Seeing is Believing

The artist relates in her new book, the typically tongue-in cheek-titled The (In)Complete Works of Jo – 30 Years of Visual Midrash

JO MILGROM poses among some of her works during her exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater (photo credit: RICKI ROSEN)
JO MILGROM poses among some of her works during her exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater
(photo credit: RICKI ROSEN)
Ask Jo Milgrom a question, and the chances are the response will leave you with more food for thought. If, for example, you ask about the significance of one of her works of art, and embellish your question with a suggested meaning of your own, it is more than likely Milgrom’s answer will start out along the lines of “Well, it could be,” or “That’s one way of looking at it,” or possibly “Whatever you think.” More often than not, the verbal rejoinder is accompanied by a shrug of her shoulders, and a gentle smile.
Milgrom, who recently turned 90, is currently exhibiting a selection of her works at the Jerusalem Theater under the teasing and pretty enigmatic title of “Whatever Is Whole Has First Been Broken.” That doesn’t make sense, I proffer when we meet up at her delightful high-ceilinged abode not far from the theater. Surely, to have something that is broken you have to start out with something that is whole, which you break, no? I get a friendly shrug for my querying pains.
Milgrom hails from the United States, and eventually – officially - made aliyah with her late husband Rabbi Jacob Milgrom around 20 years ago. The couple had already spent three years here in the late 1960s to early 1970s, although their initial visit here was made as far back as 1950, “on the first El Al flight from New York,” Milgrom noted when we first met a couple of years ago. That was around the time of her previous showing at the theater, which was entertainingly called “The Spiritual in Curious Trash.”
The truth is that the current exhibition might just as well been called something along the lines of “The Spiritual in Curious Trash 2” without missing the thematic mark by too much. Then again, there is an important yin-yang dynamic to the individual items in the new showing of social detritus-based works, to which the actual title alludes.
MILGROM HAS been an inveterate stockpiler of junk for many a year now. Her artistic wakeup call rang out loud, and unavoidably clear, three decades ago, at the already not particularly tender age of 60. As the artist relates in her new book, the typically tongue-in cheek-titled The (In)Complete Works of Jo – 30 Years of Visual Midrash.
“At age 60 in 1988 I met up with Nancy Chinn, a fellow faculty person in the area of theology and the arts at the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, California, who midwifed my entry into the art of assemblage – sculpture from found forms, namely from junk.”
The shadchanim had been busy for a while, even before Milgrom and Chinn met.
“The students had been saying, ‘Jo, you should meet Nancy,’ and ‘Nancy, you should meet Jo,’” Milgrom recalls. Chinn was a respected member of the local artist community.
“She created art in churches for seasonal celebrations, like for Grace Cathedral, on the top of a hill in San Francisco. There’s 100 meters of space to fill there.”
Chinn set about imbuing the vast area with something poignant and meaningful.
“Nancy was commissioned to do something for what we call Shavuot – Pentecost. She wanted to do something that dealt with the divine language, it comes down with the same motif as we have for Matan Torah [the Giving of the Torah]. She strung ribbons, nylon ribbons, the color of flames, from one end of the cathedral to the other. The air currents made them dance and look like licking flames. So the most orthodox non-iconic individual could have no objection to this kind of art at the cathedral.”
It is a theme and an ethos that sits well with Milgrom. She is well-versed in biblical texts and is deeply religious and/or spiritual. She also continues to explore, nay, to challenge “accepted wisdom” on religious issues and even biblical accounts. After I note the proliferation of passages in the Scriptures, which describe the wreaking of divine vengeance on misbehaving nations and individuals, Milgrom deadpans, “God does not come off too well in much of the Bible.”
That left-field take informs her art, too. Tefillin, tallitot, tzitziot and kippot all feature in her work, and current exhibition, as well as the odd parochet (Holy Ark curtain) and wedding canopy. For her, it is all grist to the creative mill.
As is her life over the last eight or so decades. One of the most moving pieces in the ground-floor theater gallery, and the one with the oldest point of reference, goes by the self-explanatory name of Homage to Mom. It is a temporally and personally evocative work and powerfully emotive. It comprises a busy hodgepodge of artifacts, taking in spools of thread and old bars of olive-oil soap, some burned-down candles, other sewing and weaving paraphernalia and, for some reason – possibly for no reason – a pocket-sized Hebrew-English dictionary.
“I don’t know why the dictionary is in there,” comes the reply to my query. “It just felt right there.”
That, in a nutshell, is where Milgrom is now at, in artistic creative terms. Not that she would necessarily answer to the epithet “artist” so readily.
