A Happy Marriage: Fallen Fruit and a Special Ketubbah at the Skirball

 Ketubbah. Busseto, Italy, 1677. Ink, gouache, gold paint and cutout on parchment. Salli Kirschstein Collection, Skirball Museum.

Ketubbah.  Busseto, Italy.  Text, 1677; border, 18th century.  Ink, gouache, gold paint, and cutout on parchment.  Salli Kirschstein Collection, Skirball Museum,
Skirball Cultural Center.

 

Several months ago, the Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) began an artist residency at the Skirball to develop an installation for our Ruby Gallery. Fallen Fruit’s community-based projects use fruit as a medium to explore social engagement, so we invited them to search our collection of Jewish artifacts for anything fruit related! After surveying a range of fine art and ritual objects featuring figs, etrogs, apples, oranges, and many other fruits, they could not take their eyes off of a seventeenth-century ketubbah that was richly decorated with fruit and animal motifs, zodiac signs, and biblical scenes.

Fallen Fruit artists David Burns (left) and Austin Young (right), examining the Busseto ketubbah.

Fallen Fruit artists David Burns (left) and Austin Young (right), examining the Busseto ketubbah.

In Hebrew ketubbah (plural, ketubbot) literally means “what is written.” It is the term used for a marriage contract, a custom that originated in biblical times. In an era when women were regarded as property rather than as equals, its purpose was to protect the married woman in the event that she was divorced or widowed. It specified that she must receive a material sum, including the dowry she brought to the marriage, to assure her support and well-being. Over the centuries the ketubbah has evolved in many Jewish communities from a legal document to a symbolic expression of mutual love and respect between equal partners. Today, particularly in the United States, many couples compose their own ketubbah texts and personalize the design.

The Skirball has one of the most prominent collections of ketubbot in the world, with over 430 in the collection from countries such as Italy, Egypt, Persia, Germany, and the United States. A majority of the collection belongs to the special tradition, developed in Jewish art, of the decorated marriage contract. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the custom of illuminated ketubbot flourished in areas of Sephardi settlement such as Italy, Amsterdam, London, North Africa, and the Near East. Nearly half of the entire Skirball collection consists of ketubbot produced in Italy during the golden age of the illuminated ketubbah, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

The particular ketubbah that inspired Fallen Fruit’s project is from Busseto, Italy. The traditional Hebrew text was copied by the scribe in 1677, and this text was set in its beautifully crafted frame about a century later. The frame includes an inner border constructed with an intricate die-cut technique. The contract is signed by two rabbis from the Busseto community to sanction the marriage of the bridegroom, Jacob, son of Eliezer Mogil, and the bride, Dolce, daughter of the late Isaac Navarra, on March 5, 1677. kettubah_skirball_fallenfruitMade out of parchment (animal skin), the ketubbah features five biblical episodes and twelve signs of the zodiac set in roundels. Continue reading

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It’s Snowing this Summer at Audrey’s!

What better way to celebrate the Skirball’s presentation of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats than with window display of a snowy day? After growing up watching Bugs Bunny fool Elmer Fudd into thinking it was winter in July, Audrey’s staff member Michelle Bourdon and I wanted to go all out on that theme. We researched various winter holiday store window display designs, and then we designed our own. It took the combined talents of the rest of Audrey’s staff to make our wintry window happen!

Team Audrey’s in action! Prior to the window installation, Audrey’s staff met for two workshops to build the display elements, including falling cotton ball strands of snow, cut paper snowflakes, and foamboard buildings. Here store director Pam Balton and I consider the layout of windows for the Keats-inspired cityscapes.

Team Audrey’s in action! Prior to the window installation, Audrey’s staff met for two workshops to build the display elements, including falling cotton ball strands of snow, cut paper snowflakes, and foamboard buildings. Here store director Pam Balton and I consider the layout of windows for the Keats-inspired cityscapes.

Audrey’s staff member Michelle Bourdon works on trimming the needle at the top of the foamboard Empire State Building—no easy feat!

