focus on what I could,” she writes. “For one thing, I could Zoom with my family.… I have a dog.… She is 13 years old and, on our walks, she still takes the time to ‘smell the roses.’ She and my family have taught me to slow down and appreciate the beauty I see around me.”
Kathy Bilinsky also recognizes the beauty around her, however unexpected, and has captured it with her camera. In her essay, she mentions walking around Granville Island, which she did countless times before the pandemic, and notes how, at the pandemic’s onset, everything looked different, abandoned: “… no vendors, no shoppers, no tourists. It felt surreal…. So many doors that we can’t enter, nor do we want to.”
In her photos of the closed doors of Granville Island, the familiar noisy streets are almost unrecognizable. Who had ever seen those doors in broad daylight without a crowd in front of them?
Another of Bilinsky’s photographs is a bouquet on the asphalt, a gift from her children on Mother’s Day: “… flowers received ‘socially distanced,’ awkwardly tossed on the parking lot floor.… We all just stood and stared at them.”
The 15 participants in this unique show offer stories and moments ranging from eerie to prosaic, from heartwarming to poignant, all contributing to this combined slice of memory of the first few months of the pandemic in Vancouver.
What We See: Stories & Moments from the COVID-19 Pandemic runs until Nov. 10. You can visit the Zack Gallery by appointment or view the show’s digital book at jccgv.com/art-and-culture/gallery.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.
“Resistance” by Dorothy Doherty. Part of the Beyond the Surface exhibition now on at the Zack Gallery until Sept. 8. (photo from gallery)
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver has opened its doors again, at least partially, and the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery is presenting a new exhibition, Beyond the Surface. Art lovers can make appointments to tour the show in person. It features five local artists – Janice Beaudoin, Olga Campbell, Dorothy Doherty, Jane McDougall and Ellen Pelto – and the Jewish Independent interviewed them recently by email about their art, and how the pandemic has affected them.
“This exhibit was originally scheduled for June 4,” said Campbell. “Because of COVID, it was a bit late. It was hung on June 18, and the virtual opening through Zoom was on July 8.”
Last year, the five artists attended a five-day workshop in Victoria led by California artist Michael Shemchuk, though some of them had met before then.
“Dorothy and I have been friends for 45 years,” said Pelto. “I met her in a clay class she was instructing. I’ve also known Olga for eight years.”
“I met Olga Campbell in various art workshops in Vancouver and then spent five years on campus with her at Capilano College between 2008 and 2014,” said Doherty. “We took some classes together and worked independently in others, all the while growing in friendship.”
Doherty, who has taken Shemchuk’s workshops several times over the years, met McDougall and Beaudoin at one or another of those sessions. And Shemchuk’s teaching, especially on the paper layering technique, has been instrumental in the birth of this Zack show.
“A couple of us thought that it would be interesting to show some of the work that we had created in his workshop,” Campbell recalled. “We thought that five [artists] would be a good number to demonstrate the cohesiveness of the art, as a result of us all using the same techniques, but also showcase each of our individual styles.”
Doherty came up with the title, Beyond the Surface. She said the rest of the group quickly agreed. “I think the word surface resonated with us because we all do unique surface treatments,” she said. “Surface is really important in art and in life, but we always want people to look beyond appearances – learn about people and artwork in greater depth.”
To produce the works, the artists manipulated a surface in many ways. They layered, sanded, abraded and painted it; even cut into it to reveal what lay beneath.
Beaudoin elaborated: “Beyond the Surface is the ideal name for this show, as the technique we all used is based on the process of layering paper and paint. As we add and subtract paint and materials by sanding or scraping, each artist makes decisions about what elements to reveal and what to hide. The final surface is one that often appears aged and somewhat mysterious, providing the viewer with enticing glimpses of things that are hidden beneath the surface and leaving them to wonder what has been covered.”
In a way, this show’s unusual story echoes its title as well. While a traditional vernissage is an event where art connoisseurs mingle inside a gallery, the pandemic forced Zack Gallery director Hope Forstenzer to show and promote the art digitally.
“She did a virtual tour of our show at the JCC,” said Campbell, “and she is also interviewing each of us in our studios live via Zoom, so that people can see our art and have a virtual tour of our studios.”
The artists mused about the changes in their field and in gallery procedures wrought by COVID-19.
