The Jewish Studio Project: Art-Making as Another Way to Interpret Our Texts

Making art as we respond to a Jewish text taps nonverbal, deeper levels of our being, transforming our relationship to the text.

Einstein’s Invitation

Each of us faces problems both mundane and extraordinary—from those that challenge us individually to those that affect us on the communal level. There are big-picture challenges that affect us all: climate change and the future of our democracy, as well as structural issues of power and privilege that center around race, gender or economic wealth, structural racism, entrenched misogyny, multi-generational poverty, to name just a few. And, at the same time, we each struggle with personal challenges (some of which likely intersect with our communal challenges): questions about who we are, what we’re meant to do with our lives, how to open to love, say goodbye, make a big transition, be a good parent, partner, sibling or friend.

Einstein famously wrote that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. What does this mean? For me, this means that for problems big and small, personal and communal, we cannot simply “think” our way to the solutions. Facts and information are essential; yet alone, they are not enough. So often we have more than enough facts, yet we are unable to act on them because we are not spiritually or emotionally ready to move forward. At other times, our seeking a greater level of intellectual understanding serves as a distraction from what we actually need—a seeking of understanding that can only be found deep within ourselves.

To work with the problems that face us, we must, as Einstein wrote, shift our consciousness. But how? How do we both remain connected to the problem we face while moving beyond our current way of thinking and responding? In this question, I hear a call to a process of transformation—a process that allows us to remain present to what is—the felt experience of the problem and all it evokes for us, while at the same time opening ourselves to new possibilities of what yet could be. We are blessed with powerful tools for how to do this, both those we have inherited from our tradition—the texts and practices of the beit midrash—and those that exist within each one of us in the form of our innate creativity.

We founded Jewish Studio Project (JSP) to bring together the power of Jewish tradition with the power of creativity in order to help each of us traverse the challenges we face in our lives and in our world. JSP brings together processes of art-making from the field of art therapy together with traditional Jewish text learning in order to explore these questions: How do we deal with challenge and change, both personal and societal? How do we do this in a way that allows us to be uncomfortable, to be open to new understanding, and to honor and release that which no longer serves us? Ultimately, how do we, as Einstein says, move to a new level of consciousness with relationship to the problems we face, so that we can imagine and then bring into being new possibilities for ourselves and our society?

Creative Exploration vs. Creative Expression

Art-making as traditionally conceived of in the Western world is most often thought of as a form of creative expression made by those deemed to have special skill for the purpose of creating culture, creating profit or both. Art, in this view, can only be meaningful when it is seen by others. Through the lens of the artist, we are able to open to new ways to see ourselves or our society. This is an essential and extremely valuable role that art can play. And yet, there is so much more that is valuable about making art beyond the function it plays for other people. Art-making is not just about what we wish to express; it is also about what we are open to explore.

As we move into an era in which traditional power hierarchies are being broken down, we must break down the notion that art is only for “artists.” The Torah teaches that each and every one of us is created in the image of the Divine Creator. We possess creative capacity simply by being human. Within our creativity lies incredible power for coming to better understand ourselves and our world. Our creativity is also a pathway for connection to God. We need to be creative, and the world needs our creativity. The depths of our creativity lie not only in that which we wish to “express,” but often, more powerfully in that which we wish to explore.

Have You Made Art About It Yet?

I grew up in an art studio, the daughter of a prominent art therapist. From an early age, paintbrush and pen were given to me as ways to understand my life and our world. As a child, when faced with a problem that I couldn’t figure out, I would frequently turn to my mom for advice. Rather than giving me her opinion on the matter or directing me to some other source of authority, she would respond with this question: Have you made art about it yet? Though perhaps frustrating to me as a 9-year-old, as an adult I have come to realize the profound significance of my mother’s response. With this question, she was teaching me two things: 1) that answers exist within me; and 2) that art-making is a way to discover them.

The type of art making I was introduced to as a child is different than any other I have encountered since. My mother, Dr. Pat Allen, is a pioneer in the field of art therapy who, along with two colleagues, created the Open Studio Process—a practice for taking art therapy out of the clinical patient/practitioner mode and into a group practice setting. Rather than serving as the interpreter of a patient’s work, the therapist becomes a creator alongside all others in the group. The therapist assumes the role of creating the space and holding a structure in which everyone, therapist included, can seek the answers that exist deep within themselves. The Open Studio Process begins by participants creating an intention for themselves for that day’s Process. Intention-setting is followed by engaging with art materials, in which the directives are to “begin by making marks on the page” and to “follow pleasure.” The Process ends with Witnessing, in which each person writes in response to their piece and what came up for them in the process of creating the piece.

