27 February 2007

Holistic Integration

Four Wings of America and the Center of the World
NE Corner: Tzitzit on the Maine coast
SE Corner: Tzitzit on the Florida coast

SW Corner: Wall seperating Tijuana from San Diego

SW Corner: Tzitzit on the wall seperating USA from Mexico

NW Corner: Tzitzit at Neah Bay in the State of Washington

My work as an artist brings to fruition the holistic integration of multiple fields, roles, and identities bubbling up from my subconscious imagination in animated dialogue with local and global environments. When my wife, artist Miriam Benjamin, and I moved to Miami from New York, we sensed that we had moved to one of the four corners of America. Having been invited to collaborate on creating a series of artworks as part of the official celebration of Miami’s centennial, we felt that we needed to explore the relationships between the four corners of continental United States and its geographic center’s connection to the spiritual center of our planet.
American Airlines and Biblical Fringes
We created Four Wings of America conceptually linking the biblical expressions “four corners of the earth” and “four corners of a garment.” The biblical Hebrew word used for the four “corners” of one’s garment and metaphorically as the four “corners” of the earth is the same word that is used for “wings,” kanfot. “Make yourself fringes (tzitzit) on the four corners (kanfot) of the garment with which you cover yourself” (Deuteronomy 22:12). When I cover myself with a prayer shawl (talit) with four fringes each morning as Jews have been doing for millennia, I say, “May the talit spread its wings like an eagle rousing his nest, fluttering over its eaglets.” The biblical prophesy, “He will ingather the dispersed ones of Judah from the four corners (kanfot) of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12), is being realized in our day. We decided that the four corners of America needed biblical fringes.
We made large white rope tzitzit with a sky blue thread as mandated in the Bible. Since corners are wings in biblical Hebrew, we invited American Airlines, the largest U.S. corporation in the wing business, to sponsor our artwork. We placed large rope tzitzit on the boardroom table to explain to the airline executives their ritual significance and why we wanted to create a visual biblical commentary by placing them at the four corners/wings of America. It became apparent were going to buy our proposal, when one of them said, “It is as if the United States is spiritually lifted up by its four corners as the blue thread of the fringes links the sea to the sky.” They agreed to sponsor the project and flew Miriam and me to the four corners of America to physically realize our spiritual metaphor. Since American Airlines is the only airline with non-stop flights from Miami to Seattle, its public relations people were pleased with the concept.
New World
We drove from Seattle to Neah Bay, an Indian reservation at the end of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington State, attached the tzitzit to a tree at the shoreline. The tzitzit flowing outward into the Pacific Ocean transformed the northwest corner of continental United States by their presence. At the southwest corner, the tzitzit shuddered in the wind hanging from to the steel wall that separates San Diego from Tijuana at the Pacific Ocean. Tzitzit flowed into the Atlantic Ocean from huge barnacle-encrusted boulders on the Maine coast and from swaying palms shading the beach of a balmy Florida bay.
Biblical passages on tzitzit linking them to the exodus from Egyptian bondage invite us to appreciate our freedom. The sky blue strands of tzitzit flowing freely from the four corners of America also tell America’s story that links the heavenly blessing of freedom to the oceans crossed by those yearning to be free in the New World. At the request of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams proposed a seal for the newly independent United States of America that shows the Israelites escaping to freedom from Egyptian bondage through the divided waters of the Red Sea while Moses stood on the shore with his hand held high over the sea. President George Washington repeated the same biblical message of freedom in his letter to the Jewish community of Savannah. He draws the parallel between God’s delivering the Hebrews from oppression in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land and the providential agency in establishing the United States separated from European oppression by a vast sea. He prays that the same wonder-working Deity that freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt would “still continue to water them with the dews of heaven” as a Jewish community living in freedom in America.
Talit Stripes, Zebras, and Bar Codes
In synagogue in each of the four corner cities – Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland (Maine) – I participated in the weekday morning services wearing tzitzit flowing out of the four corners of my talit, a white woolen rectangular shawl with a series of stripes on both ends like giant bar codes. The stripes are parallel to call attention to the multiple paths of the twelve Israelite tribes, each representing different personality traits and alternative viewpoints. Photographing groups of men in their striped shawls in the synagogues brought mind zebras and bar codes. I photographed zebras in the zoos of each of the four corner cities and juxtaposed them with the photographs of the men in striped shawls.
I painted a mural incorporating the bar code stripes from the cover of ARTnews magazine on a wall in downtown Miami with the caption, “We stand illiterate before bar codes that supermarket lasers read with ease.”After attaching tzitzit to the four corners of America, I sensed that I needed to experience the center. Lebanon, Kansas, is the geographical center of continental United States. I flew to Kansas City and took a small plane to Selena, rented a car and drove through miles of corn fields to Lebanon, a town of 350 souls in the center of the northern tier of Kansas near the Nebraska border. Shortly before arriving at Lebanon, I passed through a town with a sign on its main street, “The Largest Ball of Twine in the World.” I pulled over to see a ten-foot high ball of string. It looked to me as if all the free flowing tzitzit in the four corners of the earth could have emerged from this giant source at the center.