“My sense is that pandemic or no pandemic, artists will always make art. The biggest challenge is going to be getting the art out to the world to enjoy,” said Beaudoin. “There is always a basic human desire to stand before a work of art in person. That is definitely the best way to engage with a painting. However, there is a generation of media savvy younger art buyers who are used to purchasing things by seeing them on a computer screen. I think that galleries that are working to provide virtual viewing options are the ones that will survive. The art world, like all industries, really has no choice but to adapt.
“I also feel that it must be acknowledged that many people still find comfort in seeing art in person. The art world is known for its fun social events – and we know now that the comfort of human contact cannot be fully recreated online. My sense is the future of art shows and museums will be a carefully managed balance of socially distanced in-person viewing and virtual showings.”
“I have been fortunate,” said Campbell. “I continue to meet regularly with three other artists. We create our art at home and then share it with each other on Zoom. With another artist friend, I have been playing Photoshop tennis online. One person sends the other an image, the other person adds another image through Photoshop, and this continues until the piece is finished.… I think that we are in this for the long haul; two years, maybe more. I think that, in the future, art shows will continue in real life – in fact, it is already happening – but I do think that some of the virtual things will remain.”
“It’s hard to say how the pandemic will change exhibition practices in the future,” said Doherty. “I do appreciate all the online exhibits, as there would be no other way to see many of these exhibitions. But I really believe there is no substitute for the gallery system as we know it, with wonderful opening nights and the ability to see the artwork in person. We need that direct exchange of human energy, and the feedback we get from visitors and friends. We need access to art in galleries and to artifacts in museums – it’s how we learn. I have always said, despite my gratitude for online Zoom meetings, that the human experience is not the same. It’s flat instead of three-dimensional. We are looking at screens. We are not looking at the real person. There is no exchange of human energy online. We need direct human contact. That’s what we need to live happy, successful lives.”
For McDougall, the pandemic hasn’t changed much for her. “I think most visual artists are used to working in isolation. My art practice has remained the same,” she said. “Listening to CBC in my studio keeps me up to date on the world and, of course, most of the talk is about COVID. I feel grateful to live in B.C.
“I am generally a positive person and my thoughts reflect that. I think there will be more of an online presence for art,” McDougall continued. “And, like Hope Forstenzer’s example throughout this show, there will be interactive web calls and taped studio visits. Because of that, artists will become more involved in the galleries. Long term, I think the pandemic will pass. Art galleries and museums will always be an important element in education and sharing the past. Nothing will replace the up close and personal view of art.”
Pelto agreed. COVID has changed exhibition practices, she said, and “will inevitably change the future practice of making, exhibiting, buying and selling art. However, people will always need to see art. That will not change. People need to see it to appreciate the scale, proportions, richness of colours and textures, and to feel their evocative response. Some of the positive outcomes include the creation of more and stronger online artistic communities. The online presence increases exposure for artists, and interesting themes will emerge in art that will define the human condition of COVID.”
Beyond the Surface runs until Sept. 8.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
The interior of a dolmen (ancient burial chamber built of rocks) with symbols overlaid on the image for clarity. (photo by Yaniv Berman/IAA via Ashernet)
There are many such dolmens in the Galilee and the Golan, all of which date back more than 4,000 years. An inspector of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has identified engravings of horned animals, leaves, fertilizers and wild cows in one dolmen; a human face in another; and a panel with geometric shapes in yet another.
SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo from QAF)
“Since the very beginning, I said not doing the festival was not an option … because my belief is that they [the arts] are really, really important – I would say essential.”
Sharing their appreciation for the vital work being done by those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, SD Holman, artistic and executive director of the Queer Arts Festival, said, “art is really keeping people alive, in different ways than the amazing health workers that are taking care of folks right now. Even people who say they don’t like art – if you read a book, if you watch Netflix, you take part in the art world.”
This year’s Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26, will happen mostly online. This is, of course, not what was initially planned.
By mid-May, Holman said, “we had to have a plan. And, right now, we’re still working on how the delivery is going to look because it’s not all digital. One of the things that was really important to us, to me, is that, not all people have computers, not all people have a stable wi-fi access, people can’t go to the libraries [now] if they don’t have computer, so how do people access it? If they’re not privileged enough to have this little box in front of them, how do we deliver a festival?”
One of the things being considered is billboard art. As well, there is the possibility of using parks as venues.