In our work at Jewish Studio Project, we have taken the Process that I inherited from my mother, and with her support and guidance (and to her delight) have brought it together with traditional Jewish text learning and Jewish spiritual practice. This iteration of the Process is now known as the Jewish Studio Process. What follows is a brief account of the birth of this version of the Process and how I believe it serves to help us shift our consciousness so that we may navigate the challenges we face.

Being With What Is: Art Making and Empathy

Over the course of my life, I have turned to this practice of art-making that I grew up with as a way to help me navigate the problems I have faced. In college, when overwhelmed by the devastating content we were being asked to absorb in a course on climate change and the geopolitics of oil and water, I turned to art-making. Over the course of a month, alongside the academic learning, I engaged in a practice of art-making and writing as a way to process the emotional component of this intellectual work. The practice of engaging in creative process allowed me to tolerate the pain and sadness I felt in learning about the immense suffering we are causing to people and to our planet. Rather than just memorizing facts for the test, the practice of art making allowed me to create a space in which to be with my own sadness in response to what I was learning. In so doing, I awakened my capacity for empathy towards those people and places I was learning about.

It also allowed me to make space for the truth that these problems about which I was learning were not somehow outside of or divorced from me and my life. As a person who, for example, lives on land, buys food, invests in the stock market and frequently flies across the country, I was not an innocent bystander, but rather a contributor to the suffering caused by our unsustainable relationship to resources. The process of art-making allowed me space, time and a pleasurable way by which to allow in these realizations and seek empathy for myself as well. Pleasure allows us to remain embodied in the discomfort that the realizations activate. It doesn’t deny or gloss over them. Rather, the pleasure and release of art-making and the enjoyment of color holds us steady as we literally allow consciousness to change: For example, “Oh, I’m actually a contributor, not an innocent bystander here.” It is, in part, by inviting in empathy that we transform our level of consciousness and open ourselves to solutions that could only have been found by going to that place of deep feeling. Art-making is a way of making space for our feelings and opening ourselves to empathy—towards ourselves and towards others.

Bringing Forth New Possibilities: Art-Making and Text Study

I returned to the practice of art-making and writing upon starting rabbinical school. While studying to become a rabbi, I fell in love with the beit midrash (house of inquiry/study). For six years, my classmates and I spent multiple hours every day learning to swim in the sea of impassioned argumentation, fantastical imaginings and grammatical explanations contained within the gold-embossed books lining every wall. These texts are the artifacts of our rabbinic ancestor’s personal engagement with Judaism’s sacred stories and with each other. Upon induction into this world of text, our teachers gave us our charge: We were not only to study what our rabbinic ancestors had to say, but to carry forward this legacy of interpretation. We were not only to learn the ancient commentators, we were to be the commentators of today. “Yes, yes, yes!” I answered. And then … how?

There were tractates upon tractates of our ancestor’s interpretations of our sacred texts. What new could I—or those I would one day serve—offer? How could we do so in a way that honored the legacy we’d been gifted while allowing it to evolve and speak to us in our day? Day after day in the beit midrash, we engaged in text from the level of the intellect. From this place, we interpreted and argued and reasoned and questioned. And yet, it became clear to me that in order for me to answer the charge I’d been given by my teachers, both I and those I would be serving would need new ways to bring ourselves into this world of interpretative possibilities.

I began to weave the practice of art-making and writing into my beit midrash learning. Pirkei Avot (3:2) teaches: “When two engage over a page of text, the Shekhinah (in-dwelling Presence of God) dwells among them.” Just as the ancient rabbis treated text study as a way to connect to that which was bigger and beyond themselves, so did I want this mode of engagement to function as a sacred spiritual practice that could take me out of one level of consciousness and into another. In a course on Tanhuma (an eighth-century midrash), in addition to my intellectual analysis of the text, I made art in response to various lines in the text and then harvested the new learning that this practice opened me to. In a course on the book of Exodus, I engaged the same practice in hevrutah (learning partnership) with my mother with the intention of surfacing new stories about the powerful female characters of the text. This project resulted in a new compilation of midrashic interpretations stemming from our own questions, struggles and needs as women in the 21st century. This compilation may indeed be valuable to others who encounter it, but, perhaps more importantly, it was valuable as a way for us to hold open the centuries-long conversation with Torah begun by our earliest commentators—to allow the text to speak meaningfully to our lives, and our lives to speak meaningfully to the text.

