During the Art & Visioning workshop I led on January 1, I had a few moments to sit down, breath and do my own artwork. The room was full of participants working on their own visions - drawing, writing, or searching for images that spoke to them from the collage supplies. My teachers in Rabbinical School used to tell us how inspiring it was to walk into the Beit Midrash (the house of study) and see all of the students studying together in chevruta (with a partner) translating texts, deciphering meanings, studying commentaries. The room was abuzz with students trying to figure things out, make sense of things, understand each other's opinions and reasoning for how to read a line of text as a statement or a question. The sights and sounds of the Beit Midrash inspired my teachers and reminded them why they loved learning Jewish texts so much.
I have experienced the same as a teacher. When I lead a group in meditation or contemplative reflection and then give each person an opportunity to write or create art, I see each person inspired by what we have learned or experience and engaged in their own creative process. Those are my some favorite classroom moments as a teacher and as a rabbi.
Those very moments remind me of being a young Arts & Ideas major, in the art studio at the Residential College at the University of Michigan. I loved being in a creative space where each person was working on their own projects, yet all of us were experiencing the act of creation collectively. I liked the solemnity of people focused on the work self expression through art. Perhaps there was some music on in the background, maybe a hushed conversation here or there or a question for the teacher, but there was a quiet reverence in the room, a focus on creative invention happening in real time.
During the recent New Years Day Art & Visioning workshop, when I looked around to see everyone working, I was filled with that same sense of inspiration, of creativity and flow. Once everyone found their art supplies and were tucked into their own pieces, I sat down to create my own.
For years, I've practiced what I call "Art Meditation" - not unlike a walking meditation or mindful eating, there is an activity at hand in which I am fully immersed. I have a practice I return to over and over again of creating tree collages. I find different scraps of paper and tear them into small pieces and different shapes. I arrange them to form the trunk of the tree, the branches, the leaves and flowers, and either roots or grass that firmly ground the tree into the earth. I find that I return to this image of the tree, this art meditation on the tree - as an image of something completely grounded and rooted, strong and yet it is in perpetual change with the seasons.
The tree is rooted and solid but it also reaches out, the leaves change and turn with the seasons, the fruits grow and bloom and the flowers blossom in the springtime. It reminds me that the only constant is change. Sometimes I choose paper based on the colors I am feeling, or another motif speaks to me. At times there are images in the paper, perhaps a sunset or an ocean or figures that I build into the story of the tree. Sometimes the roots are a mirror image to the branches.
At this time of year, when it is is cold and snow covers the ground in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, it is hard to imagine the tree with flowering buds. The cherry blossoms that grace the tidal basin in Washington, DC seem like a faint memory and too far off into the future. This may be so, but in the Jewish calendar, we celebrate the month of Shvat and the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. This year year Tu Bishvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat) falls on Monday January 21. We celebrate it at this time of year because the very first almond trees in Israel begin to flower in Shvat.
There is an adage I come back to again and again: "the seeds that are planted in Shvat bloom in Nissan" which means the seeds planted in the month of winter bloom in the month of spring time. I love to think about this metaphorically each year and ask myself what are the seeds of intention I want to plant right now so that they will bloom this spring? This tree is an art meditation on this intention of planting seeds now so they will bloom this spring.
My intention this winter and spring is to lead a monthly art and spirituality workshop that gathers in synchronicity with the cycle of the seasons and the moon. I hope to plant the seeds and nourish the seedlings of this opportunity allowing students and seekers to express their own creativity so that they may bloom in their spiritual and creative practice. I hope you will join me at this special series.