The planning of such a festival normally starts a year in advance, not the couple of months that COVID has allowed for a reimagined version. Some elements – such as the visual arts show – have been adapted for the new circumstances, while some will have to be postponed, as they do not lend themselves to online viewing, because they are interactive on some level, or the artists can’t make it to Vancouver.
When asked about the process for choosing festival artists, Holman said, “I talk a lot to people, I try and keep abreast of what’s going on. I always want to support local artists and also bring in folks from away, so that there are great conversations that happen of what’s going on in the world, as well as what’s happening here.”
The festival programmer does research and people can also apply to be part of the festival. As well, Holman said, “There’ll be people that talk to me about wanting to do something, and that usually percolates for two or three years before anything ever happens.”
Holman has been with the festival since its beginnings as a volunteer collective in 1998. “Two-spirit artist Robbie Hong, black artist Jeffrey Gibson were the main founders of Pride in Art [Society],” they explained. “I was an artist and then I became involved in the collective in 2005, when Robbie was wanting to step away … and I called in Dr. Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa because she had approached me about something and I said, ‘Come and join me on this.’ And we spearheaded making it professional, making it a festival…. It was a community visual art show up until that point…. As an artist myself, I wanted to pay artists – too often artists are expected to do stuff for free, and that’s impossible.”
According to the festival website, PiA became a not-for-profit in 2006, mounted its first festival in 2008 and rebranded to become the Queer Arts Festival in 2010, obtaining charitable status in 2012.
“Rachel has finally managed to extricate herself,” said Holman, “because we also both have our own arts practices and it’s very hard to run this organization and also have an arts practice; it might have fallen a bit by the wayside, but Rachel is a concert pianist. [She’s] no longer staff with us, [but] she’s still doing some contract work with us and passing over her organizational knowledge.”
While Holman is a photo-based artist, the festival remains their focus. It is the belief that “art changes people and people change the world” that motivates them, “because it’s important work” – “when a country is taken over, the first people they suppress are the artists.… You take over the media and you get rid of the artists because people can be completely destroyed – the first thing they start doing [to recover] is making art, whether it’s in a mud puddle, making a mud pie, they start, that is, expression; that’s what brings them back.
“Art reaches you on a visceral level,” Holman continued. “There’s this thing called confirmation bias, so we take in more what we already agree with, but art can get you in a way that can transform our ways of thinking.”
For Holman, being queer and Jewish are parts of their larger identity. Holman has self-described, for example, as “a queer pagan Jew” and “a Jewish, butch, bearded dyke.”
“I come from L.A.,” they told the Independent. “I was born and raised in L.A., and I have had several Jewish friends be, ‘Oh, you’re too much for Vancouver.’ And I’ve been here for a long time … [but] people are, ‘Why aren’t you in New York, why aren’t you in L.A.? Why aren’t you where you can be more?’ I always get this feeling here … that people are always trying to be, ‘Shh, could you just be a little bit quieter, could you just be not quite so much?’ There’s this too-muchness about Jews. And there’s kind of this too-muchness about queers, too. There’s this assimilation. My family assimilated – I got, from my bubbie and my great-aunt, I would get Christmas cards. We’re Jewish! But we assimilated because that was what was safe for us. And so there’s all this assimilation and erasure that happens with queers and Jews, because, also, many of us can pass; we can pass as straight, we can pass as not Jewish.”
Despite skepticism about the possibility of Jews being fully accepted – the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville a couple of years ago featured chants of “Jews will not replace us,” for example – Holman is completely out there in her Jewishness and queerness, in a seemingly fearless way.
“Oh no, I’m afraid of everything, that’s why I do it,” they said. “Although, that’s not true anymore. Since my wife died [in 2009], I don’t fear anything because the worst thing has already happened to me. But I used to be, I was quite fearful.… [However] I’ve never been able to be in the closet about anything really. And, I guess, for me, that’s kind of Jewishness, [being] more emotive and not afraid to debate, not always trying to please people. For me, it comes from my Jewish heritage.”
Despite the many accolades for their art and for their work with the Queer Arts Festival, including the 2014 YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Arts and Culture, Holman said, “I have been a failure all my life.” Among their reasons for that description, Holman said they are dyslexic. They added, “I’m butch, so that’s a failure as a woman; feminists were called failures as women.” But, they said, they are working with that in their art and, on the positive side, being a failure “frees you up to make your own rules, so make your own rules.”