In this way, I discovered art-making as a means to take advantage of the most compelling opportunity that the beit midrash (house of inquiry/study) presents: to take the questions or feelings that have arisen in the learning and explore what they are pointing towards in one’s own life. The points of connection are never as obvious as we expect. From its earliest inception, the Jewish Studio Process has developed into a full-fledged methodology for text learning, spiritual practice and personal exploration that has been brought to thousands of educators, clergy, lay leaders and unaffiliated folks across the country. This process allows anyone, regardless of experience or perceived talent with text or with art making, to enter—and to add their own voice to—the ongoing chain of interpretation and to investigate where in their own lives the text is calling them to explore. For it is when we bring the fullness of our life experience into conversation with the text that we make space for the new stories, insights, images and questions that arise from this unique alchemy.

Complexity, Ambiguity and the Unknown

In the Jewish Studio Process, both art-making and text study ask us to make space for complexity, tolerate ambiguity and develop the courage to traverse the unknown. In the beit midrash (house of inquiry/study), we cultivate these dispositions through the process of Torah study. Our sacred text is (thankfully) not one clear text with a singular interpretation. Rather, Torah is a multivocal; not only do passages within the Torah contain contradictions or lack the full details that would allow us to definitively understand their message, but the very language in which it is written is multivalent with many words having multiple (and sometimes opposite) meanings. Rather than try to assert one correct interpretation, Judaism is a religion that preserves and honors multiple possible interpretations, as well as encourages ever new creative interpretations. As it is taught in the Talmud, ein beit midrash belo hiddush—“a place of Jewish study cannot exist without new creative interpretations” (Hagigah 3a). The beit midrash is a place in which we navigate the complexity and ambiguity of our texts as we open ourselves to bring forth ever-new creative interpretations.

The process of art-making allows us to explore the unknown aspects of the text and to bring these into relationship with the unknown aspects within ourselves. When we approach the canvas or the dance floor or the notepad, we have no idea what our creative exploration will yield, and there is no one right final product that it must look like. As with text study, we bring the fullness of ourselves to the fullness of the material at hand, and open to something bigger than and beyond ourselves—something deep within ourselves coming to us and through us. In this practice, our art-making is not dictated by a preconceived idea or a striving to accurately portray some aspect of the text so that others will recognize the connection between the two.

Rather, we engage in it as a sacred practice of letting the text linger within us as we use materials to explore what else there may be in the words we have read. In this way, art-making serves as a way to stretch out the conversation with the text, with God, with one’s hevrutah and within one’s own self. In the spaciousness of this elongated conversation, the practice allows the intellectual material drop down from our head and percolate through the rest of our being. In this way, we become able to engage the material not only with our intellect, but also with other ways of knowing: our imagination, body, intuition, emotion and memory. The pleasure and embodied nature of the art-making allows our thinking mind to relax and soften. In this state of suppleness, our tightly held beliefs may ease their grip on us, allowing space for new ideas to come to us and through us.

Imagining our Future

To deal with challenges both personal and societal, we must learn how to swim in the seas of complexity, ambiguity, discomfort and challenge. We must become practiced at the art of being with what is and the art of opening to that which yet might be. Art-making and text study are tools for this journey. When brought together, these two modalities allow us to remain with challenge, traverse the unknown, develop empathy for ourselves and others, bring forth new ideas and interpretations and activate all parts of who we are. To work with the problems we face, Einstein calls us forth from one level of consciousness to another so that we may feel, see and imagine new possibilities that don’t currently exist: the new solutions that are needed in our day.

One Response

  1. I have always loved art as a creative expression. Even as a child I would color or try to draw pictures and wanted recognition, but I never received it in school until High School when an art teacher inspired me. I graduated as an art teacher and only taught for a brief time due to family obligations. I have created pictures from Torah and our Shabbat service discussions, and some are exhibited in our temple. This program is long overdue, and I hope it reaches many people and congregations. I did belong to a Torah and art study program at a temple previously and the discussions did inspire me to delve more deeply into expressing my learnings into art.

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