Sunday, September 18, 2011

— about gatherings —

To learn more, go here.

To see images of the dress, go here.
... of drawings, go here.

I will have a solo show at Providence College, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Art & Art History Department/Galleries. The exact dates within academic year 2019-20, are yet to be determined.

I had a solo show, Feb 4-March 1, 2015 at Westmoreland Museum.

I had a solo show Nov 21, 2014 - Dec 31, 2014 at 707 Penn Gallery, Pittsburgh.

I was in a group show, May-June 2014 at the American Jewish Museum.

I had a solo show of the full body of work from this project in Berlin, Germany.
February 25 - March 16, 2012
artist talk on March 3 

I spoke at the Andy Warhol Museum
on Sat Jan 21, 2012 at 2pm
4th floor galleries
re: the Word of God: Jeffrey Vallance exhibition,
and this project, gatherings,
and the (complicated) relationship between the sacred and the secular, and the idea of purposeful collections
...with Carole Brueckner
head docent at St. Anthony's Chapel, Troy Hill
which houses the largest public collection of relics in the World (over 5000 relics)
(my 65th visit)

Also, I exhibited 5 drawings and 5 photographs from this project in
two group shows and a DC art fair, in 2012 and 2013.

More information here.

one hundredth visit: Oct 4th 2011 Presbyterian

12:25pm tuesday
First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh

320 Sixth Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15222
downtown, central business district
Today's count of worshipers wearing Steelers garb while worshiping:

2 in jackets with Steelers logos

FINAL Total for this entire project: 43 (running totals here)
Several friends have asked me if gatherings' 100th visit will be a grand finale of sorts. Is the 100th of anything ever otherwise? First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh: In a project that vows not to play favorites, it makes sense to me that this 100th visit serves to ground (myself). As mentioned in my 90th visit, I was raised Presbyterian, and this last visit serves to bookend my 3-2-1 Presby countdown. To end where I once started, long, long ago. (And to note: except for this year, I have not regularly attended a place(s) of worship for 22 years.)

And to end at First Presby, in a city that is sometimes referred to as The Presbyterian City. Not to champion a particular belief... I'll let you research to find all the reasons why.

Along the way, someone had told me that this is also the oldest worship building within Pgh proper. (Beulah being slightly outside Pgh city limits.) This would add to the appropriateness of this 100th visit, but it's not the case.
Alas, this building (1905) is just 5 yrs older than our house. Does not make it any less grand though, with its 13 Tiffany windows, each one over two stories tall (26 ft). And the congregation does go back 224 years, and 5 days, exactly. Just 5 years younger than the reported oldest congregation in Pittsburgh (my 46th visit).

Downtown, FPCP stands right next door to Trinity Cathedral where the Blessing of the Artists took place last week (97th visit). It's a little difficult to tell where one building ends and the next begins. Especially when staring upward at the tangle of stone steeples. In fact, the stairs that lead to First Presby's front door are the same that are used to enter Trinity's admin offices.
So for a million reasons, out of Pgh's nearly 1500 possible places of worship, this seems right, for today. I am attending "Tuesday Boost," a thirty-minute, non-denominational Christian service. Here, downtown employees spend their lunch break at FPCP pondering contemporary issues of faith's place in the workplace.

The sermon:
We find ourselves in unexpected places—places sometimes we'd rather not be—in order to search for and point to the truth.

I've mentioned that I teach a painting class called Obsessions. I give readings. Last February, during a class discussion, a student, Jason, brought up this passage from one of the readings: "...for I have one desire in life, the truth, and one purpose, to make the most of truth." (Lennard J. Davis, Obsession: a History, p.108) "I read that," Jason said, "and realized that's what I'm doing through art. To me, that made sense." In the silence that followed, you could feel the energy of 19 creative minds mulling that over.

Just 3 days later I was home, going through a stack of old articles I had saved, but never read. In a book review by Jon Meacham I came across this sentence “The search for truth—about the visible and the invisible—is perhaps the most fundamental of human undertakings, ranking close behind the quests for warmth, food and a mate.” And because I am an obsessive teacher, of course I emailed the student.
I'd been waiting for the moment that this story would find it's place in gatherings. I had almost resigned to the fact that perhaps I would have to write a separate conclusion. Perhaps not. Thank you, Reverend Tom at visit number 100, who, from the pulpit, declares:

"We find ourselves in unexpected places—places sometimes we'd rather not be—in order to search for and point to the truth." An artist drawing in a pew.