The theme of this year’s Queer Arts Festival is “Wicked.” The press release quotes Oscar Wilde: “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.”
“It’s always really multi-layered the theme and then people take different stuff out of it,” said Holman. “So, there’s also the book Wicked … because Wicked is about it’s not easy being green, it’s not easy being different. It’s not easy being a Jew, it’s not easy being queer. It’s not easy being butch, it’s not easy being an activist. It’s all actually about activism, the book Wicked.”
In addition, there is, as Holman writes in the press release, the question, “What do we lose – who do we lose – if we accept induction into the dominant order, and reframe ourselves as a ‘moral minority’?”
“It’s a bit of a double pun,” they explained to the Independent. “The ‘Moral Majority’ years ago, who were trying to say [what’s acceptable in society], the right-wing, and there’s the ‘model minority,’” the Asian community, whose perceived greater-than-average success and stereotypical politeness are used to downplay the existence of racism. “It totally ties in with what I was talking about ‘too-muchness’ and excess and how we, as queers, work towards justice and inclusion.”
While becoming “more acceptable,” Holman said, “it’s still, ‘please don’t scare the horses.’… So, it’s OK if you want to be gay and lesbian and you want to get married and you want to have kids and you want to buy a house and be part of the whole heteronormative [framework] … be part of society’s morals, but could you leave the drag queens and the leather dykes at home?… Even with gender stuff. We know now that it’s a real spectrum and people are getting [more accepted], trans are really out in the world [for example] and it’s OK if you want to be a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man,’ whatever that is, but people in between are still, ‘Come on, could you choose a side?’
“There’s this whole [feeling like], we’ve given you these things, we’ve given you marriage rights, you can have children, you can affirm your gender, you can do those things, but could you now just be nicer to us? And, I think, we have to be careful of that – being sanctioned by the state of what’s OK [because] then people get left behind, and that’s what we’re seeing right now … the more privilege you gain, you have to be really careful of that,” of remembering that not everyone is being treated well.
The QAF opens on July 16. “And we’re going to have a binge/party at the end, on the 26th, and there’ll be prizes,” said Holman. “We’re going to play the whole entire festival. I think it’s going to be 12 hours or something – we’re inviting people to get into their best dress jammies.
“Everything is going to be pay-what-you-can, by donation…. Pay as much as you can, please, because we want to support the artists.”
Among those artists are Jewish community members Avram Finkelstein, from New York, who helps open the festival (see jewishindependent.ca/political-art-of-living) and locally based Noam Gagnon, whose work This Crazy Show (July 25-26) is described as “a reflection on the quest for love, through revisiting the worlds of childhood, both real and imagined.” In it, he “choreographs and performs, pushing himself to his physical limit to explore and expose ‘the art of artifice’ in a culture obsessed with pretending authenticity. This Crazy Show explores just how precarious and ambiguous identity can be, through the evolution of the body and the self, as both are continuously morphing, unfixed and boldly celebrated.”
Avram Finkelstein will be participating in the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo by Alina Oswald)
A lot of it feels familiar, said New York-based artist and activist Avram Finkelstein about the current situation in the United States. The same American institutions that failed during the HIV-AIDS crisis are failing to effectively deal with the pandemic. And, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, cities were also being burned in America.
“It’s sad to think that we will be having the same struggles,” he told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview last week. “But, also, as you get older, you realize that progress is not a pendulum swing from left to right, it’s actually a spiral going forward and things do move to the right and they move to the left, but [there is] incremental change. So, part of me feels like we’re seeing the dying gasp of a world that I hope we’re leaving behind, and I see a world in the future that I want to live in. So that’s kind of helping me through this.”
Finkelstein was scheduled to come to Vancouver next month to participate in the Queer Arts Festival.
A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, as well as the political group ACT UP, he is the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images (University of California Press, 2017). His artwork is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but a few places, and his work has been shown around the world. He was set to unveil one of his new works in Vancouver. As it is, with the restrictions required to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he will be helping open the festival remotely, as part of a panel discussion chaired by curator Jonny Sopotiuk, which will also provide viewers with a tour of the festival’s art exhibition.
