Legacy Thrones: Intergenerational Art Inspired by Bezalel and Oholiav in Miami
The ninth portion of Exodus, Ki Tisa, is read from the Torah scroll on Shabbat, February 27, 2016.
This week’s Torah portion describing the work of the prototypic Jewish artists, Bezalel and Oholiav, powerfully speaks to my wife Miriam and me as artists. It sparked our inspiration for creating the “Legacy Thrones” intergenerational art project in Miami and the “Torah Tweets” blogart project in Petah Tikva.
My weekly The Times of Israel blog posts exploring the Torah portion from fresh and creative viewpoints begins with Torah tweets. See how Miriam and I link Ki Tisa to “Legacy Thrones” through a narrative of photographs and tweets: http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.co.il/2014/01/exodus-9-legacy-thrones.html
The conceptual, artistic and spiritual background for these art projects are described in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com
Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)
“See, I have selected Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and with talent for all type of craftsmanship.” (Exodus 31:2, 3)
“I have assigned to him Oholiav son of Ahisamakh of the tribe of Dan, and I have endowed the hearts of every naturally talented person with wisdom.” (Exodus 31:6)
The names of Bezalel and Oholiav, the Tabernacle artists, give us insight into the contemporary transition from modern to postmodern art.
Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur literally means “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.”
It symbolizes the modern sensibility of relating art to individual passion and free expression.
Oholiav ben Akhisamach means “My Tent of Reliance on Father, Son, and My Brother.”
It symbolizes the postmodern collaborative enterprise of constructing an intergenerational structure shared by a community.
Bezalel’s name represents the psychology of the creative artist and Oholiav’s name describes the sociology of collective creativity.
Bezalel and Oholiav were not only endowed with artistic talent, but also with talent to teach others to be artistic collaborators. (Exodus 30:34)
We created the Legacy Thrones project as an exemplary model of intergenerational collaboration and postmodern art education.
Elders representing ethnic communities of Miami and our art students collaborated with us in creating three monumental works of public art.
Talented young people worked with elders from the Jewish, Hispanic and African-American communities to create Legacy Thrones.
Through aesthetic dialogue, valued traditions were transformed into artistic statements of enduring significance.
Together, young and old hands shaped wet clay into colorful ceramic relief elements collaged onto three towering thrones constructed from steel and concrete.
Facing Biscayne Bay, each twenty-foot high, two-ton throne visually conveys the stories of the three largest ethnic communities of Miami.
LEGACY THRONES: JEWISH, HISPANIC AND AFRICAN-AMERICA ELDERS IN MIAMI
We arranged for elders from three ethnic communities in Miami to join with our art students at the New World School of the Arts, University of Florida’s arts college in Miami. African-American elders were bussed to the school from Greater Bethel AME Church, Hispanic elders from Southwest Social Services Program, and Jewish elders from the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged. This collaboration between artists, elders, and young people in creating a monumental work of public art enriches their shared environment and leaves a legacy for generations to come.
Charles Green proposes in book, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, “that collaboration was the crucial element in the transition from modernist to postmodernist art and that a trajectory consisting of a series of collaborations emerges clearly from the late 1960’s conceptualism onwards. Redefinitions of art and of artistic collaboration intersected at this time.”
The sixty participants worked simultaneously in one huge studio space with our artistic guidance. Collaborative art changes the visual artist’s role to be more like a creative leadership role in the performing arts. Instead of the solitary role alone in one’s studio, the postmodern paradigm finds the visual artist acting more like a choreographer in dance, composer/conductor in music, playwright/producer/director in theater and film. It is significant that this postmodern role of the artist is the role of the artists Bezalel and Oholiav in building the Tabernacle as described more than three millennia ago in the Bible.
Our art students listened to the elders tell about their life experiences and cultural roots. Life review methodologies developed by Susan Perlstein at Elders Share the Arts in New York facilitated elders looking back and reaching inward to trigger reminiscences of events and images of personal and communal significance. The challenge at the next meetings was to explore ways of transforming reminiscences that reveal cultural values into visual images that can be expressed through clay. The enthusiasm of the elders in being artistic collaborators in creating a monumental artwork is expressed by the eminent psychologist Erik Erikson: “For the ageing, participation in expressions of artistic form can be a welcome source of vital involvement and exhilaration. When young people are also involved, the change in the mood of the elders can be unmistakably vitalizing.”
Although nearly all of the elders had no prior experience in making art or working with clay, they developed their technical prowess and aesthetic judgment during their year of participation. While the students facilitated the elders’ growth artistically, the young people’s lives were enriched through creative collaboration with partners blessed with a long life of fertile experiences. By sharing their stories with the students, transforming them into artistic images, and leaving a legacy for future generations, the elders added deeper layers of meaning to their lives.
SYMBOLS OF CULTURAL VALUES
With the assistance of art students experienced in ceramics, the elders worked with clay to make relief sculptural statements depicting personally significant images from their rich life experiences. A Jewish woman who was a dancer in her youth with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow formed women dancing the horah, a traditional Jewish folkdance. An African-American woman made a mule-drawn wagon on which she rode to church as a child in rural Florida. A Cuban woman made high-heeled shoes and an elegant pocketbook, the only valued possessions she took with her while escaping from Cuba on a rickety boat that sailed across the Florida straits.
