Transcending Boundaries Through Art

We met to celebrate the artistic process that seems to exist in all of us. Prior to the meeting, some of our members enjoyed a docent tour of the current exhibition at the Everson Museum, “Turner to Cezanne.” WTB member Betty Lamb had arranged this tour.

WTB Program Chair Tanya Atwood-Adams read an introduction by one of the presenting artists, Joan Burstyn. “Today at our meeting, we celebrate transcending boundaries through music, literature, arts and crafts. In all cultures, women contribute to the rich variety of artistic expression whether through dance, song, stories, poetry, painting, sculpture, the production of traditional meals, clothes, jewelry, house wares, ritual objects, or everyday plates and bowls. 

“As women who seek to transcend the boundaries of our various faiths, we women of WTB may find ways to express this desire of ours in the very topics we choose to portray in our art and in our crafts. We may, for instance, draw from other faiths to enrich our visualizations, or use modalities from the music of other faiths to enrich our own compositions. Or we may, through our work, reach out to explain the importance to us of our own spiritual home, while, at the same time, seeking to enlarge our understanding of the spiritual home of others.”

Tanya then explained how this meeting would be organized. Ten tables were arranged around the perimeter of the room, each with displays by one of our artists. We were to distribute ourselves evenly around these tables, and the artists would discuss their work to the small group gathered in front of them. At the end of five minutes Tanya would signal with her drum (a lovely sound!) that it was time to move on. Then we would each move to our right to the next table and repeat the progression until we had learned about each artist’s work.

The table of Lory Black, who has a love affair with clay, was a good place to begin. Lory grew up in Utica, N.Y., in a home with much love but little money. Her parents signed her up for a variety of free classes including painting at the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute in her home town. She was expected to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, a painter. However, Lory tended to skip the class so that she could stand in the doorway of another classroom and watch the clay class. Without telling her parents, she signed up for clay for the next term. Lory handed her listeners small pieces of clay so that they could sense its spirit as she discussed her work. Listeners formed their clay into various shapes (flowers, animals) as that spirit moved them. The largest sculpture Lory brought is entitled “War is Not Healthy for People, Pots, and All Living Things.” Small, dark, burned-looking pots on the surface represent destruction, and the piece is embellished with barbed wire representing the horror of war. “Bonding” is a figure of a woman carrying a child on her back, representing the fierce bond that exists between women and their children and grandchildren. “Spirit Family” represents indigenous people and the art that they have created on their own walls. Several of Lory’s pieces are included in a current exhibit of the Syracuse Ceramic Guild at the Delavan Art Gallery.

Joy Pople displayed a black cloth on which she had appliquéd a Nigerian design called a kano knot, created with small pieces of fabric from around the world. The design represents endless unity and bonding. Joy also displayed a quilt consisting of large X’s and O’s. In Joy’s Mennonite background, children were given a quilt to play with while they were told stories. To continue the idea of stitching, Joy showed a music video of our “Journey to the Tent of Abraham” walk on her laptop. She had “stitched together” a variety of images and added music and captions using the program Animoto. Finally Joy showed us photographs that she had taken during the 1980s of her husband’s grandfather and of a fallow field.

Emily Bran is a wife, mother, and college student. She has worked in charcoal, pencil, pastels, and clay, but chose to display her first oil painting. This is a marvelous portrait of a woman facing famine in Ethiopia. Emily was fascinated by her face, which expressed hopelessness and the poignancy of the unknown. Emily wanted to give the woman a voice. Expressive color was vital, so she painted a deep red background, a beautifully modeled blue face, and a vibrant green head scarf.

Betsy Wiggins spoke for Maurine McIntyre Watts, the owner of the Fair World Marketplace.  This is the only store in the Syracuse metropolitan area that sells fairly traded gifts from around the world. The mission of fair trade is to promote social justice and economic independence for disadvantaged people in countries around the world by providing a market for their original handmade crafts and food products. Fair World Marketplace sells fair trade crafts, coffee and chocolate from worker’s co-operatives in more than 40 countries, including some all-female co-ops. Sales support equal opportunity for women, sustainable job growth, the fight against child labor, and the right of all workers to support themselves and their families through a living wage in dignified and non-exploitative working conditions. Maurine became involved in fair trade after more than 20 years as a nurse and family nurse practitioner who served primarily low-income clients in Florida, Nebraska and New York. She also did volunteer work overseas. Following a trip to Calcutta, India, she decided to try to address poverty from the ground up through fair-trade economic development. Betsy displayed several items from the store: fashionable purses made from recycled materials including one made in Brazil from pop-tops and another made from recycled plastic bags in India; trivets made from magazine paper in the Philippines; beads made in Uganda from recycled paper and then shellacked; organic olive oil made in an Israeli co-op by Jewish and Muslim women; small angel ornaments made from orange peels; a silky rayon scarf made in Guatemala; pearls handstrung in the Philippines; and a necklace made of Zulu grass that has been dried, painted, cut, and strung.

