Community PoeTree: A Collaboration

Skirball_SkirBlog_Build a Better World_students 1At the Skirball Cultural Center, we aim to inspire our students to take action in the larger community. The Build a Better World school program encourages Grade 1 and 2 students to seek involvement through service and collaboration, equipping them to make a positive difference in their world for people, animals and the environment. Art, puppetry, and creative play are used to build awareness and empathy, presenting big-picture concepts at an age-appropriate level. The program begins with a tour of Noah’s Ark at the Skirball and continues in their classroom, often in collaboration with local partner organizations, such as k9 Connection, Heaven on Earth Society for Animals and the Los Angeles Cactus and Succulent Society.

Recently, I had the pleasure of facilitating a Build a Better World project in which the Skirball partnered with the Downtown Women’s Center, an inspiring organization that is dedicated to serving the unique needs of homeless and low-income women in Downtown Los Angeles. We wanted to create an opportunity for continued collaboration between the students and our partner organization—hoping that the Downtown Women’s Center would add perspective to community outreach and awareness, and present the issue of homelessness to students in a real and relatable way.

Skirball_SkirBlog_comfort bags

For the first step of the project, students from Ms. Lemle’s class at Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School visited Noah’s Ark and created personalized “comfort bags” filled with donated toiletry items for Downtown Women’s Center residents. Students learned a little bit about the center and discussed the importance of caring for others. The child on the right is selecting some shampoo and soaps to include in a personalized bag for the women.

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Yarn Bombing the Skirball

<i>Forest, For the Trees</i> at the Skirball. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Forest, For the Trees at the Skirball.

On select dates from January 15 through 25, visitors to the Skirball will be able to experience Forest, For the Trees, a unique and beautiful installation by local collective Yarn Bombing Los Angeles (YBLA) and the Arroyo Arts Collective. YBLA have been creating public art with fabric in Los Angeles for a number of years—from community projects to guerilla “bombs”—in locations all over town. Perhaps you’ve seen a parking meter wearing a sweater or a museum façade covered in afghans? I sat down with Carol Zou, YBLA’s self-described “head poncho,” to discuss this whimsical environmental installation that will live (and grow!) in our Family Art Studio for a brief but lively and colorful period.

What exactly is a yarn bomb?
Yarn bombing is a form of self-initiated public art using knitting or crochet. A yarn bomb transforms any item in a dull, drab environment by wrapping it in a colorful crocheted or knitted yarn piece.

What is it about working with yarn, felt, and other fiber-based materials that appeals to people? It seems like, right now, people of all ages and stripes are knitting or doing needlepoint and macramé. Are we just in the midst of a crafty era or is there something about these practices that appeals to people universally?
There’s a couple of answers to this question, and I think it all has to do with the tension between tradition and technology. With the rise of a digital and virtual world, people are starting to become nostalgic for activities that involve working with their hands in a tactile way. Working with traditional technologies such as knitting or crocheting is also a response to the development of new technologies—an individual, handcrafted object becomes really special in this age of mass production. Additionally, people participate in knitting and crocheting in order to connect to past generations. During our workshops, people inevitably start talking about their grandmother or their aunt who did this type of work. If we look at this trend as a larger metaphor, I would say the renewed interest in fiber arts is about people’s ability to find their personal identity in a hyper-digitized world through connecting to their family traditions and handcrafting an individual object.


How did YBLA get started? Continue reading

Architecture Knowhow!

Every year, the Education department at the Skirball partners with teaching artists and a local school on a series of creative and collaborative workshops centered around an exhibition. For the current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, we created a six-week in-school residency with fourth graders from Annandale Elementary School in Highland Park that focused on design and architecture. Our goal was to encourage the students to engage in problem-solving through a “design-based learning” process that linked to Global Citizen and also incorporated elements of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). The teaching architects, Justin Rice and Kagan Taylor of the fabrication laboratory and design studio Knowhow Shop, knew just how to excite the students about designing, building, and learning.

Our first step was to figure out what the students already knew about architecture. It turns out they knew quite a bit! Chalkboard circle chart

Next, the students took an architecture tour of the Skirball campus and visited Global Citizen to learn about the center’s architect, Moshe Sadfie.

We were inspired by Sadfie’s Habitat ’67 and by the natural beauty of the Skirball campus.

We were inspired by Sadfie’s Habitat ’67 and by the natural beauty of the Skirball campus.

