Let there be daylight

American Academy artists and cultural leaders develop social projects.

dean moss 521 (photo credit: Courtesy American Academy of Jerusalem)
dean moss 521
(photo credit: Courtesy American Academy of Jerusalem)
Until October 7, Davidson Norris had never laid eyes upon the multimillion-dollar Israel Museum renovation he directed from his New York office. Norris specializes in the architectural use of daylight, a fundamental feature in the much-lauded construction completed in 2010.
“What was between my ears in envisioning how this project would look is very much what my eyes are seeing here today,” he said when entering the distinctive “Route of Passage” entranceway at the museum, on his first day in Israel for a 10-week American Academy in Jerusalem fellowship sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Culture.
The fellowship provides travel, accommodations, a living stipend and additional resources for four influential American artists and cultural leaders to develop individual projects emphasizing social engagement. They also teach local students in their specific craft.
Norris challenged 30 Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design architecture students to help him compile a list of Jerusalem sites that best show off its unique quality of light. “The idea is to then suggest that people go and observe the light at these places in order to develop a deeper appreciation of Jerusalem,” Norris said, during an interview at the King David Street apartment where the foursome was housed through December 16.
The Zion Gate, one of the eight entrances to the Old City, has a sure place on Norris’s list. He describes this Ottoman structure as “extraordinarily artful.”
“I’m fascinated by thresholds,” Norris explained.
“The Zion Gate is a defensive threshold, where you are forced to change course and go through a series of spaces that take you from outside to inside. It also takes you from the brightly lighted environment outside the south-facing wall through the defensive sweep of spaces, and allows you to gradually adapt your eyes to the darker interior.”
He wants his students not only to develop an appreciation for the light and how it can be interpreted, but also to design what he dubs an “in(ter)vention,” or a design response to the data they analyze.
“David has had amazing impact at Bezalel,” said foundation director Elise Bernhardt, who began the American Academy with a pilot group in 2010. “Jerusalemites will never see the light of the city in the same way again.”
Bernhardt said the fellowship aims for artists of stature to become part of the fabric of Jerusalem’s creative culture, and be catalysts for further creativity through a project of their choosing. Their functioning as a multidisciplinary cohort gives them an opportunity to also learn from one another’s different approaches.
“These artists have something to give, and we select them because they want to be engaged and not just in the studio,” she said. “This differs from academies in Rome and Berlin. It’s not a retreat; it’s an advance.”
When the artists go back to their communities, she added, “they share a much more nuanced understanding of this place with the people they meet back home.”
Choreograher Reggie Wilson, part of the 2010 group, used his 10 weeks to research the biblical character Moses. The end result is “Moses(es),” a performance piece that premiered last September at the FringeArts Festival in Philadelphia. Spectrum Dance Theater (Seattle) artistic director Donald Byrd, from the 2011 cohort, recently brought a group to Israel’s capital to lay the groundwork for a Jerusalem festival in that Washington city. And Target Margin Theater artistic director David Herskovits discovered Yiddish theater during his 2011 fellowship.
“He devoted his entire season to Yiddish theater last year, and is working on an exchange program with his company and actors he met here,” says Bernhardt.
In this year’s group, two had been to the Holy Land previously. New York City filmmaker Susan Korda recalls her first visit, at age 17, as less than impressive.
“I came here on a seminar about the future of European Jewry, and I was totally turned off by any number of things, whether it was the in-your-face propaganda, or not finding T.S. Eliot on bookstore shelves or Wagner in the concert halls. I didn’t get it.
But I also had a strong realization from childhood, coming from Holocaust survivors, that I didn’t know security in a global sense without the State of Israel.”
During her fellowship, Korda was the focus of a panel discussion at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on what she calls her “war stories from documentary filmmaking.”
She directed, produced and edited Vienna is Different and One of Us; edited the Academy Award-nominated For All Mankind and Sandi DuBowski’s Trembling Before God; and was story consultant for First Cousin Once Removed, a 2012 winner at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
For her American Academy project, Korda interviewed Christians, Muslims and Jews about their dreams, recipes, jokes, superstitions and fairy tales. She plans to come back in March to brush up on her Hebrew at an ulpan, in order to “get into more corners” of Jerusalem society.
She does not yet know what she will do with the anecdotes she is collecting from Israelis, ranging from teenagers in Kids for Peace to Eucalyptus head chef Moshe Basson and Romani and African Jerusalemites.
Neither does Brooklyn-based director, choreographer and media artist Dean Moss know exactly how his Jerusalem project, centering on devotion and obsession, will look ultimately. His 10 weeks in Jerusalem were “a meditation on love and distance,” observing the comparisons between Jerusalem and Ethiopia’s holy city of Lalibela, which Ethiopians have nicknamed “New Jerusalem.”
“I proposed a project that had to do with the relationship of absence between Jerusalem and Lalibela,” Moss explained. “I thought the comparison would be very interesting on personal, political and spiritual levels.”
Wandering the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, he paid close attention to the movements of prayer. At the Western Wall, “I was so surprised because in Ethiopia I had seen that same activity at similar walls in a Christian community, with similar gestures. The activity of devotion is strikingly similar.”
He also noted “a lot of similarity between the very narrow causeways of the Old City and the narrow causeways between the churches in Lalibela. The cave-like spaces of the churches themselves are very, very similar.”
Visual artist Diane Samuels of Pittsburgh stationed herself in one space only: the ornate lobby of Jerusalem’s iconic YMCA.
“I wanted to sit in public places and talk to people about the idea of home. I wanted to do this in a place where I could get a mix of cultures and religions,” said Samuels.
People passing through on a daily basis include parents bringing their children to the bicultural preschool, patrons of exercise classes, guests at the hotel and mostly Arab staff members. She asked anyone who stopped at her table to take a small card and write a few words in their native language about what “home” means to them.
“Americans tend to write ‘New Jersey,’ for example, but people from this region most often say, ‘It’s complicated.’ I get sentimental, political and emotional responses,” said Samuels. “I’m trying to build a physical archive of these cards and a mental archive of the conversations I’ve had, and then go home and do something with it.”
While waiting, she was transcribing the work of poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai onto parchment in micrographic letters. During her final presentation on December 8 before a packed crowd at the YMCA, Samuels cut up one of her parchments and gave out pieces of poetry to the audience.
As cofounder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh, a branch of an international residency program for persecuted writers, Samuels said she was not looking to take a stand on any political issues.
“I’m just interested in learning. I may be working with this for the rest of my life,” she said.
The Foundation for Jewish Culture is shutting down, but Bernhardt hopes to continue the American Academy.
“I think this program needs to be freestanding, and I’m in conversations with a number of institutions about creating a staff and infrastructure,” she said. “If this is to add value to the city’s mix, we must identify places here that can benefit from working with professionals at the top of their game.”