LA Teens Weave Their Own Stories into the American Fabric

I’m the artistic director of artworxLA, a nonprofit arts organization that combats the high school dropout crisis by re-engaging students in their high school education through long-term sequential arts programming. Formerly called the HeArt Project, artworxLA has spent the last twenty-two years bringing professional artists into continuation and alternative high school classrooms to inspire students to embrace their own creativity, challenge their preconceived notions, and create a space for their creative voices. Our success as an organization rides on the amazing artists that live and work in Los Angeles and the fabulous cultural institutions with which we partner every year.

This school year we partnered with the Skirball Cultural Center. Inspired by objects in the Skirball’s core exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, 550 students were invited to explore their identities as individuals and community members and to draw parallels to the American Jewish experience. Over the course of ten weeks, students from twenty-five schools worked with teaching artists to explore the immigrant experience across cultures, connect the past to the present, and celebrate their unique American identities as a collection of cultures and heritages. For a minimum of two hours each week, students, teaching artists, and workshop coordinators diligently collaborated to find a creative pathway to explore these concepts. The resulting projects included performance pieces, music mash-ups, short films, poems, and visual artworks.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Each of the three series of ten-week workshops culminated with a public presentation at the Skirball, where students presented their artwork to one another and to members of the community. Continue reading

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Seeing Love Through a Pomegranate

In conjunction with the “commitment document” to be created and installed as part of the public participatory art commission Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, the artists invite you to submit photographs of people who love each other or you with someone you love. A selection of these photographs will be chosen by the artists and specially framed for display in the exhibition. For inspiration, the above photograph is from the Skirball collection: Wedding Anniversary Invitation for Gittel and Irving Weinrot. Gift of Bertha Hochberg, SCC13.3. Read on for submission instructions and guidelines.

In conjunction with the “commitment document” to be created and installed as part of the public participatory art commission Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, the artists invite you to submit photographs of people who love each other or you with someone you love. A selection of these photographs will be chosen by the artists and specially framed for display in the exhibition. Read on for submission instructions and guidelines. For inspiration, the above photograph is from the Skirball collection: Wedding Anniversary Invitation for Gittel and Irving Weinrot. Gift of Bertha Hochberg, SCC13.3.

When bright red pomegranates started filling every nook and cranny of wall space in the Ruby Gallery at the Skirball, I witnessed people stop in their tracks, puzzle over it, and smile. After working closely with the Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) on this immersive art installation, I have learned how something as simple as a piece of fruit can bring so many people and ideas together.

In their artistic practice, Fallen Fruit uses fruit as a filter to explore social engagement and relies on acts of sharing, public participation, and community involvement to make their work. The social, economic, and political implications of fruit reveal the relationship between those who have food resources and those who do not, and yet they also foster a sense of community and activism. In fact, Fallen Fruit’s name is derived from a passage in the book of Leviticus:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.

This philosophy of giving and reaching out to strangers has allowed Fallen Fruit to collaborate with communities and institutions all over the world. After studying our collection of Jewish cultural artifacts, Fallen Fruit found inspiration in a seventeenth-century ketubbah (marriage contract). They also discovered how prominently the pomegranate figures in Jewish art and culture, particularly as a symbol of fertility and marriage. The installation in the Ruby Gallery combines their interest in both the cultural ritual of marriage and the beauty of the pomegranate by featuring specially designed wallpaper created from photographs of pomegranate fruits grown in Southern California.

Details of the wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit for their collaboration with the Skirball. It features pomegranates in all different forms—cracked open, discolored, seeds and juice scattered everywhere. These imperfections add even more beauty and dimension to the wallpaper and compel us to look closer and find something new each time.

Details of the wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit for their collaboration with the Skirball. It features pomegranates in all different forms—cracked open, discolored, seeds and juice scattered everywhere. These imperfections add even more beauty and dimension to the wallpaper and compel us to look closer and find something new each time.