Of course there are a handful of exceptions to what I'm about to say, but here goes:
The ritual of attending worship service, and the ritual of making art;
in the end, I see these as two very different ways of pursuing truth. Too different in today's world, I suspect, for most to simultaneously take both paths.
One comes with a preexisting structured philosophy; the other asks you to sort that out on your own, along with everything else. So, with exceptions, of course, artists often choose one way, and the pious another, in our pursuit of making sense of life and the world around us. And some day, with effort from both sides, maybe it will be possible for both groups to set aside judgment and consistently approach each other with the openness that those in these 100 establishments have generally approached me. Maybe.

ninety-ninth visit: Oct 2nd 2011 Sikhism

11:00am sunday
Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara

4407 McKenzie Dr, Monroeville PA 15146


On Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara's website:
"People of all religious backgrounds, including atheists and agnostics, are welcome at a Gurdwara [Sikh temple]."

Non-Sikh visitors are able to fully experience and take part in worship; their participation is seen as wholly valid.

A lot of people have commented to me that they know almost nothing about Sikhism. (Many Pittsburghers did not know that there was a temple in the area, either.) If you are interested, I've included a list of a few basic beliefs of Sikhism at the bottom of this post...

So, the best thing about Indian Standard Time is that you are never late to Temple. The worst thing about Indian Standard Time is that if your husband is Indian, you will always be waiting for him until you decide to join the movement. And if you don't join the movement and you arrive at the temple on time (on your own), you are gifted 45 minutes of drawing time. Win-win.

I add my shoes to the collection by the door. When entering a
Gurdwara, it is considered disrespectful if anyone, regardless of your belief, does not bow at the alter, and leave an offering of money, flowers or food. I leave a vase of flowers, 'mums from our yard. There are about ten other people in the room. Some are reading to themselves silently. I choose a spot where mothers are sitting with their children, playing with Play-Doh.

I draw.

 After 45 minutes, others are arriving. The mothers and children have left, and I realize I'm sitting on the males' side. I move to the opposite. My knees (especially my right one) are sore from sitting cross-legged on the floor. While sitting, I stretch my legs out to my left. Soon a man approaches me, asks how I am doing. Tells me very gently that I must have no way of knowing, but it is a sign of disrespect if I point my feet toward the alter, and also my body must at all times directly face the alter, where the Guru Granth Sahib (scriptures) are kept. I apologize and thank him for telling me. So much to learn, even after 98 visits.

The service consists primarily of singing, with an interlude of a sermon spoken in Gurmukhi. (Structure of this service is identical to the Krishna Consciousness (48th visit), and Hindu-Jain (79th visit) services I attended.) Two musicians are at work, to the right of the alter: a tabla player
and a harmonium-ist. One also happens to be the priest (or Gyaniji) . Hymns are sung in Gurmukhi; lyrics are projected in the form of 1) phonetic syllables, 2) Gurmukhi script and 3) English translation. One phrase that sticks with me: "You are me and I am you—what is the difference between us?"

I want to learn to play the harmonium.

At the end of the service, karah prasad is offered to each congregant. The concept is the same as prasad in a Hindu service (14th visit, 7th paragraph), but, as opposed to fruit or a rice dish, here prasad always is a warmed mixture of butter, sugar and flour. It reminds me of warmed, raw cookie dough. Which I like very much. It also reminds me of the candy that is passed to children at the end of Jewish services, so that children associate worship with sweetness.

Aside: Later, Yog (79th visit) reads this entry and emails me to say that most likely the doughy mixture offered here is known as "halva."

After service, two teens (adorably) ask if I would like to meet the priest. Introductions. I explain gatherings. He welcomes me warmly and offers me a place to sit for Langar.

What is Langar? Congregants sit in lines, side by side, shoulder to shoulder for a meal. Besides providing nourishment, this meal exists to break social boundaries. All of us eat seated on the floor at the same level, with no regard to caste, race, creed, and rank. Servers (who are also worshipers) walk up and down the lines, offering different dishes, laddling these from large pots into our individual metal thali-pans: lentils, cauliflower, rice, raita and nan. When my husband later hears about this, he is a bit jealous. With reason. Also, by definition there is never a charge for the meal, and it is always vegetarian.

I talk with the woman next to me. I feel badly, but I don't remember her name well enough to try to to spell it here. She asks how I heard of the temple. I tell her: it was featured in a video I borrowed from the Quaker Meeting House (23rd visit), called "Holy Pittsburgh." I tell her that what I remember from the video: the statement about the domes of this temple serving the same purpose as steeples on churches—to direct attention upward. "It was my husband who said that in the video," she tells me. "I'll introduce you to him."

