On Being the URJ Biennial’s Artist-in-Residence

by Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik

What an incredible experience. Five thousand Reform Jews from around the world (mostly from North America) gathering together in San Diego for the 2013 URJ Biennial, where I was the artist-in-residence.

I had three things to get done: The first was to create an original artwork inspired by Biennial, created entirely at Biennial in the Kikar (the “public square”). The second was to share my process with anyone and everyone who came by my mobile studio, and the third was to lead a workshop in papercutting and help people make their own art.

I’d never had to work in public in this way before, and it was certainly a challenge. It’s one thing to be working in the safety of my studio, where I can make decisions (and mistakes) on my own and not worry about how messy the process can be. To be exposed like I was, with people watching me sketch and cut and search and past: It was unnerving at times, but energizing at others. The hardest part might have been finding enough time to keep working on the papercut while talking to so many people who wanted to hear about my process.

As for the workshop: Three dozen people joined me to express ourselves through the cutting of paper – so many wonderful budding artists. It was both exhausting and invigorating. We had four hours together, and I am so proud of the work everyone made.

And somehow it happened: Although Wednesday morning, I had only a large blank sheet of cold-press watercolor stock, by Saturday night I had completed “Gathering.”

Wednesday I studied and sketched, Thursday I cut paper to create the top layer, Friday I disassembled and then reassembled pieces from comic books and maps and other ephemera to create the background, and Saturday after my workshop I put the last pieces together.

The idea inspiring the piece is simple, really. I came to see the Biennial as a “Sinai moment,” all of us gathered together to worship and receive Torah and study and learn.

As with all of my work, words from Torah informed the piece. In Exodus 19:18 we read, “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Adonai descended upon it in fire, and the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” That’s the way I like to think of Revelation – as a kiln. The smoke of God’s presence surrounding the top of the mountain reminds us that we are not just gathering, but creating. We came together to discuss strengthening our movement and building a vibrant and relevant Jewish future.

The mountain itself is built out of the honeycomb iconography of the Biennial logo, with the riot of colors and textures underneath reflecting the content of the sessions, the sanctity of our prayers, and the specific geography of Biennial. The space surrounding the mountain is made of cut-up books and ephemera, including a dictionary and an encyclopedia, with references to Sinai, San Diego, Torah, music, prayer and the Reform movement.

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to serve as Biennial artist-in-residence; it was a pleasure and a privilege to study and teach and learn and create with this community.

The finished product, titled "Gathering"

The finished product, titled “Gathering”

“Gathering” includes these comics (and more) in the background:

  • Action Comics #25 (Jan 2014)
  • Animal Man #2 (Dec 2001)
  • Batman: The Black Glove (2008)
  • Captain Atom #3 (Jan 2012)
  • The Flash: Rebirth #1 (June 2009)
  • Green Arrow #22 (May 2003)
  • Green Arrow and Black Canary #8 (Jul 2008)
  • Green Lantern: Fear Itself #1 (2011)
  • Infinite Vacation #5 (Jan 2013)
  • Invincible Iron Man #25 (Aug 2010)
  • Justice League #1 (Oct 2011)
  • Metamorpho and Aquaman #1 (Oct 2007)
  • Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #25 (Feb 2007)
  • Testament #3 (Apr 2006)
  • Wonder Woman #10 (Aug 2007)

“Gathering” also includes pieces of the following:

  • The Future of Judaism in America, by Eugene Kohn. (The Liberal Press, New York, 1934.)
  • Union Hymnal, Third Edition. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1958).
  • Pathways Through the Bible, by Mortimer J. Cohen. (The Jewish Publication Society of America, New York, 1966).

The final work will hang in the URJ’s New York offices, and for a limited time, we are making archival giclée prints available to anyone interested in having a reminder of Biennial for themselves. The prints measure 16” x 20” and will be mailed in an artwork tube; the price is $120.00 (including domestic shipping), and the proceeds are being split with the Union for Reform Judaism. To order, please visit my online store.

Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik is an artist working primarily in papercutting and papier collé. More succinctly: He cuts up comics to make art. His work is available online at www.nicejewishartist.com. He blogs at IsaacB2, where this post originally appeared with additional images of his artwork and the process behind it.
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