Susan Weinberg   
 Studio 409





















The Jewish Artists' Lab





Year 4 - Echoes: Voices of Wisdom

The theme for 2015-2016 was one of my favorites and I knew early what my focus would be.  In the prior year my mother had died and I was now engaged in going through her home, disposing of years of memories. My mother was a wise woman who observed the world from a kind and gentle heart.

As I went through the house I was looking for traces of her essence.  What I found became the basis for my piece on wisdom.  In the lab we explored the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, a book that offers much wisdom.  I thought of the wisdom offered by the mothers which I think is equally powerful and often neglected.

Year 3 - Water

In 2014-15 our theme was Water.  We explored the teachings in Judaism of Bal Tashchit, which speaks to our obligation not to be wasteful lest we damage God's creation.  We examined the role of water both in Biblical times and today and our responsibility to preserve it.
My interest lay in a more metaphoric approach, the linkage of water and memory as reflected in our language.  As I was working on a series   related to the loss of memory, I explored the relationship between flooding and  remembering, creation and identity.  Unable to confine myself to just one painting I did a diptych titled Flood of Memories.





Year 1 - Text-Context-Subtext 

In 2013 I began to participate in the Jewish Artists’ Laboratory.  The Lab is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center (Sabes JCC). The first year explored the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through discussion and arts exercises.

A similar project was underway in Madison and Milwaukee, all funded by The Covenant Foundation. During the first year I wrote about them in my personal blog.

At the conclusion of the lab we had an exhibition at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery. My piece, also found in Dvora's Story, explored the story of a friend who is a survivor of the Holocaust.

As is typical of my work, my artwork embeds story.  A poem connected the story within the artwork to the text that we discussed.


Year 2 - Light

In year 2 we addressed a new theme, Light.  We also had a new project in addition to the final exhibition,  a sketchbook exchange across the three cities.   Each artist started a sketchbook on some topic related to light, then sent it on to another artist for their contribution. 

And one more addition...I was asked to serve as Resident Writer and maintain a dedicated  blog for the lab  on our discussions.  I also write about my own process in my personal blog, but from a more personal perspective.

I continued with the Holocaust stories of my friend Dvora, again incorporating poetry which spoke to both Holocaust experiences and loss of vision.  I then developed artwork around one of the poems.


The Story

My mother was the wisest person I knew. She was a searcher with a curiosity about the world, open to wisdom from many quarters, a teacher who carried her wisdom in a kind and gentle heart. When she died, I felt the world shift.  As I went through her home disposing of belongings, I realized I was looking for something of her essence.  I found it in a file titled Notes on Books Read.  

In it she had excerpts from books on many disciplines, science, history, novels and Jewish texts such as the Talmud, and the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. If something spoke to her she wrote it down and many excerpts related to finding meaning in life, facing fears and making good use of our time in this world.  We had often talked about books and as I perused this file I felt as if I was having one more of our many conversations.  

I used the apple as a metaphor for seeking wisdom starting with that first bite of the apple by Eve. I soon discovered that apples often were a metaphor for preparing for God’s law. Rabbinic literature talks of how the time from the first blossoming until the ripening of the fruit is fifty days, as was the time from the Exodus to the giving of the Law on Sinai. The title of the painting is drawn from a quote from Wally Lamb that I found in my mother’s file – “The evidence of God exists in the roundness of things.”

A book lies open over a branch, its pages swirling out into the world.   On its cover is the title Pirkei Imahot, Ethics of the Mothers. No such book exists in print. The wisdom of mothers is often passed down by example and as oral tradition. I believe it is one of the most powerful sources of wisdom.

Read more in my blog about the development of this piece.

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The Roundness of Things
24"x30" Mixed Media on Canvas

The Story

My inspiration for this diptych came from a quote by Toni Morrison. 

"You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places... Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was."

Water is often used as a metaphor for memory. We speak of waves and floods of memory. Of memories submerged or bubbling up.

n the beginning God's breath hovered over the water. Then God divides the water into sky and sea, then land from water. The creation of the world has to do with differentiation. A flood signifies a returning of water to land, a remembering of its origin. The sky offers its rains that roil the waters and overtake the land, joining firmament, ocean and land into its original whole.

This artwork examines the parallels between memory and flooding, identity and creation. My work on memory explores the persistence of identity that also develops out of differentiation, an echo of the creation story.   We are this, not that.  Even as memory flees, we continue to seek the familiar boundaries of our one-time identity just as does the river when it floods.

Faces became my symbol for identity.  You will note there are two faces hidden in the lower painting representing the returning to our original boundaries of identity.  The painting above created a face carved out of land floating in a sea of memories.