On another day, they took a walking field trip to the Knowhow Shop, where Justin and Kagan showed them some of the shop’s projects and special tools.

Justin carved a pumpkin on the CNC machine while the students watched. And Manny demonstrated how a laser cutter works.

Justin carved a pumpkin on the CNC machine while the students watched. And Manny, also from the KnowHow Shop demonstrated how a laser cutter works.

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President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2014

Skirball Campus with Moshe_Safdie and Uri_Herscher

Standing with my friend and architect Moshe Safdie in front of a wall-sized reproduction of a photograph of our location on the Sepulveda Pass, before we started construction on the Skirball. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

The year 2014 is like no other year in the history of the Skirball Cultural Center: for the first time since our birth, we are no longer under construction. Our campus, Moshe Safdie’s first architectural project in the United States, is now complete. Our buildings and courtyards are built; our gardens and arroyos are planted. Our current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, celebrates our architect and his magnificent achievements. It is glorious to behold.

And yet, in the most important sense, our building is not finished. It can never be finished. For what we are seeking to build is a community where no one is a stranger, a society both just and compassionate, a world where all can live in freedom, dignity, and safety. That is the mission of the Skirball Cultural Center. It is a construction project that has only just begun, and has very far to go. And if it is ever to be achieved, in any measure, it will take each of us, and all of us, to build it. Continue reading

Taking a Ride

bike-sign-1The month of May marks annual National Bike Month, during which people in cities all over the country are encouraged to ride more, learn about bike safety and mechanics, and commute to work. I myself have been a bike commuter for almost twenty years, first when I lived in Seattle, riding through rain, sleet, and hail to get to my high school teaching job, and now climbing through a mountain pass to get from my home in Santa Monica to my job at the Skirball.

I am often asked why I ride my bike to work (and if I’ve totally lost my mind or have a death wish), especially in the last few years during the massive construction project along the 405, which has made the 405 corridor bumpier and more haphazard (and hazardous).

arriving-at-skirbsFor me, riding my bike has always been a mix of personal pleasure and public service. I enjoy the exercise of it, the hour or so of vigorous riding to begin my day. But I also see it as a way to honor that very core Jewish value which we at the Skirball try to impart through our programs and exhibitions: that of taking care of the earth and each other. I feel, perhaps naively, that I’m doing something (albeit a small something) for our planet: a bit less CO2 emitted from a tailpipe, a few more friendly exhales in the direction of the plants along the road, a bit less stress put out into the world.

I start out each early-morning ride pedaling through the dark in Santa Monica with a red light on the back of my bike and a headlamp strung up around my helmet. Continue reading

Protest Poster or Valentine?

Decades of Dissent installation shot. Photo by Christina Williams.

“Dear Erin” began a letter I received almost one month after the opening of Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action: 1960–1980. The letter continued, “You can imagine my surprise and amusement on finding my Gay-In poster reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. Produced 42 years ago, the poster had minimal exposure or impact. Today, it serves as a reminder of the time when gay people were beginning their journey to full equality.”

The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.

Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California

I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2013

Beginning in January, we present a new music series entitled “Journeys and Encounters,” featuring an eclectic line-up of global talents. Though they hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds and artistic traditions, their music-making demonstrates the beauty that emerges from openhearted cross-cultural exchange.

My son Gideon and I in Rwamagana, Rwanda.

In 2012, I journeyed to Rwamagana, in rural Rwanda, and enjoyed firsthand the joy of connecting across cultures. I was visiting Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (the Kinyarwanda-Hebrew name, agahozo–shalom, translates roughly to “a place of peace where tears are dried”). Co-founded by my son Gideon Herscher, it is a residential community for orphans emotionally scarred by the genocide in Rwanda. One evening, Gideon brought his guitar to a gathering and sang a traditional Hebrew lullaby. The young teens listened attentively. Gideon invited them to sing a Rwandan lullaby, which they did at the top of their lungs. Continue reading

Democracy in Action

Inspired by the exhibition Creating the United States, I worked at the polls last week on Election Day. It’s taken me a week to recover from the tiring but important work.The first time I was eligible to vote in a presidential election was in 1972, when I cast an absentee ballot for George McGovern in Tennessee while I was a college student in Missouri. Despite studying political science, I knew little about presidential politics and was shocked that my candidate lost. I had even gone to see him at a campaign rally in suburban St. Louis where he appeared with Warren Beatty—who, I admit, was the much bigger attraction for me. [Just last week, Vanity Fair revisited that 1972 campaign through this fortieth anniversary “oral history.”]