Renee-Noelle Felice is a storyteller, writer, and poet. She said she is not good with her hands, but she loves color, so photography and collage are her visual media. She displayed photographs and collages that depict 40 years of demonstrations and celebrations. Her interest is individual faces, not crowd shots. Her collection ranges from the well-known (Ruth Messinger, Grace Paley, Kate Millett) to the unknown (homeless people who remind her of her own blessing of a home). 

Joan Burstyn introduced herself as someone who has transcended many boundaries in her life.  She is from England, so she transcended the national boundary. She has always worked, even when her children were young, an uncommon choice for women of that time. And Joan has always been active in the women’s movement, crossing the boundary of “women’s place.”  Additionally, Joan has always expressed herself through poetry and art. In her academic career, Joan attends many lectures where she doodles in pen and ink as she listens. A dean of art once advised her to use proper paper as she creates, so she switched from lined notebook sheets to drawing vellum. We, her audience, were amazed at the complexity and precision of these drawings. Joan chooses her favorites and makes prints of them, even using them as the cover of one of her published books and headers on poetry pages. Joan read us one of her poems, written when she was in her twenties. The poem “Autumn in the Tea Garden” has different meaning to her now that she is in the fall of her own life.

Francine Berg was raised in Geneva, N.Y. Her mother was a singer and dancer, and taught Francine to sing and dance. The cantor at her temple would let her sing. After she graduated from college, she wanted to attend cantorial school, but the program was five years long and she couldn’t afford that. Cantor Harold Lerner at Temple Adath Yeshuran recommended that Francine be hired for a temporary position as cantor at Colgate University. When she sang a cappella for the High Holy Days, it was such a spiritual experience that she decided she had to do this. In 1980 a friend knew that Temple Concord was looking for a part-time cantor and mentioned Francine to Rabbi Theodore Levy. When Francine was hired, she was the first female cantor in Central New York. The men were unsure that this was right, but the women were ecstatic! Francine sang a bit of Hebrew for us, and displayed a CD of different types of Jewish music that she recorded for her 25th anniversary at the temple. She also shared a dreidel, a hanakiah (the candelabra for Chanukah), and to the delight of her audience, she blew the shofar, the ceremonial ram’s horn. Finally, Francine pointed out the shawl, called a tallit, that she was wearing. She had it made using a variety of family fabrics appliquéd to the surface, including two lace gloves and crocheted collars.

In 1999 Kafi Ahmad came to the United States from Bagdad, Iraq, where she had made documentary films for television. She now volunteers in the Syracuse University photography department. She has taken other classes in art since arriving here. Kafi displayed and explained several pieces she has made, including jewelry, a jeweled frame, pencil drawings, an oil painting of eyes crying, another of Iraqi caskets bleeding blood and oil. Her experiences in Iraq have clearly influenced her art.

Eleni Roumpapas was born and raised in Rochester, NY. She moved to Syracuse 30 years ago and has worked for Onondaga County for 22 years. She has been a member of WTB for five years, serving first on the Council for two years and since then on the Advisory Board. Eleni is of Greek and Scottish descent. Her Greek grandmother crocheted doilies and lace; her Scottish grandmother was a seamstress. Eleni grew up with a sewing basket and made doll clothes, but had no time for that when she started working in her father’s restaurant. Recently she bought herself a teach-yourself-to-knit book from the Barnes & Noble bargain bin. Finding this difficult, she went to an aunt in Cicero who gave her lessons and materials. Her initial reaction to a pattern for house slippers was “Those horrible slippers!” but now she can’t stop making them, and jokes that she needs a twelve-step program to help her stay away from the yarn aisle of A.C. Moore.  Eleni illustrated how she uses two strands, one variegated and one solid, to make her slippers.  So far, she has sold them at one craft show. But sales are not the point: Knitting gives her a Zen-like calm after stressful days at work.

Daryl Files spoke for the refugees at the Center for New Americans. Her table was filled with sewing, knitting, weaving, and craft projects completed by women from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo, and Nepal; many of these new Americans were present at today’s meeting.   Sarah Too has created beautiful clothing on her loom, and we admired the intricate designs and softness of her woven blouses.  Several women are champion knitters, and Daryl showed us some of their hats. WTB volunteers meet the New American women weekly and share American culture and holiday traditions through song, dance, illustrated books, and art projects.  Many of these art projects were on display, including bottles decorated with paper mosaic and filled with flowers, jewelry, small painted elephants formed from clay, and cute turkeys for Thanksgiving.

At this point we had interacted with every artist and the drum called us to form a circle – in fact, the group was so large that we needed two concentric circles. Francine Berg taught us all the lyrics and steps of dancing the hora. At the end of several rounds of joyous song, we parted to consider our own artistic talents.