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Confined to ‘creative quarantine,’ artists transform rabbinic wisdom into art

Jerusalem gallery Kol HaOt challenged 48 artists of all stripes to create new artwork while sequestered for 48 hours in their formerly bereft space

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Idit Kischinovsky, one of 48 artists who participated in Jerusalem gallery Kol HaOt's Creative Quarantine project, launched in January 2021, during Israel's third lockdown (Courtesy Yaal Herman, yaalherman.com)
Idit Kischinovsky, one of 48 artists who participated in Jerusalem gallery Kol HaOt's Creative Quarantine project, launched in January 2021, during Israel's third lockdown (Courtesy Yaal Herman, yaalherman.com)

Many went into quarantine over the last year thinking they would use the time to finally finish that novel or artistic project they had been putting off for years, but then wound up binge-watching Netflix instead.

At Jerusalem art gallery Kol HaOt, that concept (without the Netflix) was recently pared down into an intensive 48-hour challenge to produce pieces of art while sequestered away in “creative quarantine.”

The two-day seclusion brought 48 different artists over the last three months to the gallery and interactive Jewish educational art center, located in the Hutzot Hayotzer alleyway of artists’ galleries facing the Old City walls.

Each chosen artist had 48 hours locked away in the gallery to create an artwork responding to one of 48 teachings from Pirkei Avot, known as Ethics of the Fathers, a compilation of Jewish teachings from rabbinic Judaism. Artists were only allowed to leave to eat or sleep.

After a year of stunted creative processes and closed studios, artists of every stripe and medium applied for the project, said curator Eli Kaplan-Wildmann.

“We thought it would be a challenge to find 48 artists, but 200 applied,” said  Kaplan-Wildmann, a local set designer and theater artist who curated the project. “We really tapped into something with this.”

Artist Gilat Cherkaski, one of the 48 artists chosen by Jerusalem gallery Kol HaOt to participate in their Creative Quarantine project, launched in January 2021 and completed in March (Courtesy Yaal Herman/yaalherman.com)

The event, which began in January, during Israel’s third lockdown, and ended in this week prior to Passover, appealed to a wide range of artists, including musicians and dancers, weavers, glass blowers, writers, poets and multimedia artists.

There were local Jerusalemites as well as Israeli artists from around the country, ultra-Orthodox artists and secular ones, established artists and art students.

“48 hours is an equalizer,” said Kaplan-Wildmann. “Some didn’t quite finish, some think they finished, but didn’t. It was important for us to have practical artists who were going to come and leave us with a finished product.”

Artist Michelle Brint working on her Kol HaOt Creative Quarantine project, based on a quote from Ethics from the Fathers, Jewish teachings from rabbinic Judaism (Courtesy Yaal Herman/yaalherman.com)

The 48 hours of creative quarantine were “a revelation” for Haredi paper artist Gilat Cherkaski, who usually works from home and tends to only have 10-minute blocks at a time to devote to her artistic work.

“I worked for 12 hours straight without taking a break,” said Cherkaski, whose complex woven paper compositions often represent one Hebrew letter or a short word. “I love that, but I hadn’t done it in a while.”

The project was an effort to engage artists as well as the airy, light-filled Kol HaOt space, which has sat empty for the last year, said Kaplan-Wildmann.

“Usually there’s tourists and artists in residence throughout the year,” he said. “The idea was doing something related to quick little residencies.”

Logistically, the studio had room for two socially distanced artists at a time, although some preferred to work alone.

The artists who applied were “clearly just waiting for this kind of thing,” said Kaplan-Wildmann. He’s hoping there will be an exhibit for viewers, but plans haven’t been made yet.

Kol HaOt, which always connects art and Judaism in its exhibits and educational experiences, utilized Pirkei Avot’s 48 pathways to wisdom, a passage in the Mishnah which lists 48 ways of “acquiring” Torah knowledge.

“It’s a very universal list, things like, you have to be loving, you have to make room for friends, don’t do things in the common way, do stuff with awe and sacredness,” said Kaplan-Wildmann.

Idit Kischinovsky was given “arichat sftayim,” or proper speech, which translates literally to “editing one’s lips.” Kischinovsky, a recent graduate of a California physical theater school that focuses on movement and body as a tool of expression, worked with the phrase by filming herself speaking in extreme close-up and then editing her movements for the final video piece, along with a photographic rendering of herself with wings.

“It was literally an editing of lips,” said Kischinovsky. “It was fun to spend two days playing and not knowing where it’s going, just going with my own inspiration.”

Multimedia artist Michelle Brint was one of several participants who had not heard of Kol HaOt before applying for the challenge.

Given a phrase about settling one’s heart in their studies, Brint pondered the emotional function of a heart, and hadn’t figured out exactly what she would be creating until she was walking toward the studio for her two days of work and passed a construction site filled with tubing.

“I said, ‘Tubes, tubes, things move through the heart,'” said Brint.

Words written in different materials by Michelle Brint, one of the 48 artists chosen by Jerusalem gallery Kol HaOt to participate in Creative Quarantine, which began in January 2021 and was completed in March (Courtesy Yaal Herman/yaalherman.com)

Brint ended up creating a system of tubing through which water is poured, and drips onto paper written with Mishnaic phrases in charcoal, pens and paint. The various writing materials interact differently with the water, and represent categories of information to which people’s minds are exposed, demonstrating the process by which wisdom can be created.

She hopes people will eventually get to see and interact with her artwork, always a crucial part of her own creative process.

Cherkaski, the Haredi artist, was given “b’erech apayim,” which means being slow to anger. She interpreted the passage as the idea while humans can only see where they are in the present, God is independent of time and can see where each person is heading.

“Suddenly, I had all the time in the world,” she said of the artistic venture. “It was so different from the way I usually work, with lots of time to think and little time to create.”

The finished paper artwork by Gilat Cherkaski, one of the 48 artists who participated in Jerusalem gallery Kol HaOt’s Creative Quarantine project in January 2021 (Courtesy Yaal Herman/yaalherman.com)

Cherkaski’s used the time to create a woven paperwork for Kol HaOt representing the Third Temple that Orthodox Jews pray will be built in Jerusalem. Her portrayal includes a timepiece meant to signify that God is waiting for the Jewish people to return to the Temple, with a set of stairs representing how people will arrive.

“It shows where we want to get to,” said Cherkaski. “God is waiting for us, he has time to wait for us.”

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