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

Having a Chat with Nightmare and the Cat

L.A.-based rock band Nightmare and the Cat makes music that escapes easy categorization, blending jangly pop, bluesy riffs, and anthemic hooks that soar with lead singer Django Stewart’s powerful vocals. Catch them this Thursday night when they play Gary Baseman’s House Party to celebrate the opening of Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Stewart speaks below about the band and their unique collaborations with Baseman, who will paint live on stage during their set.

NTC_NYGary272What is the origin of the name “Nightmare and the Cat”?
It is a song by an amazing artist who never got signed and never made it on stage. He disappeared without a trace, and Sam and I just loved the song and his lyrics so much, we named our band after him. I’m hoping that one day we may meet him wherever he may be.

How did you meet Gary Baseman?
We met Gary at our friend Carina Round’s birthday party. She had written a song for one of his characters and Gary came out of nowhere dressed in a giant pink ChouChou costume and asked Claire in our band to dance.

Watch a video of ChouChous dancing:

How did Baseman painting on stage while you play come about?
This was a very natural occurrence. I feel Gary has always been making art while we sing and play. Painting was just a grander medium than the usual little sketchbook. 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

Perfectly Imperfect Art

I’ve been interested in contemporary art since college, and it’s been a dream of mine to one day display a small but significant collection of art. In fact my husband and I recently contemplated the purchase of a piece by Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon just last weekend, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art 10th Birthday Auction (if you click through, BTW, that’s me and the hubby in that top pic!).

But like most of my friends, our desire for an art collection had to take a backseat to an even stronger desire for food, shelter, and clothing, so we make due with home-sourced works of art and other creative endeavors. That’s one reason why I am a huge fan of the Skirball’s art studio. Visiting the studio offers a great way to unlock the special creative genius within your own family or circle of friends.

Nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

My nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

The Skirball’s drop-in art studio, a.k.a. Family Art Studio (or Studio Schmoodio, as a smarty-pants colleague once suggested for a name), is ideal for a group of friends or family wanting to partake in the artful assembly of recycled and repurposed ordinary materials, turning misfit minutiae into mini-masterpieces.

I’m not a parent but have regularly brought all six of my nieces since the Skirball started offering the drop-in art studio during busy summer and holiday weeks. You definitely don’t need to have kids to enjoy the studio, but kids always raise the bar when it comes to fearless innovation in hands-on art making.

I’m proud to share the story of a recent sleepover at my house with Ava and Claire, two of my six nieces, who were at a loss for sufficient dolls.  Looking around our place, they expressed to me their wish to have baby dolls for their bigger dolls to hold. Finally, Ava glanced over at the book shelf, full of the miscellaneous detritus of my life (don’t judge), and she suggested using a set of tiny spools of thread in a rainbow of colors as the “babies.” The girls even matched the color of the thread spool to the outfit worn by the “mama doll.” In true Skirball studio style, it was good fun for us to repurpose stuff that was right in front of us.

I’m also totally captivated by the story of Caine’s Arcade.  He’s another young guy who reminds the adults in his world about repurposing simple materials and cultivating our desire to create.  I had the chance to meet Caine and play in a “pop-up” version of his arcade at a recent Unique LA show. [And for those wanting to follow in Caine’s footsteps, stop by the Skirball on Saturday, October 6, to take part in the Global Cardboard Challenge.]

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

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

Conversations and Connections: A Teenager in his Native Habitat and at the Skirball

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

Living with my fifteen-year-old son, Arlen, is like living with a wild animal. A non-verbalizing, hedonistically hibernating, ragingly ravenous animal. The palate craves only that which is smothered in cheese. The wild mop of hair has been known to cause strangers on the street to nag (or, to my dismay, compliment and rave). The clothing is monochromatic. The vocabulary is monosyllabic. Parenting a teen is like living with a beast whose sole mission in life seems to be to eat more groceries than I can afford and to thwart my efforts at planning quality family time.

According to a great article I recently read in National Geographic, my son’s qualities could probably be attributed to the intense brain reorganization that kids his age experience. Nonetheless, I desire more connection with him, and I’m willing to try almost anything. Since many of my conversations with Arlen involve overwrought pop psychology on my part, and a series of grunts and somewhat base gestures on his, it has come as a huge relief to find things to do at the Skirball that inspire genuine communication. The Skirball is well known for our programs for young families (I am itching to sleep overnight inside Noah’s Ark at the Skirball), dynamic adult education, and thought-provoking and beautiful exhibitions. But did you know that there is a mélange of meaningful moments to be had at the Skirball with that favorite teen animal/angel in your life? I am so happy to trumpet to you all that there is. THERE IS!

I spent my first six months working here as a timid observer, wondering if my son would like our offerings—or if he could be coerced into showering for any of them. Then, I signed up for the Skirball’s Teen Parenting Seminar, hoping it would give me techniques to foster open communication. The seminar was full of eager parents and brave new ideas—and the most simple yet profound of these zapped my brain like a laser: do new things with your teenager.

So, we tried doing a few things. We went to the Huntington Gardens, but my own mom and I enjoyed their gorgeous rose gardens a teensy bit more than my son—although he did get in some quality texting time. We have now been to Disneyland more times than

probably anyone you know, and frankly we are both bored of the “happiest place on earth” (how much is there actually to say about Space Mountain?).

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

It took me a while to realize that some of the Skirball’s offerings might suit my son very well indeed. So, I signed us up for a Skirball Member preview of a documentary film called Bully that has been at the center of much media attention. It was a stealth invitation, meaning that I just texted him that I had scheduled an activity. I didn’t give him any details. This turned out to be a brilliant plan on my part: I hadn’t given him any information, so there was nearly nothing to which he could object.

After watching Bully together, something incredible happened: we really talked afterwards. We talked and talked for over an hour about the film, as well as my son’s own experiences with bullying. For the first time in a long time, we had an organic, genuine conversation. The experience was transformative, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. We were transformed from a mother and son who barely recounted the banal happenings of our day to each other… into two people who felt substantially closer to one another. And the best part is that we now have a way to keep that closeness going. Continue reading

Slavery in Our Midst: One Story of Survival

Slavery In Our Midst: Maria

Maria’s is just one of several personal stories of trafficking in this book of testimonials featured in the gallery.

Today is International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, designated by the United Nations as a day to focus on how to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery and “end this scourge.”

Here in Los Angeles, the leading organization committed to ending modern-day slavery is the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), which aids women (and some men) who have been trafficked into slavery right here in our own city. The statistics CAST keeps are shocking—12.3 million people are enslaved around the world today, trafficking is a $9 billion dollar industry, and so on. But since for me the power of the book Half the Sky lies in the incredible stories (not just hard facts) that Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell, I thought it would be most impactful to invite members of CAST’s Survivor Advisory Caucus to share their real-life experiences right inside the galleries.

On Sunday, November 13, CAST members came to the galleries as our guests. I never thought I would meet a modern-day slave. About twenty-five of us listened to one survivor share her story before a live audience for the first time. A teacher in her native Philippines, Maria thought she was coming to America legally to work as a domestic helper and receive a salary of $300 a month. These wages were to help her pay off debts back home. Leaving behind her husband and kids at the age of fifty-seven in search of opportunity abroad, Maria was tricked into enslavement for almost two years in a Culver City home. Continue reading