Complimenting their personal images, the elders made images representing communal experiences and symbols of shared culture values. The Jewish group formed Hebrew letters, a Hanukah menorah, the biblical dove of peace, and symbols of the ten sephirot representing the stages in the parallel process of human creativity and divine creation. The African-Americans created images of black slaves in agony, cotton fields of the rural South, the keyboard of their church organ, and traditional African masks and geometric motifs. The Hispanic elders made a guitar and maracas, a cup of Cuban coffee, baseball players, fighting cocks, an Aztec bird, a rainforest frog, Jesus with outstretched arms, and Mary with a sunburst halo.
After the clay dried and was fired, the elders and young people painted them with colorful glazes. These relief ceramic forms became collage elements for covering the concrete surfaces of thrones until they were entirely clad in ceramics. Postmodern art media emphasize appropriation, collage, montage, and juxtaposition of meaning from diverse images.
All three thrones were made the same size and basic shape with the form of each throne’s crown and sides being different. This presented the semiotic statement that all three cultures were equal in status yet each was a unique expression of a different culture. The Hispanic throne has a sunburst crown and water waves cascading down the two sides. The Jewish throne is topped by a Hanukah menorah that holds nine flaming torches with an aluminum enlargement of leather straps meandering down the sides from a box containing biblical passages (tefilin) that is worn by Jews on their heads during morning prayers. On the head of the African-American throne is a giant African mask with its sides designed with a geometric pattern derived from a traditional African motif.
The frameworks for each of the three thrones was constructed by welding steel pipes connected to each other with rebar rods to reinforce the concrete that filled the spaces between the pipes. Victor Arias, one of our art students who is a professional metal worker from Ecuador, built the steel framework. In order to move the two-ton thrones, wheels were welded on to them. The students worked on cementing the collage elements to the thrones while they rested horizontally.
After the front and sides of the thrones were fully clad in ceramics, the two-ton thrones were transported to the park site by a tow truck, lifted up by a crane, and installed at their permanent sites along the shoreline walkway of Margaret Pace Park. Standing tall made the unfinished rear of the throne backs accessible. Two of the students who had worked on the thrones when they had rested horizontally in the studio, took the responsibility for completing the three throne backs on site while we were in Israel where we worked with art students of Emunah College in Jerusalem to complete the back of the Jewish throne. These ceramic forms were shipped to Miami. Ceramic elements made by students and Jewish elders in Miami collaged together with those made in the Land of Israel forges a powerful link with the elders’ ancestral homeland.
ART THAT COMBINES PRIDE IN ROOTS WITH INTERCULTURAL DIALOGUE
Each throne honors the integrity of a monoculture rather than a multicultural mix. Instead of being an expression of the outdated American concept of the monotone meltdown pot, the thrones are more like vegetables in a salad, each retaining its own form and flavor. Lawrence Halprin writes in his book, Taking Part: A Workshop Approach to Collective Creativity, “In a complex society such as ours which wishes to allow group differences to emerge, not submerge, we need to find ways for these groups to express themselves and be heard and valued. One of the major purposes of participation is to allow diversity to be expressed.”
On the other hand, although vegetables in a salad retain their individual flavors they taste better eaten together with a salad dressing. Working on the separate thrones, not only did they learn to appreciate their differences, the elders also realized how much they shared. The three different cultural groups continually engaged in dialogue with each other while working in one large studio, an opportunity that rarely exists in their everyday lives. African-American, Hispanic, and Jewish elders in their ethnically specific homes for the aged and senior centers seldom encounter each other. As they learned about each other’s cultures, they came to realize how much they shared a common set of values. They jointly selected a theme for Legacy Thrones from the biblical passage: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when we sit together” (Psalm 133).
All three groups of elders shared their commitments to living in freedom and to biblical values. Gaining freedom from slavery and freedom from tyrannical regimes shaped their reminiscences. Some women had heard first-hand stories of slavery on Southern plantations from their grandmothers. Others were survivors of the Holocaust. One survivor spoke about having to bite the umbilical cord of her child born in hiding in an underground pit. Cuban exiles talked about escaping the brutal oppression on the island they loved.
Although the African-Americans were Protestant Christians, the Hispanics Catholics, and the Jews Jewish, they all shared an appreciation for the freedom in America that they recognized as germinating from a common set of biblical values. The sculptured images they created showed their shared attachment to the Bible. A ceramic book with the relief words “Holy Bible” graces the African-American throne. All the African-Americans elders were members of a senior group at their church named Bethel, “House of God” in biblical Hebrew. The images and Hebrew letters on the Jewish throne are derived from the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, and Chronicles. And biblical figures shaped in clay create a spiritual presence on the Hispanic throne. In Mixed Blessings: New Art in Multicultural America, Lucy Lippard summarizes the postmodern values of Legacy Thrones: “I am interested in cultural dissimilarities and the light they shed on fundamental human similarities” as well as “art that combines pride in roots with an explorer’s view of the world as shared by others.”