Does Canada have Jewish art? What defines Jewish art? University of Calgary art professor Jennifer Eiserman will address those questions on March 7, at 11am. The Zoom event is the fifth in Kolot Mayim Reform Temple’s 2020-21 Building Bridges lecture series.
With a wealth of visual support, Eiserman will introduce the rich esthetic traditions that inform contemporary Jewish art in Canada. The artists to be discussed include Sorel Etrog and his contribution to Canadian Modernism, the figurative work of printmaker Betty Goodwin, and the Jewish fantastical creatures of sculptor David Altmedj, who represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Sylvia Safdie’s video installations of flowing water, sand, light and sound advance the traditional concerns of Canadian art with landscape and nature more commonly associated with the Group of Seven.
Growing up in Montreal, Eiserman experienced firsthand the national influence that the Saidye Bronfman Centre had in disseminating Canadian Jewish art. She spent her childhood in Montreal and her adolescence in Alberta’s Cypress Hills. She did her bachelor’s (art history) and master’s (education through the arts) at McGill University in Montreal, and a bachelor of fine arts (visual art) at the University of Regina. Her PhD, one of the first ever to use studio art as its method of inquiry, is from the University of Calgary, where she is now associate professor in the department of art. Her current research is in North American contemporary Jewish art and community-based Jewish art.
Eiserman is also a successful practising artist. She uses mixed media, crochet, watercolour painting, installation and public art projects to explore issues related to Jewish theology, philosophy and identity. Eiserman explains that her work is “what I call ‘visual midrash,’ my artistic response to sacred Jewish texts.”
This photo, called “Generations,” was taken by Tim Gidal in Tel Aviv in 1935. (courtesy Zack Gallery)
The current show at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery, Invisible Curtain: The 1932 Polish Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal, was organized in partnership with the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, which runs Feb. 20-25. Gidal (better known as Tim Gidal or Tim N. Gidal) was a renown photojournalist of the last century and the exhibit’s images come from the new book Memories of Jewish Poland: The 1932 Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal. (For a review, click here.)
The driving force behind the book’s publication was Yosef Wosk, who wrote its preface. Wosk approached Zack Gallery director Hope Forstenzer and Jewish Book Festival director Dana Camil Hewitt about a year ago, Forstenzer told the Independent. “He suggested we have a Tim Gidal show at the gallery to coincide with the festival and his newly published book,” she said.
Both Wosk and Forstenzer curated the exhibit. “Together, we chose about 50 images for the show, as many as the gallery could fit. It couldn’t include all the images in the book, of course,” said Forstenzer.
The history of the photographs is best described by the photographer himself in the book’s introduction. In 1932, Gidal, then 23, traveled with two friends to Poland from his hometown of Munich, Germany. It was his first trip abroad. “My knowledge of the political, economic and social conditions of the Jews in Poland didn’t seem to square with my feelings about their spiritual life,” he wrote. “So I decided to go and see for myself.”
Gidal, who passed away in 1996, took numerous photographs of people and places, as he went from shtetl to shtetl on his three-week “little odyssey.” He wrote: “I encountered spiritual and material heights and depths: material well-being and abject poverty, rejuvenation and dissolution. Some were rich, but many more were very poor. It was a hopeless poverty, endured with an incredible humility. I met men of faith and hypocrites … atheists, socialists and communists, Zionists and Bundists, Orthodox and assimilationists. We also experienced the all-pervading Jewish humor.”
Everything the young photographer experienced was reflected in his images, including those now on display at the Zack. We see children laughing and women looking far older than their real years. We see ancient eyes and tired, worn hands. We see educated men reading in front of a synagogue, and broken windows and peeling walls the next street over. And we know something Gidal didn’t know at the time, which makes this book and the show all the more poignant: not many years later, most of these people would be murdered in the Holocaust, and they and their entire way of life would be lost. But, in Gidal’s photos, his subjects remain alive. According to Wosk, “Each photograph is a monument, a letter in light.”
