Fallen and dying leaves, bare trees, wispy blades of grass — these humble objects are the focus of a new exhibit at the Jewish Community Library that aims to emphasize the impermanent nature of life.
In one piece, the lens focuses on a single dying fern perfectly framed in a crack in the pavement. Photographer Sonia Melnikova-Raich titled the image “Homage to Andy Goldsworthy,” a British artist who uses natural material to make site-specific outdoor sculptures.
“He likes the unexpected things that nature arranges for us,” Melnikova-Raich said. She photographed the leaf, for instance, almost the way she found it. “The leaf was already there, creating an amazingly perfect composition, but I adjusted it just a bit,” she said.
Her show, “Haiku and Prayers: Where Japanese and Jewish Converge,” brings together a range of cultural influences that have shaped the worldview of the Russian American artist. Her spare compositions and natural subjects are influenced by the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which emphasizes the impermanent nature of life. as well as Goldsworthy. The photos are paired with thought-provoking texts, such as quotations from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, excerpts from siddurim or haikus written by Melnikova-Raich.
“Haiku captures the feeling of how we are in the moment, like photography,” she explained.
Being in the moment — and being aware that each moment is temporary — is a concept that has captivated Melnikova-Raich for decades. She began her career as an architect in Russia, where she also worked as an English translator. After moving to San Francisco in 1987, she continued working as a translator, while also doing interior design and painting.
Starting a new life in a new country was practice in the art of letting go, she said. “When you immigrate, you can bring very little with you.”
Melnikova-Raich became interested in Japanese art and particularly the philosophy of wabi sabi, which is rooted in an ancient Japanese saying: “Nothing is permanent, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.” She has aimed to capture that aesthetic in this series of more than 24 photos.
By nature, said Melnikova-Raich, photographs capture fleeting moments that will never happen again.
“It’s a little bit of a contradiction … because photography keeps it that way. But nevertheless I photographed things that would disappear otherwise,” she said.
Her photo “O-SAME-RU” was taken during a trip to Japan in 2010. It shows fallen leaves that have settled into a carving of Japanese kanji script on the ground. Melnikova-Raich learned that the word itself (pronounced o-same-ru), can have many translations, including “rule,” “gain,” “heal” or “accept.” The photo is accompanied by a haiku: “kanji words in stone/many ways to translate them/still undecided.”
A member of Congregation Emanu-El for 20 years, Melnikova-Raich said she sees reflections of the philosophy of wabi sabi in the Jewish liturgy read in services. She uses a verse from the poem “Lamdeini Elohai” by Israeli poet Leah Goldberg (excerpted in the Reform siddur Mishkan T’filah), to accompany a series of seven photos called “The Mystery of a Withered Leaf.” It reads: “Teach me, O God, a blessing, a prayer/on the mystery of a withered leaf …”
Like Goldsworthy, Melnikova-Raich approaches her subjects as a collaboration between her and nature.
“[Goldsworthy] made things of ice and snow that obviously wouldn’t survive. This was a striking notion for me: Let go, relax,” she said. “You don’t have to keep it forever because we are not here forever.”
“Haiku and Prayers: Where Japanese and Jewish Converge,” through Dec. 11, Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. A reception with the artist will be held 7-8:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at the library.