I Talk to Strangers, One Smile at a Time

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In spite of my optimism two years ago, when I first published “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” the news has not been so good. Violence, against humanity and our planet, is on the rise. Evil seems to be seeping from our leaders, corporations, and predators, staining  what is left of our collective moral fiber.  I reflect often upon my favorite Akira Kurosawa quote, “It is better to be mad in a sane world, than sane in a mad world,” though it offers only minor solace.

However,  I continue to wear my smiley face handbag, with the same results I described in that early post.  And, I see the direct, positive impact it has on others.  I’ve decided it’s time to recognize the treasured, yet fleeting, interactions I have with others, and chronicle them through my new instagram project  @onesmileyfaceatatime. Now, when a someone spots my handbag, and greets me with a hearty, “I love your bag, ” or simply starts laughing, my new practice is to stop, chat for a moment, and give them a smiley button as a souvenir of our encounter.  With permission, I photograph my new pals and post the pictures. It’s my Johnny Appleseed approach to making the world a better place, planting one smile at a time.

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                                     You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

first published  August 19, 2017


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I happened upon an article in The Times of Israel chronicling the recent discovery of “history’s oldest smiley face,” After 7 grueling years of excavations near the Turkish border of war-torn Syria, the site of a famous biblical battle, archeologists uncovered a 4,000 year-old pot featuring the classic, stylized representation of a smiling face, comprised of the black dots and arc reminiscent of Harvey Ball’s 1963 design. Commissioned by an insurance company as part of a campaign to bolster the morale of its employees, the smiley face quickly became part of popular culture.  It is central to today’s text-based cyber-communication, conveying tone and emotion through facial gestures in the short-hand language of emoticons.

Reading of the  survival and re-emergence of this smile from 1700 BCE has filled me with a sense of hope.  It also resonates with my choice of handbag.

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When I rediscovered a treasured smiley face purse from childhood last year, I knew it was just the right accessory for me to sport once again.  The election year had quickly escalated from strange to disturbing,  and I felt the need for just such a bright spot.  I have worn this bag in the subsequent 6 surreal months. My sartorial decision has had more impact than I could have imagined.

On a regular basis, people stop me on the street, honk and wave at me from their cars, approach me in stores, symphony halls and on public transportation, grinning, laughing and warmly letting me know how much they love my handbag. The day after the violence in Charlottesville,  a somewhat dour woman eyeing me on the subway suddenly, earnestly, thanked me for wearing the bag, “especially during these times.” I found myself responding, “It helps, doesn’t it?”

What I’d thought was my private, playful fashion statement seems to be providing a much-needed public service.  In troubled times, there is solace in discovering that each of us can be ambassadors of goodwill, even with a simple smile.

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L’Shana Tova 5779: Come As You Are

East Side Bus Tunnel, Providence, Rhode Island, 2018

The series of sounds of the shofar, helps us prepare for the work of the year ahead.

Tekiah: we are whole

Shevarim: we are broken

T’ruah: we are shattered

   Tekiah g’dolah: we are whole; transformed through the holy work of repair, reinvention and renewed commitment to making our lives a blessing.

Noah, Politics and Baseball

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This Shabbat, what is striking about reading the Torah portion chronicling the story of Noah and the Great Flood is not only its message of hope but the coincidence of its appearance this year in the calendar, midway between Election Day and the World Series, 2016.

As Rabbi Rachel Zerin shared in her uplifting comments about the story of Noah and the Flood, we are in the midst of a seemingly endless, toxic, Presidential election season. Our collective spirits have taken a beating. Zerin pointed out the symbols making Noah’s story one of hope in the midst of his experience of the destruction of the world. In spite of blinding torrential rains, as Noah built the ark, he included a window to provide a view of future clear skies. Noah had to have been an optimist to gather pairs of animals to insure repopulation of the planet. Flooding from the 40-day storm lasted 150 days longer. Due to impossible conditions, this extreme “rain delay” kept the people and animals on the ark for 7 more months before they could exit and resume the business of living the future that Noah’s optimism had enabled.