Audrey’s staff member Michelle Bourdon works on trimming the needle at the top of the foamboard Empire State Building—no easy feat!

Michelle plays with an initial layout before we actually install all the pieces into the store window. Audrey’s staff cut out each and every snowflake—a job that required lots of scissors and X-acto knives!

Michelle plays with an initial layout before we actually install all the pieces into the store window. Audrey’s staff cut out each and every snowflake—a job that required lots of scissors and X-acto knives!

We used both colored paper and printed fabrics to mirror Keats’s use of collage and amate paper in his artwork. As a special touch, we added in Amy and Roberto (with his white mouse puppet) from Keats’s book Dreams (the original is pictured here in the above right image). We also included Peter (from The Snowy Day) stomping his footprints into the snow.

We used both colored paper and printed fabrics to mirror Keats’s use of collage and amate paper in his art. As a special touch, we added in Amy and Roberto (with his white mouse puppet) from Keats’s book Dreams (a detail of the original is pictured here in the above right image; copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation). We also included Peter (from The Snowy Day) stomping his footprints into the snow.

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A Teacher Becomes Part of the Family

Getting to know the animals at Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, including this adolescent mountain gorilla. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

Getting to know the animals at Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, including this adolescent mountain gorilla. Photo courtesy of Kristin Welch Zurek, pictured here.

I lived in Los Angeles for fourteen years before I discovered the Skirball Cultural Center. I don’t know what took me so long, but I’m so happy I finally found my way to this gem of a museum.

As an LAUSD kindergarten teacher, I am always searching for ways to integrate more art into my curriculum. Last summer I saw a listing for the teacher professional development program Teaching Through Storytelling at the Skirball and took a gamble. It has paid off in ways I never could’ve predicted.

The day began with a story, told by one of the Skirball educators, that illustrated many of the theatrical, musical, and physical techniques we would learn over the course of the next three days. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

Storytime at the Skirball. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

When I arrived at the Skirball last July, I felt like a new student as I waited on the amphitheater steps for the workshop to begin. The day began with a story, told by one of the Skirball educators, that illustrated many of the theatrical, musical, and physical techniques we would learn over the course of the next three days. How could I predict that I would find Noah’s Ark to be so exquisite, or that I would be thoroughly enchanted by the storytellers who work there? Wow. How could I predict how helpful this professional development program would be? In my eighteen years of teaching, this is in the top three learning experiences this student has had.

By lunch, I felt like a very welcome houseguest. I ate quickly so that I could visit the exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. I went back to the exhibition three more times during my three-day visit, and each time I read more about Gary’s life and discovered new details in the art and objects on display.

Gary’s dining table in last summer's exhibition, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

Gary’s dining table in last summer’s exhibition, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

By the end of the first day I felt like family. I was immediately welcomed into this community, like a newfound relative you meet and bond with effortlessly. We were given passes to come back to Noah’s Ark with our real family, and I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my kids.

Over the course of the three-day workshop we explored many different modes of storytelling that used music, movement, Continue reading

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Mini-Muse

The color of Peter’s bright red-orange snowsuit is what stands out in this illustration from the groundbreaking book The Snowy Day (1962). This and dozens of other original artworks by Keats can be seen in the exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, now on view at the Skirball. Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

The color of Peter’s bright red-orange snowsuit is what stands out in this illustration from the groundbreaking book The Snowy Day (1962). This and dozens of other original artworks by Keats can be seen in the exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, now on view at the Skirball. Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

Up in the gallery just a moment ago I overheard a teacher instructing his group of first graders: “Remember to use your ‘library voices’ in the museum.” I smiled and thought, “Good luck with that,” and then took a moment to reflect on how much has changed for museums in the last decade or so and how much my own approach has changed when it comes to developing exhibitions for the public—the whole public, kids and all.