Gidal’s 1932 Polish photo essay comprises only a small portion of the master’s body of work. His photography journey spanned almost seven decades and encompassed most major players and momentous events of the 20th century.
One of the pioneers in the field of modern photography, Gidal made his debut in 1929 with his first published photo report. He was a proponent of the style of the “picture story” and he captured most of his subjects unaware, instead of staging elaborate scenes. Very few of his subjects posed for his photos, and every image tells a story.
Four years after his trip to Poland, Gidal moved to Palestine. During the Second World War, he served as a staff reporter for a British army magazine. A wanderer and a chronicler of life, he traveled a lot and lived in the United States for awhile. He taught and illustrated books. He exhibited widely.
A portion of the Zack exhibition is dedicated to Gidal’s artistic photography after 1932. The pictures demonstrate his technical progress, as well as his breadth of interests and subjects. There is a lyrical photo, “Generations,” taken in Tel Aviv in 1935 and another – a dramatic portrait of the youngest survivors of Buchenwald, taken in 1945 upon their arrival in Palestine. There is a photo of Mahatma Gandhi at the All-India Congress in Bombay in 1940 and the fascinating picture called “Handshake,” taken in Florence in 1934, which shows two men shaking hands in front of a wall covered with multiple posters of Mussolini.
Half a century before Photoshop was invented, Gidal experimented with his images, compiling them in different combinations and creating something unique, like his triptych of Winston Churchill of 1948 or the Rhomboid photomontage of 1975.
As a photo reporter, Gidal used his camera to record the 20th century in all its glorious and painful contradictions, and his early 1932 Polish photographs serve as a symbol of his multifaceted canon.
A portrait of Robbie Waisman, by artist Carol Wylie. Part of the exhibit They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds, at the Zack Gallery to Jan. 4.
Even via a wobbly Zoom-led tour, the impact of Saskatoon artist Carol Wylie’s portraits – nine of Holocaust suvivors and nine of residential school survivors – can be felt.
The title of the solo exhibit at the Zack Gallery until Jan. 4 is They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds. It is taken from the proverb: “They buried us … they didn’t know we were seeds.” And the choice of 18 portraits was deliberate.
“It was quite quick and early in the process I decided that 18 had to be the number,” said Wylie at the exhibit’s virtual opening Nov. 19, “because there’s so much darkness in the stories but there’s so much light and life in the survival… [T]here’s three of the Holocaust survivors who are involved with the March of the Living and to actually go back to the camps, to Auschwitz, and to make that walk when you were there; I can’t imagine the courage it takes. And they do it so that others are educated. That’s the rising above it and making something really powerful out of a black, dark experience.
“And I see the same thing with residential school survivors, like Gilbert [Kewistep] and like Eugene [Arcand], who spend so much of their time going around to schools and speaking in public about their experiences to make sure people are educated about that. And, again, reliving what they went through every time they tell it, I’m sure.
“So, the 18 and the connection to chai, to life, came really early in the process. It had to be 18, because that validation of life that these people represent … had to be present.”
The scale of the paintings was also chosen purposefully. “I want these portraits to take up space and to be very present and, for when you’re standing in front of them, to have them fill up your field of vision, so that you can’t wander past, uninterested and unengaged,” said Wylie.
The project started several years ago, she explained. “I saw Nate Leipciger speak at the Holocaust memorial service in Saskatoon and, it’s ridiculous, I’ve been [attending] for lots of years but, for some reason, that year, it hit me for the first time how elderly all these people are getting.”
The firsthand experience that is so powerful is soon to be lost, she said, and “I felt there was something that I had to do to help to preserve that.” And she would do it with the best tool she had, her passion and ability to create portraits.
“What I have learned over the years,” she said, “is that, when you capture the nuances of a person’s face, you really reflect who they are and much of their history and how they’re made up of that history. Even though it’s not like hearing a verbal story, it’s seeing a story in a different form.
