I often find that I want to engage with Jewish values or holidays or texts (all of which are part of Torah, in the biggest sense) but I am unsure where to begin, or how to make the experience meaningful. This summer I committed to reading the Torah portion every week with some friends. We gathered for 3 hours on thursday mornings and spent the first hour drinking tea and talking about the themes of the text. We asked each other questions, noted what was confusing, what was surprising, what we found beautiful and what we disagreed with. Then we would put the books down and take out a piece of paper (or a rock, or any other surface you want). The first task is to write an Intention. This is a statement in the first person, present tense that states yours goals or intentions for your art-making session. (For Example: “I want to stop thinking about lunch and focus on what the Red Sea looked like when the waters parted.”) Your intention can be related to what you read, but it does not have to be. The most important thing is to be honest and to follow your desire (aka, what gives you pleasure).
After you have completed your intention, put it aside and begin making art.
There are 3 rules to this process:
2. Do not comment on your own work
3. Do not comment on anyone else’s work.
This is a process. Painting, collaging, coloring, anything creative and crafty. It is not about what you make, but just about continuing to follow what gives you pleasure. It is best to have a set amount of time for making art. I usually need 30-60 minutes. I can stop whenever I feel like it. Several rounds of the process are usually helpful over time if that is possible since more things are likely to get stirred up than settled when you do communal work. remember how generous and holy it is to do work on behalf of the collective, which in this case isn’t only the people in the room engaging in the process but all people who are touched by these texts and conversations.
The next step is to witness your art. Begin by rereading your intention. Then, while looking at your artistic creation, start writing. Try your hardest not to think, but rather to treat it as a free-write. To let you brain flow, either by talking abstractly about ideas or concretely about what you see in the art. If you get stuck, ask your art a question. (For Example: Why is the bird in the cave on top of a rainbow?”) I usually write for about 20 minutes. You can write for as long as little as you like.
The last step is optional. As a group, people can share their intentions, creations and witnesses. If you choose to share, be sure not to comment on your own work or on anyone elses. The goal is simply to share what you have created. This is a way to have the text speak to your life, and to have your creative spirit speak to the text.
For a twist, try witnessing someone else’s creation!
I learned all of this from an amazing artist and healer, Pat Allen, who lives in Chicago and California.
Perhaps there is a poem you love, or a piece of High Holiday liturgy you are curious about, or one of the Torah/Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This exercise can be used all year, and is also a way to begin preparing for the Yamim Noraim (Jewish Days of Awe).
I have included a sample of my summer’s creations to offset any artistic anxiety that might be bubbling up inside you right now!
ps. some background music never hurts!