When I first heard about the Shmita Project exhibition at the Minnesota JCC, I wondered, “What kind of artistic program can they be doing about raggedy clothes?” I was confused. Recalling myself as a teenager with poor taste in clothing, I can still hear my mother’s voice calling out to me, “Do you think you’re leaving the house wearing that schmatta?”
What the Minnesota JCC is examining is not bad clothing but shmita, the sabbatical year, which comes around every seven years. During shmita, Jews let the land rest, release debts, resolve disputes and open their hands and hearts to those in need.
Beginning on Rosh Hashana 2021, Jews worldwide entered into the shmita year. It might go unnoticed except for, perhaps, a d’var Torah (word of Torah) from the bima (synagogue dais) were it not for the efforts of the national Jewish environmental organization, Hazon. The East Coast-based group partners with Jewish organizations across the country to lead “a transformative movement weaving sustainability into the fabric of Jewish life, in order to create a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable world for all.”
The Shmita Project show started with Hazon’s sponsorship of a national art competition. According to the Shmita Project website, the Shmita Prizes award creatives of all ages and experience levels for art that highlights shmita values in our contemporary world. These works offer creative paths to preparing for, marking and engaging with the shmita year. The categories are fine art, performance art/music/liturgy, ritual object, film/video and written word. All fields are represented in the Twin Cities show.
So, with over 250 Jewish artists nationwide contributing their work for consideration for shows, how did Minnesota JCC arts and culture producer Riv Shapiro winnow them down for our local show? Shapiro explained it as an iterative process: First was to view slides of works shown at other JCCs; then, add the winners and honorable mentions to a list. From these, Shapiro chose those that they thought were most appealing and shared them with others in the creative programs areas of the JCC to make the final cut.
Among those who made the cut was Twin Cities painter Owen Brown. A San Francisco native, Brown has lived in the Twin Cities since 2016. He has exhibited in juried shows and solo exhibits throughout the United States. His works have been acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Nature Conservancy, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, and are in collections in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
His painting “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” is on display in the Tychman-Shapiro Gallery at the Sabes Center. Brown explained his artistic inspiration as he cared for his ailing father in the hospital:
“I walked in the little prairie in the early spring morning, with its awakening insects and first greenery. Then I would spend the day with my father in his sterile hospital room, surrounded by machines that promote and prolong life, until they no longer can. When I left, I’d go back to his house and paint. What I felt then was how my father would soon return to the earth, how the earth would renew, how we passed ourselves on to each other, one by one. I wasn’t sad; rather, I was opened to an understanding that I hadn’t had before. We go; the earth remains — in peace. Indeed, that seems to me to be part of the idea of shmita, leaving the land fallow so that it can regenerate, so that it can be purified and return to itself.”
Brown’s painting is only one of the 16 artworks on display at the Sabes Center. “We could have had many more wonderful works for this show, but shipping costs proved to be prohibitive,” Shapiro said.
The Capp Center in St. Paul has a different angle on the same subject. The Shmita Prize competition was open not only to established artists but to artists of any age. Tracy Agranoff worked with children aged two to four in the Capp Center’s Early Childhood Center to explain and guide the budding artists to create works that reflect the Shmita Project theme. They’re now on view at the Capp Center gallery.
The Shmita Project is on display at both JCC locations until Aug. 10. Catch them before the shmita year is over on Erev Rosh Hashana.
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