Judaism is not the only religion that subscribes to the doctrine of “do unto others.” Artist Beth Grossman was perplexed to discover that at least 21 of the world’s other faith traditions have a version of the Golden Rule in their sacred texts.
“I thought, wow, that’s interesting,” Grossman told J. from her home studio in Brisbane, south of S.F. “So if everybody has the same intention, and we all say we want it, why is the world in such a mess?”
As a self-described “sociopolitical artist,” Grossman didn’t presume to answer the question herself. Her response was to create a series of text-based graphics drawn from this basic tenet of human civilization. Titled “All the rest is commentary…,” the nine, large-format panels play with the language of the Golden Rule in various traditions while highlighting its universality.
She printed the graphics on white linen tablecloths, symbolic of “inviting people to the table,” she said. First installed at the Manhattan JCC in 2010, “I created a space for dialogue to happen.”
So when Grossman was invited to participate in a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum around the theme of tikkun, or repair, she didn’t hesitate to submit this work. “I thought it deeply connected to the idea of tikkun,” she said.
Over a decade after she created the artwork, “I’ve been thinking a lot about how much we all want to heal, to leave the world a better place for the next generation,” she said. “What I’m hoping when I make art is that viewers will ask themselves, what am I really doing here? Am I just performing tikkun? Or can I turn it into something that is real? People need to have that personal moment first. Then we can have conversations about it.”
The CJM’s yearlong exhibition “Tikkun: For the Cosmos, the Community, and Ourselves,” opening Feb. 17, invited contemporary Bay Area artists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to reflect on the Hebrew word for repair or healing through their own lens and practices.
“Tikkun is timely — always was and always will be,” said co-curator Arianne Gelardin. “It is a concept that offers a very meaningful starting point for exploring our current moment, when recent social movements have raised awareness that the need for society to change is urgent.”
For the first time since the inception of its Dorothy Saxe Invitational in 2009, the museum did not put out a call for artists. Instead, Gelardin and co-curator Qianjin Montoya went in search of artists whose work seemed to speak to the theme.
“Rather than judging the direct relevance of the work, we were looking for artists already engaged in healing through their relationship to community or in their practice of daily life,” Gelardin said.
“The more we researched, the more we found artists working in this vein,” said Montoya. “We were heartened to learn about the ways different artists were responding to the pandemic, how they were getting through the latest news cycle, how they saw the work of resistance or repair, or how they restore and revitalize themselves to keep on with the work.”
The 30 artists selected for the show — “not a definitive list of all the artists in the Bay Area who are doing this,” Gelardin stressed — represent a wide spectrum of ages, genders, ethnicities and artistic mediums.
Grossman is one participant who has contributed numerous times to the invitational, which every few years allows the CJM to curate an exhibit around a major Jewish theme, concept or, in the earlier iterations, Jewish ritual object.
For some of the participating artists, both the CJM and the exposure to Jewish thought are new.
I don’t repair. I accept. If something is broken, it’s broken — and it’s still beautiful.
San Francisco sculptor Ramekon O’Arwisters, originally from North Carolina, said he was honored to contribute to the show. His works are formed from broken ceramic vessels and shards of pottery that he ingeniously wraps with colored yarn, ribbons and shreds of different fabrics.
“I wanted to understand this Jewish word for repair and healing,” he said in an interview. “I told the CJM, I don’t repair. I accept. If something is broken, it’s broken — and it’s still beautiful. Metaphorically, we all feel broken, but we don’t want to be thrown away.”
His is a perspective formed as a “queer, Black youth in the Jim Crow South,” he said, where he turned to art as a way of “keeping out of trouble.” Those hours he spent at home painting and drawing also brought him close to his grandmother, who he said understood and accepted him. She was a quilter, known for her brightly colored, original patterns.
“There was animosity in the world at large, but these colorful quilts helped us to feel some happiness at home,” he said.
O’Arwisters brought his grandmother’s quilt to college at the University of North Carolina and, later, to Duke University Divinity School. His graduate studies took him to Israel for a monthlong archaeological dig, where the discovery of pottery fragments from Jewish and other ancient Mideastern cultures changed his point of view about religion and awakened an interest in the ceramic arts.
“The idea of ‘reading pottery’ was powerful,” he said. “I don’t doubt that within the mix of who I am now, learning about the importance of artifacts was important, even if they are just broken shards.”
After divinity school, a five-year sojourn in Japan introduced him to the art of kintsugi, in which shattered ceramics are made whole again, repaired with adhesive and gold leaf paint. (Another participating artist, San Francisco sculptor Gay Outlaw, uses this technique as a literal expression of repair in her piece for the show.)
Today, O’Arwisters obtains his shards — broken or rejected pottery — from the ceramics program at Cal State Long Beach. He has made about 50 of these textile-wrapped pieces so far.
“The idea of brokenness in the materials is authentic to who I am,” he told J. “I think of my sculptures as a stand-in for me: a Black body in a world of racism and homophobia. But I’m not going away. I have to accept myself for who I am. We have to find ways to have joy and pass it on to one another and to our children. We have to support the next generation and confront the world with happiness. I am excited to see how other artists interpret the theme.”
Several of the other artists also work in the medium of textile. Gelardin noted that textile art provides “one of the more straightforward metaphors for tikkun, in that individual fibers are woven to create the strength of the whole.”
El Cerrito artist Terri Friedman teaches sculpture at the California College of the Arts, and began to experiment with weaving some seven years ago. Today, she is known for large-format wall hangings that often contain conceptual words. She will show three tapestries in the exhibit, titled “Exhale,” “You don’t get to know…” and the just-completed “Oh, that’s why!”
“‘You don’t get to know…’ is about feeling uncertainty about the future even though we have to keep on living as if everything was fine,” Friedman said. “Exhale” came out of the Biden election. These two are in a shocking pink-and-black color scheme. The last, a vibrantly multicolored work that includes the word “Aha!” expresses Friedman’s feeling about “that moment when you realize things are so bad that you have to do something about it. You don’t have a choice. And that insight leads to action.
“For me, weaving has been medicine,” Friedman said. “I feel we have to repair ourselves — that’s where it starts. This does not preclude repairing the outside world through collective action. But I feel that cultivating elevated states and happy hormones is a political and personal weapon against indulging in despair.”
Friedman’s perspective has been formed by a longtime practice of Jewish meditation with Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man in Los Angeles, and of Buddhist meditation with the late Thich Naht Hahn in France. “I think that was the foundation of my interest in tikkun,” she said.
But she remains troubled by the dichotomy of art and action.
“I struggle with this a lot. I sometimes think, well if you really want to make change, go work on voting issues. Do something concrete. I wonder whether art can have that effect on people. But I do know that I want to bring joy into people’s lives. I want the work to be joyful and optimistic, but also to reflect what’s broken. Maybe that’s my mission, to keep adding more joy and color into the world.”
It’s the timeless question: How much social impact can art have? The curators hope the exhibit can offer the community some sparks of insight and grounding guidance for these concerning times.
That’s something O’Arwisters seeks to do through his work.
“The pandemic, the political and social upheavals we’re living through — we have to fight for rights we thought were already won, issues that are supposedly resolved,” he said. “Society is constantly being broken and needing repair all over again. It’s a permanent human condition. The only question is, how are we going to respond?”