“I started this idea to do a series of portraits of Holocaust survivors. And then, as I entered into it, little things started to pop up that were connecting the Jewish survival to the residential school experience. It started with a community seder at our local synagogue, where our rabbi, who is very forward-thinking, always has elements on the tables that recognize other groups … and, that particular year, he had made special mention of making sure that we understand – especially in Saskatchewan, where we have a really dark history of residential schools – the experience of the Indigenous people that we live with.
“And I started thinking, it’s not a parallel experience, but it’s an experience that is shared in terms of pain and suffering and then survival and rising above it…. And, because I live in Saskatchewan, this is part of the history of the land that I call home, that I’m a settler in, that this is a time of truth and reconciliation, it’s a time of trying to address these issues, so, as a personal step towards reconciliation, I can sit down, listen to the stories of some of these residential school survivors and bear witness to them and bring them in to be part of this project, so that they can converse through their portraits, as a group of survivors.”
It was only after making this decision that Wylie discovered that people like Vancouver’s Robbie Waisman – who is among those featured in the exhibit – were already meeting with residential school survivors to share ideas and experiences.
The project took about three-and-a-half years to complete. Waisman is the only Vancouver-based subject. “All the other Holocaust survivors were from Toronto, Edmonton and Saskatoon, and all the residential school survivors are from Saskatchewan,” said Wylie in an email interview with the Independent.
“I had to be really careful,” she noted at the exhibit opening. “There’s a very, very fraught history of non-Indigenous artists and non-Indigenous photographers representing Indigenous peoples and I knew I was stepping into this murky ground. All the way along, I had to keep asking myself questions about my own integrity around this, what are the reasons for why you’re doing this and does every single survivor that you talk to understand fully what this project is about and [are they] fully on board with it. At the end, I thought, if there are people who are criticizing it, that’s fine, but, I feel, after conversations I’ve had with many residential school survivors, that it’s more important that we raise this issue and more important that I make this step towards reconciliation than be fearful of doing something that maybe I shouldn’t be doing or that the art world might perceive that I shouldn’t be doing.”
When the work was completed, Arcand and Kewistep “smudged the work before it went off on its first exhibition. Then they gave me a smudge kit that I could use myself, if I wanted to, in the future. It was extremely meaningful to me; it was almost like they’d given it their stamp of approval, as well as imbuing it with these good graces and these good thoughts and this positive energy before the work went anywhere and anyone had a chance to see it.”
The exhibit has been shown in various places and will travel elsewhere after its time at the Zack.
Wylie’s general process in doing portraits is to speak with her subjects first.
“I think that, in order for the mask that we all wear in the world to protect ourselves, in order for that to drop, there needs to be time spent talking,” she said. “There’s this very strange artificial intimacy that happens when you’re sitting two feet – before COVID times – away from somebody that you’re drawing, and you’re talking and you’re looking intently at them…. So, I always wait until that couple of hours of conversation and visiting is over and then I pull out my camera.
“I need to work from photographs because I like to get a strong resemblance and I can’t have people coming back endlessly to sit for me…. But that’s when I take them, is after that time has been spent, that conversation has happened, and their mask has come down and they are open.”
The openness that is seen in the subject’s faces, stressed Wylie, “is not something that I put there, it’s something that they had. Seriously, I paint what I see… And that captures what they have, what they are, because it’s all within there, it’s all in their face.”
Given the caveat that there is something intangible about what makes a good portrait, Wylie said in an email, “I believe a portrait should bear resemblance to the subject. But, in addition, it should feel like the portrait is inhabited; like it contains the spirit of an individual. You often hear people comment about the eyes in a portrait following them. I think that’s the sensation of some element of the person, and not just their resemblance, being present. I also like to see evidence of the artist in the work in the form of brushstroke, colour choices, etc. This trace of the artist distinguishes a painted portrait from a photo.”
She described her need to create portraits as “a compulsion I’ve had since I was a child. Even then,” she said, “I drew people, made my own paper dolls. In my grad school investigations I discovered, I believe, that it’s because of a fascination I have with the mystery of consciousness, and the fact that we can never share another’s consciousness. We learn about ourselves through our interactions with others and these connections enrich our being.
