I asked a local artist to meet with me today and help me think through what I’m trying to do. It can help to get someone else’s eyes on the problem. I had been starting to feel like I have a mish-mash of symbols and am trying to squeeze them all into one papercut. They were happy to meet with me, and it gave me an opportunity to describe from the beginning what I was trying to do and what ideas I’d considered. Because the artist isn’t Jewish and doesn’t know much about Judaism, I also was forced to explain things that I might have otherwise simply been taken for granted. Even though the papercut I hope to create is aimed at a Jewish audience, this is still a valuable exercise in fully thinking through what I’m doing.
Ultimately, even though no immediate solutions came from this meeting, it was still an helpful experience. Some of the directions I’d considered are now fully gone, after having been more closely examined, and the other artist gave me some other directions to put into the hopper to consider, including: finding away to connect the stripes on a tallit with the stripes of prison bars and the stripes of the old prison uniform; putting the numbers from the back of a prison uniform onto the back of a tallit.
Now that it’s the middle of December and I still don’t have a solid design idea, I’m feeling pretty stressed out about this art piece! And I’m about to leave for a two-week trip with family. Maybe I can think more about this on the trip. Plus, one family member is also an artist, one who often focuses on minimalism, or distilling ideas down to their most pure essence. Perhaps some discussion with him will also help
The topic that I’m drawn to for creating this piece is gigantic, huge, overwhelming and too much to put in a single papercut. I can’t call out racism and injustice in policing, arrests, bail, judges, sentencing, prison, post-prison and everything in between all in one papercut. I am trying to focus down. Maybe just big-picture on Injustice In the Justice System. Maybe just on ending mass incarceration. Maybe just on racism in the justice system in general.
But I also want to keep in mind the message I want to convey. I’m not making a papercut simply calling attention to these problems; I want to make a statement about Jewish responsibility for reforming the system. Like cutting the letters of Black Lives Matter out of a tallit.
Do I use prison bars? Tie them to a court building, maybe. Have a Jewish symbol – a tallit again, or a book – prying open the bars. Maybe I can use doves for the incarcerated, or doves as the Jewish symbol, or doves for both. I don’t want to try to represent the incarcerated by using human figures; that’s generally not my style, and it would be problematic if I then try to imply the race of the figures in their shape.
The Yiddish prayer mentions shackles. I like this idea because not only does it give me more artistic flexibility than prison bars, but shackles also evoke slavery, which in many ways the American justice system is an extension of our never-fully-eradicated slavery system.
Noam suggested I could have a torah in shackles, referencing something Heschel said about how if a Jew doesn’t work actively to live torah and improve the world, they can’t fully access torah in shul; torah is locked away from you if you aren’t doing justice in the world.
And I want this papercut to challenge the viewer. That’s difficult to fit in.
In my research for existing resources on Jewish approaches to fighting injustice in the justice system, I’ve found a wealth of items.
Some that struck me:
One thing I’m realizing is that I need to focus down a lot more. As the Tru’ah handbook points out, there are three large areas of criminal justice reform – policing/targeting/sentences (i.e. before prison), the experiences of people in prison, and the impact on people after prison. Aryeh Bernstein’s talk focuses on police brutality, on the importance of choosing just judges, and Michael Rothbaum’s d’var torah is about how we think about and talk about people in Black communities with regards to crime.
These issues are feeling too big for just one papercut, especially given my artistic tendency towards minimalism and simplicity and distillation. Feeling a bit overwhelmed.
Since David Harris commissioned me to make a new papercut focused on contemporary issues, I’ve been thinking about what I might want to focus on, but it really didn’t take long for me to narrow it down somewhat.
Over the past few years, I’ve been listening to a lot and reading a lot about the criminal justice system and have been becoming (belatedly, some could reasonably argue) increasingly angered by the injustice, racism and white supremacy upon which it all functions. All white people should feel a sense of obligation to improve this system; its not simply deeply flawed, but is actually constructed out of white supremacist bricks. (White Fragility) Jews of a particular responsibility to call out and fight these injustices. Particularly because not only have we been there and experienced this same thing at so many times over the centuries, but also our tradition tells us that it’s our responsibility.