It is difficult to imagine the scene in those final ark-bound hours. I find it just as hard to ignore coincidence of the timing of final game of the World Series just a few days ago. As reported in the New York Times, “If you are going to endure years — no, generations — of futility and heartbreak, when you do finally win a World Series championship, it may as well be a memorable one. The Chicago Cubs did just that, shattering their 108-year championship drought in epic fashion: with an 8-7, 10-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7, which began on Wednesday night, carried into Thursday morning…”

On top of the Cubs and fans’ 108-year wait for a win, rain threatened to postpone or even reschedule Wednesday’s game. The weather held up through the eighth inning.  The Cubs carried a 6-3 lead, six outs away from a cathartic victory. But a double and a two-run home run by the Indians wiped out the lead tying the game. The deadlock held through the ninth inning. The top of the 10th inning was rain delayed for about 15 minutes by a deluge. Once it let up, the Cubs came back strong to score and win the game and the Series. In the case of this modern day miracle, there was no need to simply imagine the scene. Television and social media gave us a front row seat from which to witness the emotions of long-suffering Cubs fans praying, sobbing, chanting, wielding signs and amulets at Wrigley Field and beyond.

Perhaps I am alone finding comfort in this particular constellation of Torah, politics and baseball. Just as travelers, when lost, can always rely on the stars to guide them, I believe that years like these, when the world seems to have lost its moorings, we need to appeal to the cosmic and Divine. I may not have control over much, but I do choose to lead a kind-spirited and moral life and to celebrate the power I have to cast my vote on Tuesday, even if it rains.

God works in mysterious ways. I await, with faith and hope, whatever happens next.

Margery Winter: Textile Art You Could Crawl Into and Stay A While

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“Jewelry District” 2016 42”/72” Wool, plastic, natural and synthetic hair, acrylic paint, markers

 

I had a lucky introduction to Margery Winter’s intelligent, engaging work last week when I was bowled over by her fiber wall sculpture, presented in a 2-person exhibit with conceptually related work by her husband, Milo Winter, at the charming and intimate ArtProv Gallery in downtown Providence.

My immediate reaction to Ms. Winter’s work was visceral; her spectacular woven, boiled, stitched, painted wall pieces, invite touch and more. I found myself longing to crawl up into and explore the felted folds, erotic and urban nooks and crannies of her cleverly manipulated textile pieces. Inspired by the energy of the Jewelry District neighborhood where she lives and works, Winter captures the area’s “graffiti, crumbling facades, excavations, light and shadows, obtuse angles, linear patches and evidence of those who wander through this maze.” Winter fools the viewer with painted acrylic shadows, creating the illusion of volume juxtaposed with authentic shaped sculptural felt tunnels or actual shadows cast by raised sections of each piece. She is no stranger to drawing and design, as evidenced by her “Spacial Structure,” (1974) a handsome early etching included in the exhibit.

Winter alludes to human presences observed, albeit fleetingly, in her city-scapes. The glimpses of people who briefly inhabit her sculptural urban maps are referenced by strategic and humorous placement of things like an armless sleeve climbing over the top of one piece and flattening to join the grid. Winter’s use of real hair, loose and braided, adds another textural, somewhat dark dimension to her work. In an era of urban violence, with unedited images of terrorist atrocities broadcast regularly in the media, for this viewer, the hair presents a somewhat disturbing reference to trophies of war garnered by scalping.

Screen shot 2016-07-18 at 11.22.00 AM   Winter employs materials and techniques mastered in her impressive commercial career in fashion publishing and needlecraft. She demonstrates her expertise and love (she calls it “lust”) for yarn, fabric, texture, pattern, and color. Her abstract notations chronicling her vision of downtown Providence and modern city life in general, stand on their own as striking, beautifully crafted specimens of the genre of fiber sculpture installation and will hold their own in museum, corporate or private collection.  ArtProv Gallery, 150 Chestnut Street Providence,  401-641-5182 Show Closing July 22!Screen shot 2016-07-18 at 12.11.06 PM

