One (wo)man’s trash....

“Someone called me a dumpster diver, and I think that is a name I like."

Jo Milgrom infuses junk, and her take on religion, with new life (photo credit: RICKI ROSEN)
Jo Milgrom infuses junk, and her take on religion, with new life
(photo credit: RICKI ROSEN)
Jo Milgrom is not your typical feisty senior citizen. The octogenarian American-born Jerusalemite certainly lets it all hang out, gripes and all, but she does so with panache and not a little inventiveness.
As you climb the stairs to the upper level of the Jerusalem Theater lobby, right above the bookstore, you might be forgiven for thinking you had taken a wrong turn and that the “The Spiritual in Curious Trash” works were being exhibited elsewhere in the building.
Your eye catches a glimpse of some metal frames on wheels populated by strangely shaped objects, distended at various levels. There is nothing immediately particularly appealing about the concoction but, on closer inspection, it transpires that there is more to the skeletal structures than first meets the eye. All told, there are four such items in the work, which Milgrom has grandly titled Light is the Portrait of God.
The sign next to the first of the set explains that the creation comprises polyester shards suspended from four iron hospital curtain frames. The text also includes a quote from Psalm 104, which reads: “Lord my God, You are very great. You are clothed with splendor and majesty. You wrap yourself in a garment of light as You stretch out the heavens like a tent.”
That may sound a bit on the religious side and, as result, the observer may be driven to take a respectful step back. But Milgrom wants to engage us in her ethos, and sometimes in a fundamentally tangible way. Each frame bears a piece a paper which exhorts the visitor to “Touch me. Move me.”
“I want people to touch it,” says the artist. “This is not like in a museum where you are not allowed to touch anything.”
The “move” may, if we so desire, also infer an emotional connection.
Milgrom had actually planned on the viewer’s getting more out of the inconsistently shaped translucent orange-shaded slabs.
“Initially, I wanted lighting behind it and a fan,” she explains. “So it moves. The administration here was not happy about that, so I thought I’d put up a sign.”
Reaching and playing with the shards does make a great difference to the experience. You get a firsthand sense of the gamut of textures that come into play. The fired polyester is basically a smooth glassy material, but there are jagged edges to be felt too, and there are all kinds of objects – they look like stones or possibly small bits of cement – frozen inside the polyester. I ventured to Milgrom that they look a bit fossil-like.
“If that’s what you see, then that’s fine,” she responds.
That is not a cop-out. That is Milgrom‘s way of allowing the public to make of her creative efforts what they will.
It is difficult to put a name on Milgrom’s artistic style. “Assemblage art” is a term that fits, but it doesn’t tell even half the story. “Readymade” also comes to mind, a term with which Milgrom was not familiar until recently. That is typical of the uncomplicated dynamic exhibitor, who had no qualms about revealing to me that she turns 88 later this month.
“Someone called me a dumpster diver, and I think that is a name I like,” she notes.
The diving began many years ago, and the home Milgrom shared with her husband and four children began to gradually fill up with what most people would call junk.
Didn’t Milgrom’s rabbi husband mind the incessant accumulation process? “He spent most of his time in his study,” chuckles the artist, “so, no, it didn’t bother him.”
At the age of 60, Milgrom finally started doing something creative with the myriad bits and pieces she’d dragged home.
“I had to,” she says. “I just had so much junk.”
Searching for a word or expression that would succinctly encapsulate Milgrom’s art, I came up with the term “oxymoronic.” She liked that and, in all modesty, it is an apt description of the way she marries disparate objects and invests the amalgam and its components with new physical and aesthetic meaning and energy.
A Jewish Agency promotional poster from a couple or more decades ago has been augmented by two non-matching shoes. Milgrom called the work Aliyah with High Tops – Naiveté, with Boots.
“We didn’t think we’d get this kind of country when we came here,” she says with more than a touch of sadness.
In a documentary about Milgrom made by Paula Weiman-Kelman and Ricki Rosen called Torah Treasures and Curious Trash, the artist is seen putting together a work whose component parts include a map of Israel and a zipper. She says she made the piece as her own response to Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014.
“It was too painful. I didn’t how [the work would pan out] but I knew there had to be a relationship between the war, this map and the zipper and the fact that there was no closure. This is not the Israel we thought we were coming to,” she adds with a sigh.
Milgrom knows all about aliya. In essence, she and her family, in its various guises, did that twice. She and her husband, Jacob, first visited the fledgling state in 1950 “on the first El Al flight from New York,” she notes proudly. “I think we stopped in Iceland for fuel.”
They returned in 1969, by then the parents of four children.
“We came for three weeks and ended up staying for three years,” she recalls. The Milgroms’ bond with Israel went up a significant notch when their oldest son joined the army. The couple came back for good just over 20 years ago.
Milgrom clearly maintains a robust dialogue with Judaism, and most of her creations incorporate biblical or religious references. The exhibits include a seemingly incongruent encounter between a bunch of common or garden black computer cables and the strands of tzitzit. What could the two possibly have in common? But the title of the particular work says it all, and more – Material Things Yearn to Connect with the Spiritual.
Determining where the flotsam and jetsam of the consumer society ends and true creation begins can sometimes be a dicey business, but Milgrom manages to straddle that divide with consummate ease. In Lech Lecha, for example, she arrived at a thought-provoking pairing of the head box of discarded tefillin and headphones. They form part of a bunch of disparate objects which look like they have been thrown together without much forethought. The truth is, as with all Milgrom’s works, that the final product infuses the parts with new life and meaning.
Milgrom is keenly aware that in certain circles, using cast-off religious artifacts in her work could land her in hot water.
“Some of this might get me stoned,” she comments matter-of-factly. “That’s fine.”
As we were leaving, I asked her who her favorite artist was.
“Picasso,” was her rapid response. “He was so fearless.”
Milgrom isn’t too cowardly, either.
“The Spiritual in Curious Trash” exhibition runs until the end of July.