Sitting on the porch as the light slowly darkened over the redwood trees, a pair of deer quietly walked through the dusk, stopping on the heart-shaped lawn to nibble grass and letting us admire them. At Ralston White Retreat, a historical mansion on the top of a mountain in Mill Valley, we held our first Bay Area Jewish Artist Retreat, on November 11 – 14, 2019. During this intensive four-day program, 28 multidisciplinary emerging Jewish artists from the Bay Area came together to build relationships, investigate and question Jewish and artistic identities, and think about how they could support and nourish each other. We were pleased to be collaborating with The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the JCC East Bay on this retreat, and we gained so much from the staff who joined us.
Many meaningful parts of the retreat were led by the talented and generous artists who attended. Many of us remained seated in silence at the conclusion of the workshop, Living As Jews On Ohlone and Miwok Land led by artists Ariel Lucky, Sophia Sobko and Arielle Tonkin. It was a moving session that shared important narratives told by indigenous activists about the experience of Native people in the Bay Area, and which led us in a process to think about the historical narratives we hold as Jews and how those connect to the stories of Native Americans. We learned about the current struggles of Ohlone activists to recover their ritual sites and shell mounds, and ways that we can bring our privilege and resources to help that work. For many of us, we reflected on the Jewish community’s efforts to commemorate and transmit ritual and heritage, and drawing lines to the particularity of the Native experience in the Bay Area.
There were several sessions that let us engage with the gorgeous landscape around us. One foggy morning, led by Sarah Weitzman, we brought out light sensitive paper, and artists created cyanotypes, gathering plants and natural objects to cast shadows and create mystical images. It began to lightly rain, adding light polka dots to the works.
On another afternoon, Matt Goldberg, carrying a heavy box of clay, led a group into the woods to hand build small clay sculptures. Using a collaborative method to release ownership in creation, the group tapped into a primal creative process where the works evolved and grew. For many folks, these workshops were a favorite part of the retreat, getting to work with their hands in nature.
We brought in a group of local art practitioners for a conversation entitled The Joys and Struggles of Identity with Heidi Rabben, Senior Curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Joti Singh, Artistic Director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company, and Eric Ting, Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Festival (Cal Shakes). In an open conversation with these local curators and institution-builders, we explored how personal history plays into the reception of artistic work, and how culture presenters reflect on their own identity when considering new work. We also learned about the ways each organization is considering their audience and the identities that they might hold when walking in the door, and how organizational change is both invigorating and challenging. It was fascinating to hear Heidi from CJM dig into what contemporary and Jewish together mean, and how the museum struggles with maintaining a connection to both ideas. We also got into whether the Bay Area is an effective laboratory to move the needle on art, identity and justice, and if it is still radical. There was some disagreement on that final point, and we agreed to let it be unresolved.
The Bay Area Jewish Artist Retreat was a beautiful and peaceful setting for contemplation, exploration and opening ourselves up to new ideas and each other’s stories. We look forward to seeing the many fruitful ways these artists and this community will work together in the future.
All photos by Stefan Cohen