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Flood of Memories
48" x 30" Mixed Media on Canvas



The Story

 My friend noted that during the Holocaust, darkness often represented safety whereas light meant exposure and danger.  She recalled the smoke from the crematorium and how it spit fire into the night sky, tingeing it red. I pictured this as thick and as heavy as the plague of darkness.  By contrast she recalled a different moment when they arrived at a camp.  It was the eve of her 21st birthday when they stepped from a boxcar into a pine forest.  She recalled the midnight blue of the night sky studded with stars and the trees dusted with snow.  That vision of beauty represented hope in a world which offered little.

I refer to the aleph of one's face in the poetry. In the painting I use the aleph to represent stars and sparks of souls escaping.  In the lab we learned of how Rabbi Naftali Horowitz looked to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and noted that it echoes the form of our face. If we disassemble it we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face, a divine light surrounding each of us.

On the Eve of Your 21st Birthday

Light was often your enemy,
Furnaces spewed fire
In the night
As souls escaped
In final release.
Darkness your friend.
You flattened yourself
against the wall
of the darkened stairwell
Safe from the probing tongues of bayonets.
And sometimes hope emerged
Hidden in the guise of darkness.
On the eve of your twenty-first birthday
You stepped from a boxcar,
A sky of midnight blue,
Stars shining against its darkness,
Evergreens dusted with snow
Bent to bestow their blessing.

More poetry

In the Guise of Darkness
24" x 48" Acrylic on canvas

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by Susan Weinberg


A message almost missed,
Hidden neath the weight of the insignificant
Lay my muse.
Ah, but fate persists,
A second try from closer quarter
And gratefully, we connect.
An odd connection this,
A familiar persistence
and energy,
I recognize myself in different guise.
Eighty-five years ago
our families greeted,
 in the cold crisp morning
Of our ancestral town.
Now full circle
We greet each other
A blessing of fate.

The Aleph of Your Mother's Face

I had known you six months
when we returned
to the Polish streets
of your childhood.
Your inner eye
charted our course.
Unerringly you guided us
Around the town you left
Seventy years before.
It was there
Your vision of your life
Not sure if there was even life to vision,
As German soldiers
Took your town.
You never looked them in the face,
Like a child you looked away
Hoping to hide from their view.

Through those darkest of times,
A light shone.
Through the aleph
of your mother's face,
You found hope.
She held
an unwavering vision
of you,
Your face,
Always before her,
A persistent flame of hope.
Her child would survive.
You sustained her
And she you.
each other's light
From those
who would douse it.

After the war,
A once warm community
Return impossible,
And so
a revision,
A life re-imagined.
In a new country
Brother, father, husband
Gather round the kitchen table,
Planning a future.
So much more than many,
Yet so many lost.
Ten cousins
 for whom you now speak.
A life re-imagined
A new vision
Built on memories and hope.

Surprising Sight

Shrouded in darkness,
Never seeing what lies in front,
The aleph of a face
Closed to you.
You find your light elsewhere,
That of an enlightened mind
Burning brightly.
No mere flicker,
It is an insistent flame.
You are forced to find your sight
in the peripheral,
The sideways glance,
Surprising unsuspecting Sight.
Often surprising me, as well.
You can use those? you ask,
As I grasp the chopsticks.
You can see those?
 I reply.

What do you see? I ask.
What does it look like?
Squint until you can barely see.
I close my eyes,
eyelashes flutter.
Graying the world into flickers
Like an old celluloid film.
Can you see my face?
No, I have never seen your face.
I move to your side.
Now, can you see me?
Not clearly,
And yet,
you see me better than most,
who I am,
You recognize
the core of me.

Thirty years ago you knew that
Sight was fleeting,
A gradual loss,
Each year worse
Than the one before.
The year you stopped driving,
A watershed.
An independent woman
In need of others.
You despaired,
Unable to re-imagine
yet one more time,
Chaffing at the losses.
Sight the first but so pervasive.
How does one live when your world changes
in every conceivable way.
Where is the light
when there is only darkness?

But after despair came light,
A new vision
Of life without vision.
Your inner light burns brightly,
A tape player
 like a cornerstone
On which you build this new edifice.
Reading regained
Through ears, not eyes.
You take it all in,
Stoking your light
Til it roars like a furnace,
Talmud by telephone,
Translation by magnification
Embraced by family
And friends,
to your light.

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                                                                         We Walk Together
                                                                         Acrylic on Canvas
                                                                               30" x 24"

The Story

In the Artists' Lab we talked of the Binding of Isaac and found little resolution in this story where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his child.  We talked of the negative space, the sparseness of the story that offers little as to the emotional state of our protagonists.  That space allows each of us to project our emotion from our own experience, everyone once a child, perhaps a parent.
The following week I got together with my friend  who is a survivor of the Shoah and has told me many of her stories of that time.  We had talked of me painting some of her stories and she reminded me of that  discussion.  I began to paint one of the most vivid of her stories, the death march from Auschwitz towards Bergen-Belsen, a march that she did with her mother who was by her side throughout the war and in the camps.

