Greg Mason Burns
My sanctuary is in the abstract. I started out as a journalist, believing with my heart that the truth was real, and that objectivity was a worthy goal. Of course, I grew up and understood there is no truth, only subjective realities that I preferred over other realities. What is the truth?
There must be “a truth” if the concept exists. The only place I could imagine it existed was in the concept itself, a la Descartes. The news media tells me one thing, and the politicians say another. I have worked on both sides, so I know that both sides are wrong and right at the same time, but there’s so much bickering and so little dialogue.
I can’t trust anything, even if I believe it to be true. Augusto Boal spoke of the actor being aware that he or she is self-aware. I can see myself being aware, and I understand that even when I believe I have found a truth, it probably isn’t so, and I know this, and I know I am flawed for believing and knowing – two conflicting notions – at the same time. The only place where truth exists, to me, is in the unknown. I find comfort in the unknown. The journey to the unknown is filled with the unknown in and of itself. The only sanctuary is the abstract, because I am aware that I can build my sanctuary however I want.
Top image: Greg Mason Burns, “The Red Stripe”, Watercolor on Paper, 9” x 12”, 2017
Gail Wartell—Sanctuary After Pittsburgh
After the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue, I felt deeply violated. I had dreams about the sanctuary at Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Rockland, my place of worship since moving from Portland to Belfast two years ago. The call for art about sanctuary was very timely. It pushed me to produce the paintings I had been thinking about, but might not have made. I am grateful to UMVA for something far beyond coincidence. The following is based on excerpts from my journal that I worked on concurrently with the paintings.
How do we heal from violence that comes from hatred? There is an added dimension when that violence desecrates the sacred. There may be many answers, but what comes up for me is Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world. Jews are compelled to heal and repair the world, in partnership with God. This is often attempted through social action, but is also done through acts of loving kindness. I think it may also be done through art. I believe that art is one of the ways to access the divine. The divine is the source of healing of body and spirit.
In the Reform liturgy, there is a poem that says that the only way we can get through the wilderness is by holding hands and marching together. So while the healing is by nature an individual journey, it must also be done in community. The Kaddish prayer (shown in Sanctuary Dream 2) is a prayer of mourning recited in community, though there is nothing in the actual prayer about death.
My first synagogue experience was the old Joy Street Shul in Boston. There are primal images that resonate. I remember the decorative lions on the ark and on fabric ritual objects. And the blue ceiling with scattered white stars (I now realize it was whimsical) fascinated me. Adas Yoshuron’s sanctuary, with the velvet, the gold trim, the old wooden ark, has a similar feeling of an older Judaism. Does it project safety? It does seem to project the sacred. I knew I had to buy gold paint. Also, Hebrew is a sacred language, and another access point for the divine. Sanctuary Dream 2 also includes the choir; music is an access point to the divine in my life.
Trauma, violence and fear not withstanding (common enough for my ancestors up through my grandparents’ childhoods), the existential angst is not just driven by pain; it has to do with mortality. We are driven to connect with God in a deeper way when confronted with our mortality. And when we die, we don’t want to be forgotten. There is comfort in ritual, and we connect with past generations through some of the prayers and customs. The sanctuary is full of memories: yahrzeit boards, labels, and embroidery all in memory of loved ones. I used to think it was morbid, but now I find comfort in it.
Hashkiveinu (shown in Point of Access) is the prayer asking for protection and peace. The line from Adon Olam (Shown in Adonai Li) is about not being afraid. Why is there so much fear in our lives? I think it might be a byproduct of late-stage Capitalism. But on the personal level, it can be debilitating, which makes it hard to see the big picture. Racism and various forms of hatred divide us and keep people from working together for solutions to our common problems. Why is it easier to build walls than bridges? Jews are frequently considered dangerous because we always question the way things are.
This process has pushed me way out of my comfort zone. These are not the same as painting landscapes, farm scenes, still lifes. Depth of symbols and shifting planes of dreams are unsettling. It is uncomfortable to risk making something that might be visually unsuccessful.
Do I feel differently after making these paintings? Do I feel safer? I believe I have grown through this introspective process. I have attained some measure of healing. I have embraced my enduring traditions in a more visceral way. For example, I was surprised to find how utterly joyful it was to paint the dressed-up Torah scrolls nestled in the ark. Through painting, I have come through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ to a place where I can embrace life more fully, with more love and deeper connections.