“The face is a major part of how we communicate and is strongly connected to our identity,” she said. “Yet, we cannot see ourselves the way others see us, so there’s this mystery around faces. What do they hide? What do they reveal? How do you feel as ‘you’ wearing your face? How do I communicate as ‘me’ wearing my face? I am just never tired of painting a portrait, but am always excited when I begin a new one.”
The exhibit opening was hosted by gallery director Hope Forstenzer, who credited her predecessor, Linda Lando, for bringing this show in. The exhibit is open by appointment and via onlyatthej.com. A commemorative book, being prepared with Wylie’s help, is in the works, as well, said Forstenzer.
On Dec. 9, 6-8 p.m., the gallery is having a Zoom event with Waisman and Wylie, as well as Lise Kirchner from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Shelley Joseph from Reconciliation Canada. Readers interested in attending should email Forstenzer at [email protected].
During the Second World War, 17,000 Jews were enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces, serving their country despite Canada’s “none is too many” Jewish immigration policy. Of these 17,000, at least 279 were women. To highlight the contributions of these Jewish servicewomen and to combat the lack of public awareness of their participation in the war, original artworks are being sought.
Canadian artists who self-identify as Jewish and as women are invited to submit proposals for 2D digital artwork, inspired by the stories of the 36 Jewish service women featured on the website She Also Serves, live-ucalgary.ucalgary.ca/she-also-serves.
Submissions should include a maximum 500-word idea for an original 2D digital artwork (created, for example, using Photoshop, digital photography, digital collages, etc.) for a vertical banner measuring 75 by 165 centimetres. A link to your website, or a pdf including 10 examples of previous work and a curriculum vitae, must accompany the submission. Digital copies of drawings, paintings or other non-digitally generated works will not be considered.
In the end, 10 artists will be invited to create works based on the proposals submitted. Criteria for evaluation include clarity of theme, quality of research supporting the proposal, creativity, visual presentation, and quality of supporting documents. The jurors are Dr. Jennifer Eiserman, associate professor, department of art, University of Calgary; Saundra Lipton, adjunct librarian, U of C; Dick Averns, Canadian Forces artist; and David Bercuson, U of C department of history.
Selected artists will receive a contract indicating that each artist retains copyright and will be paid a CARFAC group exhibition fee of $395. These works will be printed on banners that will be hung throughout the existing exhibitions and galleries at the Military Museums in Calgary during Jewish Heritage Month, May 2021. In addition to the physical exhibition, artworks will be virtually circulated on the project website.
Submissions are due by Dec. 31, 2020 and artists will be notified by Jan. 22, 2021, regarding the jury’s decision. Artists invited to participate will be asked to send TIFF files of completed pieces by April 1, 2021. Send submissions and any questions to Eiserman at [email protected].
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].
Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making, led by Ruth Howard, is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which starts Oct. 28. (photo by Adrienne Marcus Raja)
Tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the world in which we live, is a core influence of the project Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making. Led by Toronto-based theatre designer and educator Ruth Howard, the residency is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
The festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, and Grounds for Goodness, which “explores why and how people sometimes do good things towards others,” takes place Oct. 30 to Nov. 12. It comprises participant and audience interactive story-sharing, art-making, workshops and an evolving gallery online, as well as Downtown Eastside window displays. The residency is co-produced by Jumblies Theatre and Arts and Vancouver Moving Theatre.
Howard – who has participated in the festival before (jewishindependent.ca/putting-heart-into-city) – is the founder of Jumblies. She said tikkun olam is an underlying motivator in all her work – “and one of this project’s explicit intents is to connect its themes and questions, my Jewish heritage as a second generation Holocaust survivor and my vocation a community-engaged artist.