Margery with Work

*Margery Winter with “Around The Block” 43”/82” 2016

Heschel, King and You, 2015: An Invitation to “Be There”

Heschel King You WorksheetTo conclude my consultancy as the 2014-15 Eduardo Rauch Artist-in-Residence at the Heschel School in New York, I created an interactive visual project titled “Heschel, King and You” for Heschel@Heschel Week at the school. I altered the central iconic photograph of the march on Selma, to include a blank figural silhouette* (see Artist’s Statement below) linking arms with Heschel and King, along with the following text: Heschel was there because he prayed with his legs. King was there because he had a dream. Why will you be there?”

Atrium InstallationStudents, faculty and staff contributed written responses reflecting what “being there” meant to them, globally, politically or personally, whether  imagining joining the Selma march, taking a stand on a current social issue, working to ensure Israel’s existence, human rights or helping a friend or family member in trouble.

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Writing StatementsEach participant was invited to “make a mark”, a thumbprint promise to “be there” in the space of the empty silhouette. By the project’s end, each unique human print created a composite community presence” perpetuating the legacy of Heschel’s prayers and King’s dreams. I wove their personal statements and the thumbprints into the overall piece.

PRINTS

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ThumbPrinting As the project expanded, I integrated vintage printed collage materials from my studio into the composition, referencing the shared Biblical and historical metaphors about which King and Heschel were passionate. Heschel viewed King’s preference for the Exodus as the primary motif in the Civil Rights movement as a major step forward in relations between Christians and Jews. King drew an understanding of the nature of God’s involvement with humankind from his background in the black church, which resonated with Heschel’s concept of Divine pathos, linking the two men intellectually and spiritually. Both were considered prophets, messengers of their time, linked by their committment to prayer, morality and political activism.

Messenger of PeaceMessenger of Peace textHand of GodMoses, Aaron and Edybaby Moses

He Changeth the TimesPeter Geffen

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Completed project *AMY COHEN ARTISTʼS STATEMENT
In a conceptual piece such as this, I have taken an iconic photograph and tweaked it, respectfully, to create a conceptual, contemporary work interpreting a historic event. I intended to make the following points:
I integrated vintage printed collage materials from my studio into the composition, referencing the shared Biblical and historical metaphors about which King and Heschel were passionate. Heschel viewed Kingʼs preference for the Exodus as the primary motif in the Civil Rights movement as a major step forward in relations between Christians and Jews. King drew an understanding of the nature of Godʼs involvement with humankind from his background in the black church, which resonated with Heschelʼs concept of Divine pathos, linking the two men intellectually and spiritually. Both were considered prophets, messengers of their time, linked by their commitment to prayer, morality and political activism.
The “missing” figure is meant to encourage the viewer to identify the deleted person. In doing so, those who don’t know who Ralph Bunche is (having always focused on this “famous picture of Heschel and King”) will find out more about Bunche and his strategic work, not only in the Civil Rights movement, but for his late 1940s role in mediation in Palestine which earned him the1950 Nobel Prize. Sometimes less can lead us to more.
It is my hope, that upon reflection as to why an artist would make such an outrageous edit, the viewer would connect my reference to Bunche as juxtaposition of Buncheʼs past award-winning, essential role in Middle East mediation, with his significant “absence” in this 2015 rendition, at a time in our history where such mediation and peace eludes us.
Too often, significant people throughout history have been ignored or forgotten. Not just blacks- in all these years, the “Unidentified Nun” pictured marching has never been named. And, not just blacks and women: in the new film “Selma” where is Heschel?
I have included a photograph of Peter Geffen, founder of the Heschel School, and Moshe Shur taken in 1965. Both men worked closely with King, ultimately assisting with his funeral.
Included too, is a photograph of the late Eduardo Rauch (who lived in Chile at the time of the Selma march) to represent his loving, activist spirit in this modern day rendition. I have tried to honor Edyʼs memory in all 6 of the projects I created during my year as Heschelʼs Eduardo Rauch Artist-in-Residence.