She asks if I have ever been turned away from attending a service. (No.) She tells me about a friend of hers who happens to be Muslim. She once asked this friend if she would be able go with her to a Muslim prayer service. Her friend preferred not, giving the reason that she feared the discussion would be too intense and would make her feel uncomfortable. We talk a bit about this. And other things. Until it's time to go.
And because it's really good today, I'll end with my:

Count of worshipers wearing Steelers garb while worshiping:

1 in a Steeler jersey. Name across the back: GURU.
(Flavors of India and Steeler Country merrily co-exist.)
1 woman wearing a kameez (tunic), white with a pattern of Steeler logos

& along the edge of her duputa (scarf): more logos.

8 men cover their heads with black and yellow bandanas

(not turbans- these bandanas are worn by men who do
not have the
traditional long hair.)

3 children in bandanas, scarves, or black and yellow outfits.

13 Total
Running Total for the project: 41 (to date)

Very basic history and beliefs of Sikhism:

• originated in the Punjabi region of India in 1469, but today one finds followers in all regions of India and beyond.

• belief in one God.

• belief that all religions of the world share the same God. (As do Hindus.)
• 3 main principles: to work hard and honestly. to share with those in need. to always remember God throughout the day.
• belief in equality of all people.
• belief that all people have the right to follow their own belief without persecution or condemnation. Religious freedom is so important that Sikhs have responded in battles to defend non-Sikhs' right to the freedom of belief. They have fought on the behalf of Hindus, which has led to some confusion and the false claim that Sikhism is a division of Hinduism. It is not an off-shoot nor a branch of Hinduism. Though there are similarities, Sikhism exists as a separate religion from Hinduism.
Of course this just skims the top. I'll trust you to google further, if you are interested.

ninety-eighth visit: Sept 29th 2011 Reconstructionist Judaism, Rosh Hashanah

9:30am thursday
Congregation Dor Hadash
Rosh Hashanah services, day 1
5898 Wilkins Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15217
squirrel hill

Two points of significance to this visit:
1) It's the first day of Rosh Hashanah. For more about this the Jewish New Year, please see my 2nd visit. I have so many other things to write about, beyond the important meaning of this High Holiday...

2) the uniqueness of Congregation Dor Hadash (in structure and beyond):
a) Like Bet Tikvah (5th visit) and YPS (85th visit), here worship is not led by a Rabbi. I pulled this from their website, as there is no better way of explaining:
" Services
• are led by our members and our lay cantor, Cheryl Klein. [who is absolutely amazing, may I add].
• welcome participation by members and guests
• are gender egalitarian
• are open to all, including interfaith families
• integrate a deep respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life"

b) This is a Reconstructionist congregation, and if I'm not mistaken the only such in Pittsburgh proper. So, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox make up the four movements of Judaism in North America. Reconstructionist is a modern movement that grew from Conservativism (1920-1940), and encompasses a range of philosophies based on the notion that it is not possible to follow many aspects of the traditional Jewish belief because of advances in knowledge and in daily modern life. This is a brash simplification, but for the sake of length, I'll trust you to research further if an interest exists.

I particularly look forward to this visit because of a coincidence I can't help but to share. A New York artist I met in Germany this summer told me to keep an eye out for her friend—Pittsburgh artist, Wendy Osher.

Less than two months later (ten days before this visit), I am randomly introduced to her by a mutual friend. Moments later, I learn she is a member of Dor Hadash, my sole remaining synagogue visit, which I had been saving for today, Rosh Hashanah.
I also learn that she is a member of a Jewish-Muslim conversation group, made up mostly of members from The Muslim Community Center in Monroeville (84th visit) and today's congregation, plus some. I'm dying to talk to her more about this.
And to add to the richness: Wendy is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.

Today she invites me to sit with her and her husband, James, who is also an artist.

A huge benefit of congregations led by laypeople taking turns at the pulpit, I have come to realize, is the amount of energy and the amount of life-experiences each is able to store up and pour into each talk delivered. On the other hand, imagine the way this usually works: one person having to come up with new inspirational insights to present to a room of listeners every single week of his or her life.

Congregant Mike Zigmond speaks today. One can feel, without a doubt, that he stirs the room. Below is his eloquent talk reduced to a few stubby sentences, yet hopefully not stripped of the power of his ideas:
He speaks about his son practicing both Buddhism and Judaism. Passionately, fully. (Did you know that here is an actual term for such believers? Jew-Bu. I learn this a bit later.) Mike goes on to say that in daily conversation, you will hear the words "religion" and "faith" used interchangeably. Not in Judaism. Faith is only part of it. The rest is action. Deed. We have to join together in action: Jews with Muslims with Christians with Buddhists. We must get past our differences and work together.