Fallen Fruit’s custom fruit wallpaper has become their signature visual format for exploring fruits that are important or symbolic to certain institutions and collections. But why wallpaper? Austin Young explains, “Fruit is often decorative. It appears in wallpaper, art objects, patterns on textiles, decorative art, and still life paintings throughout history in different cultures.” The wallpaper that Fallen Fruit creates often incorporates a lattice-like pattern that repeats continuously. Austin adds that this repetition reinforces the fact that “we see fruit as a common denominator and connector.”

After putting together the design of pomegranates taken from photographs of the fruit grown around Southern California, Fallen Fruit worked with a printer to get the repeating pattern printed on self-adhesive vinyl wallpaper. When installed, this wallpaper will be seamless.

After putting together the design of pomegranates taken from photographs of the fruit grown around Southern California, Fallen Fruit worked with a printer to get the repeating pattern printed on self-adhesive vinyl wallpaper. When installed, this wallpaper will be seamless.

The pomegranate wallpaper that Fallen Fruit designed has been made into a special edition just for the Skirball. In Jewish tradition, the pomegranate is a pervasive symbol from biblical times relating to the garments of the priesthood and royalty, the architecture of the ancient temple, and Torah ornaments of the synagogue. According to one rabbinic tradition, a pomegranate contains 613 seeds, corresponding directly to divine commandments in the Torah.

The installers make sure the wallpaper looks perfect. The round window looking into Zeidler’s Café was an especially tricky area of the installation.

The installers make sure the wallpaper looks perfect. The round window looking into Zeidler’s Café was an especially tricky area of the installation.

Views of the completed installation. The Ruby Gallery is entirely transformed by the wallpaper.

Views of the completed installation. The Ruby Gallery is entirely transformed by the wallpaper.

But the exhibition doesn’t stop here; Continue reading

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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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Marionettes: An Interview with René Zendejas

renes_marionettes The third annual Puppet Festival is this Sunday, April 13. From hand to shadow, marionette to pageant-size, all your favorites will be there! The Skirball is especially happy to welcome back puppeteer, storyteller, and puppet maker René Zendejas. René returns to wow families with a special animal puppet revue and performance, showcasing some of his best handmade animal puppets. I sat down with René as he was preparing for his appearance to ask him about his long career in the world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I started when I was in junior high school. My mother took me to see as many puppet shows as possible that were playing in L.A.

Which puppeteer captured your imagination when you were young?
I had already started in show business when I was five years old, so this wasn’t something totally new for me. One of the puppeteering teams that caught my eye was Walton and O’Rourke—the most fantastic puppeteers that I have ever seen. From then on, I was smitten. They’re long gone by now. They had the most beautiful marionettes and their manipulation was unsurpassable—except by me, of course.

How do you make your puppets?
First, the clay is sculpted using water-based or grease clay. Second, a plaster mold is made of the clay sculpture. Then you pour your final material into the mold, either plastic or latex. Then comes the finishing of the figure by sanding. Lastly, you animate it—if there is to be any animation in the eyes and the mouth—and paint it. Meanwhile, the body must be constructed and costumed. Continue reading

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What’s New in the Museum?

The Binding of Isaac, Torah Curtain and Valance, Austria, 1878. Silk with metallic and silk threads. Gift of Judge Michael Linfield in honor of his father, Seymour Linfield SCC59.97.a,b.

The Binding of Isaac, Torah Curtain and Valance, Austria, 1878. Silk with metallic and silk threads.
Gift of Judge Michael Linfield in honor of his father, Seymour Linfield
SCC59.97.a,b.

The Skirball is proud to announce the recent donation of a very rare Torah ark curtain and valance saved from destruction during World War II.

An American paratrooper during World War II, Seymour Linfield, found this Torah ark curtain in an abandoned synagogue in Austria, which had been in use as a stable. He rescued the curtain and passed it on to his son, Michael, who recently donated it to the Skirball Museum for conservation and posterity.