They were given three things at the outset, a blanket, a can with a picture of a chicken and bread.  The cans soon littered the road as they had no way to open them.  The blankets hung like nooses around their necks. If you sat down to rest, you received a bullet in the back of the head. After two ten hour days of walking, Dvora asked a guard when they were going to stop.  He motioned to a village ahead.  When they continued forward after reaching the village, Dvora exhausted, prepared to sit down despite the consequence. 

Her mother tried to dissuade her unsuccessfully and finally responded, "All right, we'll sit down together" to which Dvora replied, "Not you!!"   In that moment came the realization that their lives were bound together and they continued on.

As I painted, I realized the many parallels with the story we had discussed in the Lab.  Each contains a parent-child
relationship, a journey, the threat of impending death, a sacrifice proposed, but not enacted and three things which they carried.  I found myself thinking of the Binding of Isaac as representing the inextricable  bond between a parent and child.

Perhaps I have merely recast a story which is difficult to understand into one which while still one of high drama, is more comprehensible.  Or perhaps one story sheds light on aspects of the other in a more metaphorical sense, to sacrifice one is in fact to sacrifice the other, to give oneself fully, for Abraham and Isaac as well as for Dvora and her mother.

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The Poem

The accompanying poem began with a series of questions to my friend Dvora.  What was the weather  like?
Where did you sleep? What did you feel?  I began to craft the story from her responses and then refined it into
 an alternating and often parallel structure between Isaac and Abraham and Dvora and her mother told in the
voices of Isaac and Dvora. When juxtaposed, the two stories present different views of sacrifice and the bond
between a parent and child

We Walk Together
by Susan Weinberg

We walk together,                    
My mother and I.
We always walked together,
In the labor camp,
In Auschwitz,
Always my mother by my side,
My protector,
My sustenance
And I, hers.

We walk together.                  
My father and I,
I the child of his old age,
I know his love well.
But now his heart seems heavy.
Silence drapes us.
Mt Moriah, our destination.
Three things we carry,
The wood,
 the flint
and the knife.

We left Auschwitz yesterday.
They gave us three things,
A blanket,
A can
with a picture of a chicken,
And bread.
Cans soon littered the road,
A cruel joke,
Contents locked within
With no means to escape,
The blanket, a noose around the neck,
First on one shoulder, then the other.
To falter or pause is deadly,
Greeted by a bullet
in the back of the head.
Soon bodies litter the road.
We hold the bread tightly,
Grasping life,
A slim chance of survival
amongst a world of death.

We walk together,
My father and I,
To the foot of the mountain.
Wait for us he says
To our two men.
We will go to pray
And return to you.
A man of faith my father,
A man of faith.

We walk together
My mother and I,
A day we walked,
for ten hours.
At night we slept in a barn.
Our heads rested on our wet shoes
Lest they disappear in the night.
Sharing a blanket between us,
As snow coated the ground
And cold froze our limbs.
Today we walk again.
Now dusk settles over our tracks
And exhaustion weighs heavy.

(continued in next column)



My father binds me

And places me on the wood.
My father
who always protects me from harm.
He looks at me tenderly
And I see his hand tremble
As he lifts the knife.
And his eyes inquire to the heavens

I venture to ask
When will we stop?
The guard motions ahead
The lights of a village beckon,
Relief as the distance closes.
But Anguish seizes me
as we continue past
"He lied to me", I cry out.
All my weariness descends
in that moment of betrayal
"I want to sit down
I want to sit down"
A bullet unseen
This misery ended
I hold that thought in my hands
And my grasp on life loosens.

They try to dissuade me
My mother and the women
They still cling to life
Even now, even now
"I want to sit down,
 I want to sit down"
 Quietly my mother replies,
"All right,
 We'll sit down together."
'Not you", I cry,
Even as I say the words
I know the impossibility

He releases me to life
My father.
Rubs my wrists
between his large hands

Until feeling returns,
Takes a ram caught in the thicket
And makes a sacrifice to God.

She releases me to life
My mother
In sacrifice proposed
She nurtures life
Gives me strength and
Warms me with her love
Always by my side.

And we walk on together
Bound together
Inextricably bound
we walk on together.


Blog Links on the Lab

For the first year I wrote about the lab in my personal blog and the links are noted below.
Part way through the 2nd year, I was asked to write a dedicated blog which can be found at Creative Connections

Year 1- Personal Blog
Seeing Through Fresh Eyes
Painting Time
Breathing Deeply
Negative Space
They Walked Together
Essence and Absence
All Beginnings are Hard
Historical Truth vs. Artistic License
Teetering on Finished
A Curious Artist
Something Worth Sharing
Criticism Without the Ouch

Year 2- Personal Blog
The Inner Eye
A Matter of Vision
Under Construction
Exploring One Possibility
To Do
A Flash of Light
In the Guise of Darkness
The Sideways Glance
Openings and Closings



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