“Community arts is predicated on the working belief that bringing people together across differences can foster commonality and understanding,” she explained. “And yet, growing up in the 1960s, as the child of a German Jewish refugee (my mother and family escaped to England in 1938) and an experimental psychologist, I was bred on evidence that groups of people tend to do atrocious things towards others, with goodness being individual heroic exceptions. I was told at a young age about [Stanley] Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and understood the link between such cautionary tales and attempts by survivors to explain the Holocaust. My own uncle – Henri Tajfel, both social psychologist and Holocaust survivor – coined the term ‘social identity theory.’
“Therefore, my attention was grabbed a few years ago when I read some books about the saving of Danish and Bulgarian Jewish populations during the Holocaust by citizens of those countries. The Danish story was slightly familiar to me and the Bulgarian one not at all. I have since become quite obsessed by these and other instances (for example, Albania, the Rosenstrasse protests) that run against the grain of my and other people’s common assumptions about human behaviour and ‘nature.’ I felt compelled to tell these stories and learn more about the reasons behind them. I started to investigate the notion of ‘social goodness’ from many angles: history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, memory, folk tale, legend, theory.”
With the help of independent research and creation grants, Howard “gradually brought the project into the work of Jumblies, inviting and including the responses of diverse community participants and groups. Now, we have a broad and growing repertoire of stories with which to play.
“However,” she stressed, “it’s important to me to uphold the project’s origins in Jewish perspectives and histories, and my own Jewishness: a complicated mix of darkness, hope and urgency to understand how to cultivate grounds for goodness through never forgetting what can happen in its absence.”
The Jumblies team in Toronto includes Howard’s daughter, web designer and choir conductor Shifra Cooper, and composer Martin van de Ven, also a member of the Jewish community.
In addition to being a composer for film, television, theatre and dance, van de Ven is a music facilitator and educator. He is also a clarinetist and has performed with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Chutzpah Ensemble, and Beyond the Pale. He has been involved in many Jumblies projects – as musical director, composer and/or performer. “Ruth and I have written several choral works together,” he told the Independent.
“To me, Jumblies is the embodiment of a music and art-making philosophy that believes the arts are there for everyone to create and not just for the well-trained elite,” he said. “Composers such as John Cage and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer talk about this in their writing and both were an early influence on my music education. Jumblies allows me to use my own skills and training to combine the efforts of trained and non-trained performers to create art, and specifically music, that serves the purpose of the moment, whether a stand-alone piece or something that supports a story being told. I think this work is important; it democratizes and decommodifies music-making and breaks down barriers to creation for community members who are otherwise shut out of the creative process. The myth that music-making is the sole purview of the highly skilled, and it is only worthwhile if it is commodified into a product to be consumed, is damaging to the whole idea of ‘homo ludens,’ the idea that a fundamental human attribute is the ability to play, invent and create.”
The community choir that Cooper directs embodies this concept of art being for everyone.
“The Gather Round Singers is an intergenerational community choir, made up of 30-plus mixed-ability, multi-aged singers, from across Toronto and beyond,” she said. “We exist within Jumblies Theatre, and so share their dedication to radical inclusivity and benefit from their experience in creating interdisciplinary work.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the choir has been meeting weekly online since April, said Cooper, “to rehearse and perform new choral works designed or adapted for this new context” – that “[c]horal music is among the more challenging forms to adapt to online gathering, as video calling platforms such as Zoom are designed to reduce vocal overlap, and create latency that makes in-sync singing impossible.”
The Gather Round Singers will perform two new pieces for the opening of the DTES Vancouver residency, said Cooper – “one a world première by Martin van de Ven and one a work-in-progress by Arie Verheul van de Ven, both of which were developed this summer especially to be performed on Zoom. These are both part of Jumblies’ larger Grounds for Goodness project, which continues until a final presentation in June 2021, and will include several other new musical and choral pieces … and other composers (including Andrew Balfour, Christina Volpini and Cheldon Paterson).”
“Grounds for Goodness overall is a multi-year project that includes many partners, places and participants,” explained Howard. “It has been taking place through real-live and virtual activities for almost two years. There have been episodes in Nipissing First Nation (near North Bay, Ont.), Montreal, Brampton, the Ottawa Valley, Algoma Region (northern Ontario), and with various Toronto groups.… We have received funds to tour the project, which have now been adapted to allow for ‘virtual touring.’ The Vancouver iteration is the next big chapter in this project.”
For Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside, Martin van de Ven said, “we’ll be premièring a work called ‘Besa.’ ‘Besa’ is an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania, during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. We created a work based on texts found in writings and interviews with Albanians – from the book Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews During WW II by Norman H. Gershman.
“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from developing this piece as we normally would,” he continued, “and so I composed a work that could be performed and rehearsed with everyone being online. It involved researching the technology, experimenting with Zoom meetings and audio programs, as well as writing music that allowed for enough flexibility to deal with internet latency. For our Vancouver residency, we will be presenting this work and sharing our experience of creating an artwork to be performed online with members of the Vancouver art community.”
Those Vancouver artists include Savannah Walling, Olivia C. Davies, Beverly Dobrinsky, Khari Wendell McClelland, Renae Morriseau and Rianne Svelnis, as well as 10 DTES-involved participants.
* * *
Van de Ven started music lessons when he was 6 years old – on recorder. “In elementary school,” he said, “my friends and I decided we wanted to form a circus. As the only one in the group with musical training, I was charged with writing the theme for the circus band. I dutifully started writing down half notes and quarter notes on paper and tried to play them on the recorder. The method worked fine but I soon realized I would need some additional training if I wanted it to sound good.
“I ended up with a musical education partially shaped by my father’s interest and taste for very modern classical and jazz music and eventually formal training at university,” he said. “In my late teens, I realized that my interest in science and engineering paled compared to the excitement I felt for a live performance, whether as an audience member or as a performer.”
In university, in addition to his formal training, van de Ven was involved in various jazz programs and, eventually, studied and performed in free improv ensembles. He also did a short stint in Europe, studying early computer music in electronic sound synthesis.
“Klezmer music has a history deeply rooted in East European and Middle Eastern music traditions. As a clarinetist,” he said, “it provided for me a wonderful vehicle to not only deeply emerge myself into a culture other than my own but also perform a lead role playing in a band.”
For her part, Cooper has loved choral singing her whole life. “And I bring this love to my own work,” she said, “while having always believed that bringing together community arts and choral singing requires a flexibility and a softening of our understanding of the boundaries of what ‘choral music’ can be – this is something that I have always been creatively driven by. In these times, I’m learning a lot more about how far this can go.
“Sometimes, turning things on their head can be revealing of new approaches, considerations or perspectives,” she said. “For example, one young woman who has sung with the choir for many years, said to me the other day: ‘In rehearsal, I always sit in the back row, so I only see the backs of people’s heads. I like on Zoom that I can see the faces of everyone I’m singing and performing with.’ Another choir member told me that she feels more confident and motivated to practise when she has her microphone off and is alone in her room following along – this confidence comes through strikingly in the recordings she shared with me for one of our digital projects. In these ways, sometimes, working online has revealed the limitations of our previously established norms for singing in-person. I think often now about how, whenever we can safely be back together, we might incorporate these learnings.
“Which is not to gloss over any of the challenges of meeting online,” stressed Cooper. “I think I can speak for at least the majority of the choir when I say we all immensely miss singing together – in sync, in harmony, in rhythm. And a digital space, even though full of many possibilities, is also full of boundaries and obstacles to folks joining in, especially those experiencing more precarious housing or financial insecurity. Our team worked closely all summer with members of the choir community to bridge this gap, purchasing and delivering internet-enabled devices to choir members and providing remote and in-person (socially distanced) trainings and trouble-shooting.” They did so with funding from several sources, notably the Toronto Foundation.
“Another part of my work has often included event management and digital design and, in the new reality of virtual art-making, these two often come together in interesting ways,” Cooper added. “I’m delighted to be designing a new interactive website for Grounds for Goodness at the DTES Heart of the City Festival, that will act as an online evolving gallery, showcasing new work created through the community workshops and acting as the container and guide for the culminating virtual event.”
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].
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.