The curtain depicts the biblical episode of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, as portrayed in the Book of Genesis. The curtain and valance feature hand-sewn silk construction and intricate metallic thread embroidery. The Hebrew inscription at the top of the curtain, above the decorative fringe, reads “sound the shofar at the new moon,” which is derived from the New Year liturgy, when the scriptural reading from the binding of Isaac is read. This suggests that the curtain was specially made for the Jewish High Holy Days. The Hebrew abbreviation “Crown of Torah,” as seen on either side of the embroidered crown, refers to the sovereign authority of the Torah (the five books of Moses), which Jewish tradition ascribes to divine origin. The Hebrew inscription below the scene identifies the congregation of origin: Tagendorf (possibly a transliteration of Techendorf, a lakeside village in the south of Austria). The Hebrew numerical abbreviation just below that states the Jewish calendar year 5638, which translates to the secular calendar year 1878.

Before agreeing to accept this object as a contribution to the Museum collection, the Skirball contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (USHMM), for guidance on accepting items brought home by US soldiers during World War II. According to the USHMM, both they and the Library of Congress accept such items as long as the object is fully documented and thorough provenance research is conducted. Items looted by Nazis or their sympathizers, on the other hand, are repatriated as a matter of policy to community, synagogue, or family of origin. Continue reading

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But Did We Cut It?

The Skirball is one of the few institutions I know of where the exhibition designer takes an active role in the production and installation of the exhibition itself. One of the tasks of my job that seems to invite a lot questions is the production and installation of the exhibition text on the walls.

Here at the Skirball, exhibition wall text is made out of cut vinyl. The vinyl comes in a wide variety of colors and levels of transparency. The adhesive used to place it on the wall ranges from extremely temporary to nearly permanent. It’s versatile and looks clean, which is why it’s a favored material for displaying text and other graphic elements on walls.

Although I favor cut vinyl over other methods of displaying text (printed panels, handbooks, etc.), installing it is a fairly intensive process that involves many steps. First, the curators send me the approved text. I then decide on the right font and size (color is usually determined beforehand). “Draft” files are then sent to the plotter, which uses a small knife blade to cut the outlines of the letters into a sheet of thin adhesive vinyl.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

The plotter begins cutting.

The plotter begins cutting.

 

The parts of the vinyl that aren’t used are then loosened and pulled away in a process called “weeding.”

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.

 

Since the width of the roll of vinyl is limited to the size of the cutter, really large sections of letters are done individually or have to be pieced together directly on the wall.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl

 

After the weeding is completed, a low-tack adhesive “transfer” sheet is applied on top of the vinyl and its backing sheet (or “release paper”).

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl

 

I then apply the different versions to the wall to determine which style to choose. It doesn’t usually require putting every version up to get a sense of what works best.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl
The letters or sections of letters are taped the wall and the backing is removed, leaving only the vinyl and transfer sheet. Continue reading

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Intersections between Architecture, Math, and Science

When I look at anything, I see mathematics in it. There is not an object or natural phenomenon that does not seem mathematical in nature to me. According to cosmologist Max Tegmark—as quoted in the July 2008 Discover story Is the Universe Actually Made of Math?—”There is only mathematics; that is all that exists.” Though the way I see the world may be strange to some, I am not the only one who sees it this way!

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Every exterior and interior of every structure at the Skirball Cultural Center has a mathematical aspect, as well as a cultural purpose—from the geometry of the slate tiles in the Taper Courtyard (where music fans gather for Sunset Concerts and other programming) to the “tent of welcome” in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Recently, I’ve been working to create a Math Trail through the Skirball, a walking tour in which students and teachers use the sights and sounds of the campus to complete mathematical challenges. The project is inspired by the Skirball’s current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. One example of math in architecture that we’ll be using on the Skirball Math Trail can be found in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in = 0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in =
0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Problem: Begin at the stage and measure the height and depth of a stair step. Estimate the slope of the stairs. Describe your process. Continue reading

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Architectural Centerpieces (Florals Are So Last Year)

At a recent donor dinner at the Skirball, these sculptural centerpieces showcased beautiful photographs of our campus, designed by Moshe Safdie. You can also spot one of the vivid green metal art panels off the Taper Courtyard, created by Vera Ronnen.