Museums used to be sanctuaries of art and artifact where you would expect typical visitor behavior to include thoughtful reflection and quiet awe. Here the height of the art from the floor and the level of scholarship exhibited in the text might both be well above the heads of most children. The, shall we say, exuberance of children used to be wholly inconsistent with the notion of providing profound encounters with art, not to mention the “do not touch” policy necessary in most art installations. Increasingly, though, museums are adapting to the needs of children and the special ways they learn and view the world, and they are offering kids opportunities to experience art, history, and culture in ways that are meaningful to them. As it happens, I work for such an institution.

Above left: Artwork from The Snowy Day (1962) is hung at both a child’s and parent’s eye-level on walls painted with iridescent green, pink, purple, blue, and yellow snowflakes. Visitors can also make tracks in the special “snow” feature seen here in the foreground. Above right: The second gallery of the exhibition is a haven of participatory activities, such as story writing and collage making.

Above left: Artwork from The Snowy Day (1962) is hung at both a child’s and parent’s eye-level on walls painted with iridescent green, pink, purple, blue, and yellow snowflakes. Visitors can also make tracks in the special “snow” feature seen here in the foreground. Above right: The second gallery of the exhibition is a haven of participatory activities, such as story writing and collage making.

In my role as a curator, I still adhere to the notion that quiet contemplation is a form of “visitor engagement,” but as a mom, I am grateful for museums that not only tolerate my toddler Liam’s high energy and propensity for distraction, but actually respect his ability to perceive, appreciate, and learn from art. It is a challenge to develop content for a target audience who may be just starting to develop their language skills, who will last maybe thirty minutes in a gallery, and who might very well have other media competing for their attention while they’re in the museum space. These are challenges that I faced most recently while organizing the Skirball’s presentation of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. For this project, I found inspiration in my three-year-old mini-muse, Liam, and in the beautiful art and stories featured in the exhibition itself.

In Goggles! (1969), Peter, his dog Willie, and his friend Archie outwit a gang of bullies in order to keep the discarded motorcycle goggles they have found. Here Archie triumphantly tries on the goggles exclaiming, “Things look real fine now.” Ezra Jack Keats, “Archie laughed and said, ‘We sure fooled ’em, didn’t we?’“ Final illustration for Goggles!, 1969. Paint and collage on board.  Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.  Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

In Goggles! (1969), Peter, his dog Willie, and his friend Archie outwit a gang of bullies in order to keep the discarded motorcycle goggles they have found. Here Archie triumphantly tries on the goggles exclaiming, “Things look real fine now.” Ezra Jack Keats, “Archie laughed and said, ‘We sure fooled ’em, didn’t we?’“ Final illustration for Goggles!, 1969. Paint and collage on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

 

Liam modeling a pair of yellow “goggles” while visiting momma at work. These goggles are available for visitors to try on in the exhibition to encourage closer looking and to help see things from the character’s perspective.

Liam modeling a pair of yellow “goggles” while visiting momma at work. These goggles are available for visitors to try on in the exhibition to encourage closer looking and to help see things from the character’s perspective.

Children live in a highly visual world. Liam’s eyes perceive so much more than mine do—he can easily point to the tiniest speck of an airplane in the sky long before I am remotely aware of its existence. Continue reading

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President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2014

2009.8.8_Rhythm Child Amphitheater_Mitch Maher (154)As a child in school, I loved field trips. Is there a child who doesn’t? The chance to escape the confines of the classroom and meet the wide and wondrous world was always a thrill. In the State of Israel, where I grew up, field trips were unforgettable adventures. Not only were we exploring a glorious landscape, we were seeing the sites of history inscribed there. One of my favorite sites was the famous Roman amphitheater in Caesarea. It was built two thousand years ago, and it is miraculously well-preserved. I was so impressed by its design: grand and spacious yet circular and intimate, and not a bad seat in the house. Music, dance, and drama performances are held there to this day. You sit not only side by side but face to face. Even better, everyone in the audience can see each other.

Enjoying the Skirball's Ziegler Amphitheater with one of my wonderful grandchildren.

Enjoying the Skirball’s amphitheater with one of my wonderful grandchildren.

The amphitheater is both a cultural space and a communal space. That is the ideal that inspires us at the Skirball—to be a place where both culture and community are celebrated.

As the school year comes to a close Continue reading

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