Putnam Valley, N.Y. — On a bright May afternoon on the grounds of an organic farm camp in this Hudson Valley town, a sculptor shaped branches found in the woods into letters of the Hebrew alphabet, while a singer-songwriter played guitar, inspired by the sounds of nature.
A performance artist read Torah in connection with an interpretive dance, and a composer focused on the connection between musical tones and the ripples on the lake.
These are just a sample of the creative responses of the first batch of artists-in-residence at Art Kibbutz NY to the environmental theme, “The Jewish Waltz with Planet Earth.”
Art Kibbutz NY was founded in 2010 by Patricia Eszter Margit, a charismatic impresario from Hungary, as the first international Jewish art colony. Margit’s long-term goal is to make Art Kibbutz into a residential retreat in the style of Yadoo or MacDowell, a place where artists — who happen to be Jewish — can work, learn and connect with colleagues. This month-long residency on the 248 acres of Eden Village Farm Camp is a test, a model of how Art Kibbutz can bring together Jewish artists in a variety of disciplines to engage in creative work and connection.
The extensive campgrounds serve as temporary home, studio and inspiration for the resident artists and visiting teaching professionals. For the artists, Margit noted, the experience “deepens their sense of personal purpose, contribution and Jewish identity.”
With the support of an advisory board of Jewish cultural organizations and initial funding from UJA-Federation of New York, Margit hopes this pilot program will lead to finding a permanent home for Art Kibbutz, with space for installations and exhibits, and opportunities for residencies throughout the year.
Through its website, Art Kibbutz serves as a hub for over 500 artist members and hosts events and performances with international participation, such as the Shofar Flash Mob, coordinated across 20 cities in August 2011. “The goal was to create an event which reflects the values of Art Kibbutz,” explained artist and event producer Shira Dicker, “something conceptually Jewish but original, creative, fun and democratic, involving public participation.”
There are, of course, other Jewish artist groups: Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Artists hosted the Asylum International Artist Retreat over a weekend in March, and LABA at the 14th Street Y offers a year-long “Beit Midrash for culture-makers.” Although there was an environmental theme to the May retreat, Margit’s focus is on giving artists space to work. She noted that, “gathering creative people together, collaborations just happen.” On Mother’s Day, the artists opened their studios — camp cabins — to share their work with visitors.
In keeping with the environmental theme, most of the artists worked with materials that were natural, organic and biodegradable. Along the camp’s paths, there were structures of sticks and leaves that resembled natural shelters or fairy houses, collages of grass and sand, and Hebrew letters assembled out of small stones. Deeper in the woods was the conceptual art project “Present with the Wind,” a collaborative work by Deborah Margo and Devorah Newmark, created during the first week of Art Kibbutz.
The temporary installation consists of 10 parchment membranes, sewn over branches. The flags serve as trail blazes or clues in a scavenger hunt, beckoning the viewer across bridges and paths, deeper into the forest. The simplicity of the materials belies their transformative power. The wind fills the parchment pockets, plumping them into sails or open shifting forms. In the afternoon sunlight, the squares appear golden, luminous. The artwork suggests, both physically and emotionally, the connection between heavens and earth, the engagement required of the viewer, who becomes a participant, leading to the metaphysical question: if the parchment flaps in the forest, is it art if no one sees it?
Many of the artists of this first residency season noted the connections to Torah in their work, to its layers of meaning. Nikki Green, an Australian print-maker, was at work on a series called “The Letters & The Land.” Each page contained an image of a Hebrew letter paired with an Australian indigenous plant. Some of the letters are hidden within the plant tendrils, others share a physical similarity or kabalistic interconnectedness. The textured paper of the books is infused with plant fibers and the pages when folded form a Star of David.
As intended, many artists had found inspiration in each other, creating collaborative and responsive pieces. With her studio neighbor Ashera Cinnamon, Green was working on a larger scale Hebrew letter project: a giant “shin” (10 feet across) shaped out of fallen tree limbs and branches. Cinnamon’s previous work had incorporated natural forms with Jewish themes. Working in Maine, she enjoyed using art to educate the non-Jewish communities about Jewish holidays and rituals, such as an award-winning sukkah. “Collaboration enhances my own work as an artist,” Cinammon noted. “Nikki had worked with letters, I had worked with branches, but we wanted to learn from each other.” Together, they planned to wrap the shin-shaped branches with grape vines and then set it afloat on the lake in a ceremonial procession.
Art Kibbutz includes writers, musicians and performers as well as fine artists. Kobi Arad, an Israeli contemporary music composer, described his artistic goal this way: “to pave the way to a deeper connection of music and art and religion, the way it was historically with the Levites at the temple.” Arad has a Ph.D. in contemporary musical improvisation and Third Stream (a cross between jazz and classical), but he is also a student of Jewish mysticism. For a residency performance, he created a system of musical tones matched to Hebrew letters, an auditory gematria.
Some art works will return to the cycle of the earth, while others will remain.
During the open day at Art Kibbutz, visitors were invited to share in the dedication ceremony of the permanent Passageway Gate created by ceramic artist Emmet Leader. The gate connects a grassy lawn to a planted vegetable and herb garden. The farmers had been planting fruit trees while the artists had been immersed in their own projects, but at this golden point in the afternoon, they all stood together, brimming with collective creative energy.
Eden Village founder Yoni Stadlin strummed a guitar and invited everyone to sing a niggun and to carry a stone through the gate and share a blessing. The gate itself was more of a portal — a permanent welcome banner — made of natural wood branches and ceramic. Visitors at first stood to the side observing, but it was impossible not to be drawn in to the singing, swaying welcome. Even a woman who later admitted she simply wanted to cross through the gate to the zip-line on the far side, felt the need to carry a stone across and make a statement of support.
Art Kibbutz is still seeking a permanent home, but the experience of creative engagement with the natural world, at least for a day, allowed everyone to be an artist.