I feel lucky and inspired that of these final ten visits, many so strongly hit on the concepts driving gatherings.

For not knowing any Hebrew (besides the first fourteen syllables of most prayers), I am able to follow and participate fairly easily during this service. Prayers, blessings and psalms are written phonetically on opposing pages of the prayer book. Scholars' comments and observations are included "below the line" on each page. And some sections are spoken in English, including a Mary Oliver poem.

Immediately after the service:
Those who wish to participate in a ritual called Tashlich (explained below) gather outside the synagogue. During our walk to Chatham University's pond, where Tashlich is to take place, we talk. One woman says I look like I am from a different time and place. I tell her about gatherings. When explaining this project, I usually don't use the word "art" until my final few sentences, because I have found that otherwise it confuses my listeners. But before I get to this point, she says: "You are an artist, correct? And this is your art project?" I totally want to hug her.

Tashlich: a tradition of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, with origins in the Middle Ages. My favorite part of today. Because I had never done this before. And because of what it is. This ritual requires either a body of moving water, or still water with fish. Each participant, standing at the edge of (in this case) a fishy pond, receives a very tiny ribbon-cinched nylon bag filled with breadcrumbs. We meditate on our misdeeds of the year. We toss the breadcrumbs on the pond's surface. To be carried away. By the fish—fish with eyes that never close, like those of the all-knowing. A symbolic casting away of misdeeds. But it is important to note that with this act, our misdeeds do not disappear as if they never existed; but instead they are acknowledged and transformed. A clean start to the New Year.

Wendy brings up the length of our time at the synagogue today. I feel that it's nice to be away from quotidian obligations. The long, quiet inward focus. She says she believes that that is part of the purpose. I enter normal life again, sometime just after 2:30pm. I leave normal life again at 4:00 to enter my studio. Although, defining when and where obligations end and belief or art begins can be a tricky thing sometimes. And that's not all bad.

ninety-seventh visit: Sept 28th 2011 Anglican and Epsicopal affiliated

5:00pm wednesday
Trinity Cathedral
Annual Blessing of the Artists

328 Sixth Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15222
downtown, central business district

For ease in understanding, I'll copy a few phrases from Father Paul Johnston's email announcing this event, the Annual Blessing of the Artists: "For blessing, bring some tool of your trade—a reed, mouthpiece, paintbrush, whisk, mallet, bow, baton, mute, that script or piece of music with the scariest challenge..."

As you may know, part of the reason I am doing this project is that more often than not, there exists a tension between those who make art and those who practice religion. There are, of course, exceptions: Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and yes! one still living: Anselm Kiefer. A list of my personal friends and acquaintances who do both in full, cashes in at four. And presumably (or to varying degrees) add to this, the seventeen or so in the sanctuary with me tonight. For once, perhaps the only time during this project, I don't feel like a complete outsider. Knowing that this is a service open to artists of all faiths, knowing there may be many of us who are not members.

Introductions around chapel: many musicians. visual artists. A writer, if I'm remembering correctly. Father Paul is a musician, music history scholar and professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Homily: The spirit as creator. And a delegator of this duty of creation. Father Paul talks about Picasso's Guernica for a bit. It is our job to create art that tells the truth, no matter how ugly it is. To make art that creates change.

Something I did not mention: I had entered during the first hymn. (The only hymn on the evening's agenda.) I thought I was in the wrong place on the wrong day. Literally. I thought I was walking in on a choir practice. An AMAZING choir practice, full of professional singers who had been making noise together for years. One of the artist-congregants asks if we could please sing one more hymn because the first sounded so amazing. So we do. I can't help but to say that I believe that any other congregation would have obediently followed the bulletin, without questioning, never proposing an instinctual change.

Time for the blessing.
The officiator, Reverend Cathy speaks the blessing's words while sprinkling holy water on violin cases, sheet music, a box of pastels, my inking pen.

Mentioned during the service: There were calls to the church from those who wished to come but could not because tonight is also the first night of Rosh Hashanah. (Explanation and apologies offered by the Priests.) Comments from a congregant that the ideas concerning creation in the homily are reflective of the Jewish New Year's
traditional meaning. ...Und das kommt morgen.

ninety-sixth visit: Sept 25th 2011 Presbyterian

11:00am and 3:00pm
Second United Presbyterian Church of Wilkinsburg
sunday service and the annual blessing of the animals
300 Hay St, Pittsburgh PA 15221

Please see 95th visit. My experience for this visit is included there.

ninety-fifth visit: Sept 25th 2011 Presbyterian, oldest church in continuous use

10:15am and 12:30pm
Beulah Presbyterian Church

2500 McCrady Road

Churchill, PA 15235


This post covers both my 95th and 96th visits.

