Repairing the world, one artwork at a time

Susanne Okamoto with her wood-and-watercolor "Genesis Altarpiece" in the show.
Susanne Okamoto with her wood-and-watercolor "Genesis Altarpiece" in the show. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 25, 2013

Debra Kapnek uses acrylic paint to capture images of people the world might forget: children in Darfur, Holocaust survivors. Michelle Angela Ortiz creates murals that depict a community's heartbreaks and its hopes. Ellie Seif's photographs chronicle the transformation of decrepit houses into rehabbed homes.

For these artists, their work means more than making a pretty picture; it's a tool to change the world.

Their collective vision - along with that of 13 other painters, photographers, sculptors, printmakers, and a musician - is on display at the Temple Judea Museum at Keneseth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Elkins Park. The exhibition is open through June 23 and includes a panel discussion and reception this Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m.

The show includes work from Philadelphia's pantheon of artist/activists: Mural Arts Program director Jane Golden, mosaic visionary Isaiah Zagar, and Village of Arts and Humanities founder Lily Yeh.

Some, like Yeh, work far afield; she returned this month from a village in Rwanda, where she helped design a memorial for the victims and survivors of genocide. Other artists are locally rooted, creating pockets of art and community in Abington, Germantown, or South Philadelphia.

All embrace the show's title, "Art as Tikkun Olam," a Hebrew phrase that means "repair of the world."

The concept comes from Jewish mysticism, explains Keneseth Israel's senior rabbi, Lance Sussman. "It's based on a theory that when the world was created, there were these broken sparks of light. To bring about redemption, one has to collect the broken sparks."

While Judaism typically draws sustenance from words, Sussman believes images are equally potent. The artists in the show, he says, "don't do art for beauty's sake alone, but to say: There's hunger around the corner, there's violence around the corner, and what can we do to wake people up?"

For Joan Myerson Shrager and Paula Mandel, members of Keneseth Israel and cocurators of the exhibition, that wake-up began early, in families that stressed creativity and activism. Mandel recalls putting on a backyard carnival with her brother for charity.

As artists - Shrager is a digital artist and Mandel sculpts with glass - the two engage in their own version of tikkun olam, working with Germantown teens to make stained-glass windows that have become gifts to schools across the world.

"We wanted to honor artists who go beyond their own studios to bring art to the greater community and to the world," Shrager says.

They invited both the rock stars of the Philadelphia public art scene and lesser-known artists whose work they found equally vital. That is how Seif, a former public school principal, ended up exhibiting a black-and-white photograph of four young women on a subway, each absorbed in her own private world.

Seif retired in 2003; since then, she has devoted herself to photography. She makes note cards from her photographs and sells them to raise money for the Picasso Project, which provides grants to art-starved Philadelphia public schools.

Seif also volunteers to take photographs for Habitat for Humanity; she documents the months-long process of rehabbing a house, then captures the moment when a family, after hours of "sweat equity," finally receives the keys.

"Every time I do that, I cry," she says. "One woman held up the keys and said, 'I have never owned anything before.' I have a real sense of pride that I can use this photography, which I love doing, to nurture something else."

For Susanne Okamoto, whose wood-and-watercolor "Genesis Altarpiece" hangs in the show, art as tikkun olam happens one person at a time. Okamoto has taught community art classes to adults in Abington for 25 years.

Her students "come with the problems of their lives," she says. "A sick husband, a bout with breast cancer, a son who committed suicide. For 2½ hours, they can lose themselves in art. There's a kind of healing that goes on."

Others work on a grand scale, using art to foster difficult conversations in neighborhoods, make political statements, or transform a desolate landscape into one vibrant with color.

The Mural Arts Program has created more than 3,000 works of art in the city, but Philadelphians rarely see director Jane Golden's own brushstrokes. Her piece in the show is a silk-screen of the first mural she painted, in 1976, in Santa Monica, Calif., capturing the life of a now-dismantled pier.

"I didn't really understand the power of public art until I stood on that street corner in Santa Monica and talked to strangers," Golden said. "It made me realize how important it is to have a space in a city where people's histories are reflected."

Ortiz, also a mural artist, believes people often misunderstand "community art - they think it's going to be rainbows and birds, that everything's going to be nice and pretty and hopeful."

Instead, in the show, they will see photographs of a 180-foot mural Ortiz created in Juarez, a town on the Mexican border, after a devastating 2006 flood. The mural includes images of water swallowing houses, a row of memorial crosses, a child's outstretched arms. Poems by community members became part of the mural; one reads, "I collect the silence of the city in the humid, bloody rivers."

Rita Poley, director of the Temple Judea Museum, said she hopes visitors "will be uplifted and inspired to bring tikkun olam into their own lives. There are so many ways to bring healing into the world."

As people enter the lobby, they will immediately glimpse two of those ways. To the right hangs an acrylic painting of two children fleeing a burning village in Darfur; the older girl, perhaps 9 or 10, carries a barefoot toddler on her back.

"It's hard to look at a photograph of a child who's starving, whose parents have been killed, and not respond," says artist Kapnek. "Art was the only thing I had to offer."

And to the left is the work of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, who has put his mark on more than 125 walls, alleyways, and buildings in Philadelphia. There are the tools of his trade - a triangle of mirror, a chunk of pottery, a rough rectangle of crimson glass. Above are two stand-alone mosaics, one of a man and one of a woman, brokenness fused into a whole.

comments powered by Disqus