Photographing the monument in Lebanon (Kansas) marking the center of USA after placing a spiral of earth from Jerusalem (Israel) framed by earth from the four corners
There were no people on Main Street when I drove into Lebanon at midday. Only the post office and general store were opened. I went into the post office and asked how Lebanon got its name. As she postmarked stamps with “The Center of USA,” the postal clerk said that she had no idea how Lebanon got its name. She sent me across the street to the general store to ask. “You’re in luck,” the store owner responded. “Every Tuesday and Thursday Gladys Kennedy quilts with her friends at the American Legion hall next door. Gladys knows.” He took me next door and introduced me to Gladys as the town historian. As she quilted, she explained that it was named for the cedars of Lebanon that King Solomon used to build the Temple in Jerusalem. She quilted a few more stitches and added, “I have a large cedar growing in my back yard, one of the many growing in this part of Kansas.” Gladys walked home to fetch a history of Lebanon for me to get the official version. She returned with a hardbound centennial volume, A Century at the Center: 1887-1987. I copied the following from the book while Gladys went back to quilting:

“Name of Lebanon Chosen: A group of early settlers asked Jackson “Jack” Allen, an early settler of the community, to choose a name for the post office and village. Mr. Allen, A Bible student, was the leading literary man of the day and the settlers looked to him to select the name by which the post office town should be designated. “Why not the Bible?” was his first inspiration, and searching the pages, he stopped when he read The Cedars of Lebanon and suggested that name. Nobody opposed, and the name of Lebanon was recorded in the records. This was the year of 1873.”

A mile out of town there is an official monument with a bronze plaque marking the geographical center of the United States. It is made of fieldstones stacked into a truncated pyramid holding a flagpole flying the stars and stripes. On the pebbled ground in front of the monument, I drew a left-handed spiral with golden earth from Jerusalem. I framed the Jerusalem spiral by drawing four corners with sand that Miriam and I collected from the four corners of America. Sand from a Florida beach and from between granite boulders on the Maine coast formed the two corners on the right side of the spiral and sand from the beach where San Diego touches Mexico at the Pacific Ocean and from Neah Bay at the tip of the Olympia Peninsula in the State of Washington formed the two corners on the left side of the Jerusalem spiral.
I scooped up some black Kansas soil at America’s center and brought it with me to Jerusalem, honored as the Center of the World by both Judaism and Christianity. With the Kansas earth, I drew a right-handed spiral on a slab of stone beside the Western Wall retaining the Temple Mount. This Jerusalem stone combined with cedar wood from Lebanon was used by King Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem three millennia ago.
As I was photographing the Kansas-earth spiral in Jerusalem to juxtapose with the matching Jerusalem-earth spiral that I photographed in Lebanon, Kansas, I realized that the biblical word “Lebanon” means “heart of the fifty.” The first part of the word means “heart” in Hebrew and the second part is the name of the Hebrew letter having the numerical value of fifty. My teenage son, Moshe, enjoyed my playful discovery of Lebanon as the heart of the fifty. Wearing a Miami Panthers T-shirt with tzitzit spiraling out from the four corners of his talit katan undergarment, he had just returned from having pushed a rolled-up scrap of paper into a space between the huge stones of the Western Wall. Rather than interacting with the rectangular stones, Jews throughout the centuries have related to the open spaces between the stones where they place their hopes and prayers written on small scraps of paper. In our digital age, people throughout the world can send their prayers to Jerusalem by e-mail inviting a proxy to print them out, roll them up, and add them to the hundreds of hopes filling the empty spaces between the stones.

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