“I have a large mural that was going to be in the exhibition and now it’s going to be in a virtual space,” said Finkelstein. “I’m very excited about this piece and the fact that Jonny chose it – it’s the first time I’ve shown it…. I had a commission to do a work for the Shed, which is a new art space in New York, and, while I was waiting for the weaving tests of the final pieces – it’s a very large jacquard weaving – I decided to start drawing from the same source material as the cartoon for the weaving. I hadn’t drawn since recovering from a stroke; I had a stroke about two years ago…. I then realized that my hand isn’t my own, my body is no longer my own.”
The source material, he explained, “is a portrait of a gender-non-conforming friend who later transitioned. The work was all about corporeality as an abstraction and the ways in which we’re allowed to look at certain things, and what is public and what is private about gender and sexuality. And then, all of sudden, I realized, I’m actually talking about my own body in these drawings because my own body is not my own body anymore. I realized that I had made this sharp pivot from an abstract, theoretical idea of corporeality to this kind of war or dance, or I don’t know how to describe the physical process of having to use your entire body to hold a pencil.”
Despite the health, political and other challenges Finkelstein has faced, he remains hopeful.
“We’re trained to think that, if we don’t have hope, then the only thing that’s left is despair, but the truth is, hope isn’t so much the point – it’s the horizon that hope is sitting on and, so long as you can see a horizon, I think that, to me, is the same thing,” he said.
“I’m Jewish, as you know, and I think that Jews have a very different relationship to memory and to witnessing. If your people have been chased all over the globe for centuries, you take a long view. You sleep with one eye open, but you take a long view, and I think, therein, I’m eternally hopeful.”
In an interview in 2018, Finkelstein predicted that the situation in the United States would worsen before it improved.
“Which is another thing about being Jewish – you learn that there is no such thing as paranoia because it’s all real,” he said. “So, one could have seen, as plain as the nose on one’s face, where America was heading. And, in actual fact, what happened with Trump’s election was, we’ve joined the international march of global totalitarianism…. And, it’s not about to get really bad, it’s really, really bad. It’s really bad and I think that, here again, you can’t be Jewish and not think – not think your entire life, actually – in some way being prepared for, OK, what are the risks I’m willing to take if this happens? How far would I be willing to fight for other people if that happens. The shadow of Nazi Germany never escaped your consciousness.”
So how does Finkelstein conquer the fear?
“I guess I’ve replaced it with anxiety,” he said, laughing. But, he added, “I don’t know why I’m not fearful. I think that I was just raised – a day doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded of another lesson or another incident or another part of Jewish-American social history in the 20th century that my family was directly there for. I almost feel like I’m the Zelig of the left. All the stories you would tell my mother or my father, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there. We were there at the Robeson riots. Oh, yeah, we were there when they closed The Cradle Will Rock and everyone walked down the street’ – exactly the way it was in the last scene in Tim Robbins’ movie. When I saw it, it seemed too preposterous, I called my mother, said, ‘Could that have happened?’ And she started singing the song that Emily Watson sings in the film.
“So, I think I have such a sense of self that one could interpret it as fearlessness, but I think that it would be more accurate to say I was not given an alternative role model. I was raised to feel the suffering of others and, if other people are suffering, there’s no night’s sleep for me. So, there’s really no option – you’re either closing your eyes to something terrible or you’re doing everything you can to try and make it less terrible. And I think that that’s the Jewish condition.”
He described Jews as being like queer people. “We are everywhere,” he said. “We’re in every culture, we’re in every race, we’re in every gender, we’re in every country. We have every type of ethnic community that we surround ourselves with. An Ethiopian Jew is different from an Ashkenazi Jew, but we’re still all Jews.”
Though raised by atheists, he said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone more Jewish than I am or than my family, but Jews are prismatic. We are many things. Consequently, I feel like I can’t speak on behalf of other Jews, I can only speak on behalf of myself.
“Likewise, I’ve always had people of colour in my family; I just always have. And, I learned very early on back in the ’60s, when the civil rights movement was fragmented between King and Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, and everyone was choosing sides, I think that’s another example of what I’m talking about – there are many ways in which to be black. And so, I don’t feel like what I have to say about this current moment is anywhere near as important, essential, vital, critical … [as] a person of colour – what a person of colour has to say about this moment is much more important.”
Finkelstein was one of the minds behind the now-iconic Silence=Death poster, which has been adapted over the years by many people. A variation of it could be seen in at least one of the recent protests. The original iteration encourages viewers to use their power and, for example, vote. In general, working towards solutions is an important part of Finkelstein’s activism.