I have voted in every election since, whether for a primary race, an off-year election, or a major presidential competition. Since 1977, I have voted here in Los Angeles, at a variety of polling places in my neighborhood—at a private residence, in the local floor covering store, at an elementary school, at a church, and at a skilled nursing facility. During all those elections, I gave little thought to the hapless poll workers who toiled to keep the lines short and the election running smoothly. I was frequently annoyed at how slow and cumbersome the process seemed…

…until this year, when spurred by our “Democracy Matters at the Skirball” initiative, I decided to volunteer to be a poll worker. Here was an opportunity for me to see democracy up close and from the other side of the table. Little did I know it would be one of the most challenging and exhausting jobs I have ever undertaken. I now have greater appreciation for the work of union activists who demand limited hours, mandated breaks, and safe working conditions!

The process began with a mandatory training session. The county workers crammed about eight hours of information into a scant two hours. My head was reeling when I left. Would I remember what goes in the white box or the green striped envelope? Would I figure out how to assemble the voting booths? What if I did something wrong that invalidated a vote? Luckily there are several safeguards built into the system to prevent my worst nightmare.

For poll workers, Election Day begins at 6:00 a.m., reporting for duty to assemble the voting booths, hang all of the directional signs, place all of the voting rosters on the table, and prepare the ballots. Continue reading

The Wheels on the Bus: From Boyle Heights to Beverlywood

The ark at the Breed Street Shul, one of several stops during our recent Jewish Homegrown History Bus Tour.

The ark at the Breed Street Shul, one stop during our recent Jewish Homegrown History Bus Tour.

I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and like many Angelenos, I came here as an adult. At this point in my life, I have lived in L.A. much longer than my first eighteen years in Chattanooga. I have come to love the story of Los Angeles—my husband is a big hometown booster—and I have visited and learned to appreciate all that Los Angeles has to offer, from San Pedro to San Fernando to San Gabriel to Santa Monica.

A fascinating piece of the L.A. story is the history of the Jews who have settled and thrived here. From its earliest days, Jews have helped to build L.A. as we know it—whether as bankers, merchants, performers, teachers, builders, or Hollywood producers—and they continue to contribute to the fabric of the city through the arts, civic life, industry, and education. This ongoing story was brought vividly to life on a warm Sunday in June when fifty curious souls boarded a touring coach at the steps of the Skirball to spend a day exploring Jewish Los Angeles.

The catalyst for this day trip was Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage, on view at the Skirball for just one more month. The exhibition presents personal stories of growing up in Los Angeles and California through the use of cleverly edited home movies and wonderful added audio commentary. Visitors quickly learn of the challenges of moving to California in the 1930s and 1940s, adapting to a new environment, and encountering the various cultural groups that were also settling here.

The bus tour was ably conducted by Dr. Bruce Phillips, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College and Senior Research Fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Bruce is a demographer: he studies patterns of settlement, affiliation, intermarriage, and immigration. He gathers the raw data and then attempts to deduce from it the stories of our lives. The ways he finds information are amazing. For example, by browsing the 1930 Los Angeles telephone directory, he was able to learn where Jews lived by pinpointing the houses of worship.

To prepare for the daylong bus tour, Bruce and I took the telephone directory records and headed out to find the long lost synagogues. We ended up as far south as 42nd St. and Grand Ave., where today we find the Greater Faith Temple, which was once called Congregation B’nai Amuna. Many of these old synagogues are now churches, but they all retain the original cornerstones with Hebrew dedications, as well as distinctively Jewish ornamental decorations on their facades. We were excited to bring our bus tour to these landmarks of Jewish homegrown history.

Our first stop was Greater New Vision Missionary Baptist Church on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd, where Pastor Lucious Pope welcomed us. This building was the former home of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, which now sits proudly in Westwood on Wilshire Blvd. The church has retained the original designs in the sanctuary as well as the name in Hebrew on the front. As we peeked inside on a Sunday morning before regular services, the Greater New Vision congregants were warm and welcoming. Our visit to their church also gave us insight into the changing demographics of our city: the African American church now shares its space with a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation. Continue reading

Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women. Continue reading