I went to bed Saturday night, thinking I'd be done with today's visits in time to begin work in my studio shortly after noon. Think again.

10:15am attend service at Beulah.
Beulah's regular Sunday services here are held in a building built
in the 1960's. The reason I choose to include Beulah in gatherings is this: on this property, next to this newer church, stands the congregation's 1837-constructed church building, Beulah Presbyterian Chapel. Weddings and occasional summer and holiday services are still held here, making it the "oldest building in Allegheny County in continuous use as a church." However, worship on this site actually dates further back. Evidence of preaching was first documented in the area in 1758. Members first gathered in plein air, with logs serving as pews and the minister benefiting from the only shelter: a tiny gazebo-like tent. (information from a pamphlet provided by Pastor Cynthia)

In emails earlier this week, Pastor Cynthia hints that I may be able to get a quick tour of the older building if I stick around for the picnic after services and connect with one of the church archivists. However, unfortunately, I must bow out promptly, in order to attend Second Presby. As
I drive off, my sixth sense tells me it would be worth returning to Beulah today, immediately after my visit to Second Presby, in case the archivists have not yet left the picnic. Decided.

11:00am attend service at Second United Presbyterian of Wilkinsburg.
Obviously, this is number two of my 3-Presby-church-countdown (explained here, first two paragraphs). At the end of this service, a request is made: "Would those who are able, please carry a chair or two outside for our 'blessing of the animals' to occur today at 3pm?" Hhhmm. I can't justify missing this. If any dog deserves to be blessed, it's our dog Zoe. She's 11.75 yrs old and the best dog ever. This may be her only chance. (By the way, this is a gorgeous church in beautiful grassy, treed surroundings. She's a nature dog, and she'd love it.)

12:30pm I have returned to Beulah (picnic).
I'm greeted immediately by a sweet, sweet woman whose name I feel really bad for having forgotten. She says she had seen me talking to her husband on my way out this morning. I remember his name: Jan. I am quickly shuffled to the food tables because the packing up and clearing off has already begun. No worries: mac and cheese and potato salad, plenty. I am offered a seat with Jan's family. I learn that the picnic is to honor those who have been members at Beulah for over 50 years. There are 77 of these honorees. Indeed.

Pastor Cynthia approaches and offers to take me into the historic 1837 chapel herself. Jan comes too. The entire one-story building is one room. A dug out basement was completed in the 1920's despite its solid rock foundation. The chapel was period-restored in the 1980's. Electric chandeliers hang as careful matches for candled-originals. Paned-glass windows give ripply views of the cemetery outside. Which, I am told, is the resting place for soldiers from each and every war that this country has been involved in.

Cynthia, Jan and I spend some time in the room of archives.
Three doll-house-scaled dioramas of these worship grounds are encased in glass vitrines. The dioramas, constructed by a father-daughter team, depict the other worship-buildings or worship-spaces that once stood on this property and served this congregation: hewn logs as pews and pastor's gazebo-shelter; log cabin; and the 1837 chapel. A few more minutes of conversation about Beulah's time capsules before I thank Cynthia, bid Jan farewell, and return to the cemetery to draw. It's warm enough to take my shoes off.

2:25pm I pull up at my house. Hello to husband. Gather the dog, and immediately drive back to Second Presbyterian in Wilkinsburg for the blessing of the animals.
Not more than eight people and ten dogs sit attentively in a perfect semi-circle before Pastor Deb. All canine attention is completely focused on her. Dogs have a sixth sense, too. About why they are here, and over a sudden distraction: the fact that the pet carrier just now arriving contains a cat. A short homily. No denial: an embarrassingly horrible attempt by humans at singing two hymns. And then the important part. Spoken to each pet individually, with eye contact: "May you, (insert pet's name), be blessed by the One who created you and may you continue to be a blessing to those who love you."

At the finish, all creatures move to the reception area. Treats for the dogs and treats for their owners. The humans exchange pet stories for a bit. Pastor Deb has two dogs and two cats. They are Minister's children of the worst kind while she is officiating, so instead, every year, she takes them downtown to Trinity Cathedral to be blessed there. Ironically, Trinity is my next stop—three days out.

4:15pm Finally, finally home.