At a recent donor dinner at the Skirball, these sculptural centerpieces showcased beautiful photographs of our campus, designed by Moshe Safdie. You can also spot one of the vivid green metal art panels off the Taper Courtyard, created by Vera Ronnen.

A common feature of Moshe Safdie’s projects is his integration of open-air spaces into his very monumental concrete and granite buildings. [In this ArtInfo interview, Safdie explains how the landscape influenced his design for the Skirball campus.] Here at the Skirball, Safdie created a series of courtyards that harmoniously link each building so that as you work your way from Winnick Hall (home to Noah’s Ark at the Skirball™) at the south end of our site toward Ahmanson Hall and Herscher Hall at the north end, you encounter blue skies and lush landscapes. As the Skirball’s founder, Uri D. Herscher, has said, Safdie “married his architecture to the hills.” The natural is as important as the architectural in creating the open, welcoming environment we have at the Skirball.

Recently the Skirball hosted an evening gala for our founding donors to celebrate the completion of our campus. The sculptural centerpieces we produced for the event are a love letter to the Skirball’s architecture. We worked with designer Gabe Gonzales at Astek Wallcovering—the firm that created the whimsical wallpaper for our recent exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open—to develop the build of the sculpture. Essentially each centerpiece features thirty-four interlocking round disks. Twenty-six of them display a different image on each side. Depending on how you look at the double-sided disks, you can see four different sets of images. Here are the other three views of the centerpiece: Continue reading

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Architect Moshe Safdie Likes Legos (Breaking Bad Fans Do, Too)

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

If you’re a parent of a young child, like I am, you likely have LEGO® in your house. With some relief—since Legos are a fairly wholesome, harmless distraction—and maybe even pride, you’ve watched your kid stack and lock those distinctive bricks of plastic for hours on end. You’ve probably gotten down on the floor to join the fun. [Less fun: stepping on a Lego.]

Lately it feels like I encounter Legos in more places than my living room. In early summer, I kept hearing about an exhibition, The Art of the Brick®, on view at a surprising venue: Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. At its hilltop museum, my family and I eyed thirty awe-inspiring sculptures by “brick artist” Nathan Sawaya, who used thousands of Legos to handcraft each work. A few weeks later, two separate groups of friends reported that the new hotel at LEGOLAND was actually pretty cool. In mid-July, I stumbled upon a story on NPR.org probing why the Danish toy company had launched a product line specifically for girls. The reporter concluded with the right question: “Would it be so hard to develop—even market—toys for girls and boys to enjoy together?” On his “Thinking Brickly” blog, David Pickett studies the Lego gender gap more closely.

As summer waned, Legos continued to pop up in my life. Lost in a Breaking Bad internet vortex as the series finale drew near, I learned that a Lego imitator, Citizen Brick, quickly sold out of its controversial “Superlab Playset,” featuring “minifigs” of Walt (in yellow lab suit), Gus (in Los Pollos Hermanos button-down), and Mike (sporting grey stubble but looking far less hard-boiled as on TV).

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Eventually Legos became a topic of conversation at work, as we geared up for our fall exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, opening October 22. As it turns out, the renowned architect, who has designed and built our Skirball campus in four phases over thirty years, used to toy around with Legos early in his career. In his book The City After the Automobile: An Architect’s Vision (Westview, 1998), Safdie describes how he began to develop a new concept for urban housing:

I began constructing large models out of Lego, stacking plastic blocks representing houses one on top of the other, each one forming a roof garden for the unit above…. This would lead two years later to Habitat, a project I designed and constructed as part of the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal.

Each of the units kinda does look like a Lego, huh? Habitat’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

Each of the units kinda looks like a Lego, huh? Habitat ’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

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