I plan to start out by looking for texts that express this call to arms strongly and that tie these experiences to our own in the past and in text, so that people can’t make the excuse that it’s happening to other people who are unlike us, who don’t deserve our attention. Are we not obligated to protect and care for the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt? Also we have experienced this same prejudice, racism, and injustice in this very country.
Noam pointed out a text to me, a yiddish tehineh, a women’s personal prayer book, with a prayer explicitly about freeing people from imprisonment, and it names Joseph, flung into the pit by his brothers. I have never used Yiddish in a papercut before, and I like the idea of doing so.
David Harris of Rimon has invited me to participate in an artist’s salon in February of next year! He’ll find an interlocutor – someone to have a live unscripted conversation with me in front of the audience. We’ll talk about my work, maybe show some slides. He has also commissioned me to create a new papercut. He’s leaving me free to decide what to do with this commission; he only suggested that it address contemporary issues of justice. He was particularly intrigued by the Black Lives Matter wrapper in a tallit papercut as a piece that uses a traditional Jewish art form, and Jewish symbols and text, but is about a current justice issue.
Starting to think….
The Words @ Work exhibit at the Sabes JCC has been a great success! In addition to attending the opening, I have gone a few additional times to discuss the artwork – twice with friends, and once to talk to an 8th grade class. It’s been wonderful! Some photos from the opening and of the artwork are below.
I still need to find time to add all of the new work to this website. In the meantime, (more…)
My piece Lo Alecha was featured in a JewSchool article:
Tu Bishvat & #TorahForTheResistance: Taking Our Trees With Us
All the papercuts that are going into the Words @ Work exhibit are fully framed and ready to be transported! Well, almost all. I’m still working on the last one, which I actually won’t finish until the day of the opening reception, in front of your very eyes!
Late last year, I collected all of the proceeds from sales of the “Black Lives Matter wrapped in a tallit” poster, added an additional donation of my own, and sent it off to Ujamaa Place, a local organization that actively works to improve the lives of Black men. I also sent them their own copy of the poster.
I received a wonderful thank-you letter from them that also describes the important work that they do. Thank you to everyone who bought a poster for spreading the message and for helping me to send support to this wonderful organization.
My work will be in a special exhibit, in various location, from February through May 2017. This exhibit features three artists all doing work with Hebrew words and letters.
The opening reception is on Thursday 2/16. All three artists will be there, and we’ll all finish one of the pieces for the show right in front of your eyes!
Here’s the FB Event, but you don’t have to RSVP – just show up!
This papercut was commissioned by an synagogue that wanted to send a thank you to its Kitchen Master when she moved away. She deserved a lot of thanks for her role at the synagogue!
This papercut is based on a photo of a Wedding cake that Nataliya made relatively recently. A beautiful cake! Learn more about the piece here »
This piece was commissioned to celebrate the year 2012, when significant events happened for nearly everyone in extended family of the person who commissioned it.
This piece was commissioned by HG as a gift for a couple she married. Read more »
I’ve been invited to teach a short class on papercutting at the JCC!
It will be announced in the next JCC Newsletter as follows:
Thursday, April 18th at 7pm
Celebrate Israel’s 65th birthday with a creation of your own. Learn the basics of the art of Jewish papercutting and make a “mizrach.” A “mizrach” is an ornamental picture hung on the east wall of a house or synagogue in the direction of Jerusalem towards which Jews face when praying. Use traditional symbols like hamsas, deers, lions, Hebrew letters, the tree of life or design something totally contemporary and new.
Materials fee: $15, payable to the instructor that evening.
Contact me if you have any questions about the class.
The on this piece reads: “Ma Gadlu MaAseh Adonoi, Meod AmKu MaHoshVotecha”, meaning “How vast are your works Adonoi, Your designs are beyond our grasp” and it is from the Psalm for Shabbat. It was a commission from a long long-time family friend for her husband on an important birthday.