On a misty fall morning, deep in the redwood forests of Mill Valley, more than two dozen Bay Area artists gather to play. A mix of writers, musicians, dancers, visual artists and multimedia creatives so diverse that many of them had never met, they converge with one common interest: their Jewish identity.
Santa Rosa writer and visual artist Christopher Reiger and San Francisco interdisciplinary artist Elisabeth Nicula lead a birdwatching stroll through the forest, acknowledging that this was originally Miwok land.
Marin graphic artist Sarah Rose Weitzman engages several others in making cyanotypes (sun prints) on photographic paper, leading to talk of ”things invisible made visible.” Meanwhile, East Bay spiritual leader Taya Mâ Shere, just back from a trip to Auschwitz, sits alone on a rock and plays a Middle Eastern instrument.
The 28 artists — some recognized, some up-and-coming — are together for the first Bay Area iteration of Asylum Arts, a N.Y.-based arts incubator that provides opportunities for Jewish artists to connect, explore and create new dimensions of Jewish culture.
Since its founding in 2007 by Rebecca Guber, Asylum Arts has organized 20 retreats, including five overseas and the one held Nov. 11-14 in Marin. Each gathering grows a network of Jewish artists who can count on one another’s support going forward. The artists are Jewish, but don’t necessarily do Jewish art.
“From the panel I participated in, which represented several different points of view, it was clear how valuable it was to bring Bay Area Jewish artists together to support and challenge one another,” said Heidi Rabben, senior curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. “Asylum Arts provided an opportunity for gathering, centering, sharing, listening and questioning, which is powerful for any community to experience.”
Co-sponsored by the CJM and the JCC East Bay, the four-day retreat was supported by grants from the Schusterman Family Foundation and the S.F.-based Walter and Elise Haas Fund.
Some of the workshops, such as one on writing grant proposals, were based on the common needs of most artists. Others came from the attendees’ skill sets and interests, such as: “How to Draw a New Yorker Cartoon,” “DIY Zines,” morning yoga (led by an Israeli performance artist) and how to develop a relationship with one’s audience.
“It was one of the more rich and positive retreats we’ve held in a long time,” Guber said afterward. “You never quite know what the chemistry will be when you bring a group of people together like this. Part of it was magic.”
I came away from it with a renewed sense that what I’m doing is worthwhile, and a deep knowing that there are so many ways to be a Jewish artist.
With the recent expansion into the East Bay of the N.Y.-based LABA (Laboratory for New Jewish Culture), it’s an enriching time in the local Jewish arts scene, though LABA is different in that its participants (a small cohort) meet regularly over nine months, use Jewish texts as a prompt and must create something.
“We don’t have those kind of outcome aims,” Guber said. “Where we overlap is that we both encourage Jewish artists to investigate their Jewish identity. LABA is a long, deep dive. What we’re doing is more of an interjection into their lives as artists.”
Bay Area writer, director and rapper Dan Wolf was recruited to help design the Bay Area retreat, in part because he had already participated in Asylum Arts retreats in New York and Warsaw.
Wolf said the gatherings enable an artistic “cross-pollination” of skills and ideas. Given that many contemporary Jewish artists self-define as secular, he said, the retreats allow them to reflect on their Jewish identity and how that may meaningfully find its way into their work.
“Some joked it was the most Jewish they’ve felt in their whole life,” Guber said of the Marin retreat. “They suddenly feel a sense of ownership about their Jewish identity. Certainly they get permission to embrace it.”
Rabbi Gray Myrseth, youth education director at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, brought a reading from the Babylonian Talmud to give the artists an experience of Midrashic thinking. Each was asked to relate a life experience as a story of continuity. Then, after everyone had spoken, they were asked to tell the same life story in a new light — as a tale of disruption.
Myrseth said this activity “tends to land well with people who have complicated relationships to Judaism,” adding that “with midrash, Judaism gives us a blueprint to see things dynamically, such that continuity and disruption can to some degree co-exist.”
Poet Jake Goldwasser, a linguist who works in Silicon Valley on issues of translation and artificial intelligence, said the retreat was a positive experience. “It was eye-opening to meet other people who have access to various Jewish traditions and to learn how they are mutating them, perpetuating them, rejecting them and complicating them,” he said in an email to J.
“I came away from it with a renewed sense that what I’m doing is worthwhile,” added Ava Rosen, an S.F.-based multidisciplinary artist, “and a deep knowing that there are so many ways to be a Jewish artist.”
Guber said that the plan now is to let the artists steep for a year or so to let them carry the creative energy forward, before having another local retreat. It’s a good bet that the Bay Area art scene will be the richer for it.