“I think critiques are easier,” he said. “I think also we mistake public spaces, we mistake the commons, as a declarative space. I tend to think of it as an interrogative space. I think that, even in late-stage capitalism, when someone is trying to get you to put your money in a bank or go buy a soft drink, there’s something Socratic about the gesture of trying to get you to do something … you’re responding to it, you’re engaged in it, and that’s the interrogative part that I think is easy to overlook. And I think that’s where the answers are.
“I think that the way that the Silence=Death poster is structured is it’s really like a bear trap. We worked on it for nine months – the colour has certain codes and signifiers, and the triangle has another set of codes and we changed the colour of the triangle from the [concentration] camps and inverted it to obfuscate some of the questions about victimhood. And the subtext has two lines of text, one that’s declarative and one that’s interrogative, and the point size forces you into a performative interaction.”
This poster and other work with which Finkelstein has been involved include aspects that “people are very afraid to experience,” he said, “which is fallibility, mess-making and tension. And I find all of those things as generative, as kindness, support, community. They’re differently generative and … hearing so many people who are trying to figure out how to find their way in, as white people, into the conversations that are happening in America right now, is the same struggle as a young queer person trying to find their way into the AIDS crisis. I mentor a lot of young queer artists and activists and the first thing they say, their immediate impulse is, I have no right to this story, I wasn’t here, I didn’t live through it. To which my response is, immediately, you have every right to the story – it’s your story, it’s the story of the world…. Race is a white person’s problem. People of colour are paying the price for it, but the problem, the genesis of the problem, is whiteness. And we have to figure out how to talk about it…. But I think now is the time for listening.”
He said, “We have to know what our responsibilities are and this goes back to Judaism – our responsibilities as witnesses. You can’t let your discomfort change the importance of this moment or overshadow the importance of this moment.”
One of the things Finkelstein does is teach social engagement via flash collectives. “I think we’re never put into a position where people mentor our personhood,” he said. “We have people mentor us as computer programmers or healthcare providers or tax accountants or artists or writers, but … there’s something primeval which is missing in the way we’re acculturated, and the flash collective is almost shamanistic in that regard; it taps into this primal thing that is quite astonishing when you let it out.”
Understanding that he will not live forever, he said “the Silence=Death poster casts a very mighty shadow and it makes it very difficult for people to figure out how to make new work, if that’s what they think it has to be…. It became obvious to me that I could be talking about Silence=Death until the day I drop, but, one day, I am going to drop and I want other people to start making those new works and I thought this would be a way to get people to make new work.”
He described the collectives, which teach political agency, as being “like a stew of the top 10 hits of grassroots organizing in a condensed workshop that’s tailored to the individuals in the room.”
He said, “I believe that I don’t necessarily have to change the world because I know that there could be a teenager in 2050 who sees something that someone I worked with did that made them think of something else that I never would have thought of. That is the point of the work, not the how do I fix it before I’m gone, which is the dilemma of Larry Kramer [who passed away last month]. He really thought, and I think it’s really male, but it’s very men of a certain generation also – he really thought that he could fix the AIDS crisis, and it didn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow for most of what Finkelstein shared with the Independent about Kramer, who he described as “a complicated person.”
Kramer was a rhetorician, said Finkelstein. “And I’m a propagandist. We’re both rhetoricians in a way, but what was the dividing line that made Larry incapable of understanding the work that I did?… I felt like I understood his process better than he understood mine. And I started to think, well, here’s the difference between a person who articulates their rage with words and a person who articulates their rage with every tool in the toolbox…. Not to make myself sound superior, but I realized that I think of rage as sculptural; he thought of rage as rhetorical. I think of rhetoric as sculptural, I think of it as casting a shadow and activating social spaces. And I think that he was a Jewish gay man of a different generation and a lot of his rage was tied into his personal struggles. And I did not have those. I had other personal struggles, but I did not have them.”
As part of the Queer Arts Festival, Finkelstein will lead a flash collective on the question, “What does queer public space mean in a 21st-century pandemic?” He hopes the resulting work will be shown in a public space.
For more information about the festival, visit queerartsfestival.com. The next issue of the JI will feature an interview with QAF artistic director and Jewish community member SD Holman.