“I don’t paint, I don’t know how to do sculpture. I do assemblage,” she points out. And she does it well.
HAVING WRITTEN about her last exhibition, in 2016, I could sense and see her creative evolution. Not that the previous offering was poor, by any means, but there seems to be more maturity to her output now, a greater sense of comfort with the exploratory process, and how to put her thoughts and feelings into tangible form. That necessarily involves mining her lifetime seam, and expressing some deep-felt emotions and referencing painful events in her life.
“My mother was a single parent,” she relates as we view Homage to Mom. “My father walked out on us when I was 11.” The first person plural refers to Milgrom, her two younger siblings and her mother. “My mother would sew all kinds of things to make money,” she continues. “These are the actual spools of thread she used.”
The new tome about Milgrom, which includes a pretty extensive photographic sample of her work, features a learned and heartfelt essay on the artist by Noam M. Elcott, a professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, and oh yes, the grandson of Jo Milgrom. Elcott naturally has the professional wherewithal to offer a learned take on his grandma’s oeuvre and to reference some of his personal history with her. He observes that mixing and matching and accumulating “stuff” is nothing new for her.
“Kol bo. Everything is in it. ‘Kolbo’ is the name my grandmother gave her famous soup, which, as the name suggests, consists of any and all foodstuffs,” Elcott writes. “Kolbo was born of the poverty that accompanied her Depression-era first-generation American childhood. As a child, secondhand was a way of life for Jo and the compulsion toward conservation and frugality never left her.” Depression era plight, exacerbated by paternal absence.
Milgrom confesses to having developed a penchant for scavenging and looking for a way to put her cast-off treasure trove to good use – referencing Jewish religious foundations in the process – for quite a while before she benefited from some practical guidance from Chinn. It was simple familial circumstances that acted as the catalyst for what has become an enduring hands-on pursuit.
“I got into doing Bible and art with my daughter’s sixth-grade elementary school, in Richmond, Virginia. That was a while before Berkeley,” she says. “My daughter was excited about her studies in ancient history.”
It seems Milgrom Jr.’s zest was down to the ruse her teacher had employed to get the students well and truly on board the project in hand. Milgrom, who was teaching Jewish studies locally, said she was mystified by her daughter’s glee at the assignment.
“I went to see what [the teacher] Mrs. Smith was doing. My daughter was so excited that I had to find out what the secret was.”
It transpired that Mrs. Smith had adopted a simple yet effective tactic for drawing her young charges into the subject matter and channeling their boundless youthful energy to addressing their project work creatively.
“She was teaching the history of ancient Greece and Rome with the artifacts. She had pictures of everything. The students would make scrapbooks and they would give talks and there was a big opening and kibud [light refreshments]. Mrs. Smith wasn’t just selling it; she was talking it and celebrating it.”
It was a turning point in Milgrom’s professional and personal life.
“A light went on in my head and I thought why not do this with Bible? It is also ancient history and has a visual tradition. I was teaching in our synagogue at the time, but I hadn’t accessed that whole area yet, of visualizing the Bible.”
It took a while longer before the notion took on corporeal form. A year or so later, Rabbi Milgrom took on a new posting, in California, and Milgrom eventually put the idea into practice. She began picking up all sorts of interesting junk although, at the time, she didn’t really know what she was going to do with it or, indeed, if anything at all. Meanwhile, she began working with confirmation-age youths at a synagogue in Oakland.
“American teenagers [in the 1960s] were semi-literate, Jewish and uncommitted,” Milgrom states. “I don’t know about today, but I was given this class and I had to teach them Bible two hours a week.” Easier said than done.
At a loss as to how she might arouse her students from their apathy, her daughter’s teacher back in Richmond sprang to the rescue.
“Mrs. Smith came to mind,” she recalls. That and a recent issue of Life magazine that featured a detail from Rembrandt’s acclaimed Jewish-theme work, Moses with the Ten Commandments.
“I ordered copies of the magazine for all the students, and I taught [biblical] texts through art. The students made their own scrapbooks and they had fun. That’s how I dealt with that confirmation class.”
FAST FORWARD half a century and Milgrom uses the very same technique with her mature students at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. The subtitle of Milgrom’s new book alludes to the practice of making cerebrally ingested textual material more accessible to the student through other senses, too.
The process of capturing various religiously related images began a long time ago, when the Milgroms were on a three-year sojourn here in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Milgrom invested great effort in tracking down material that she then had photographed and processed into slides. Over the years, she accumulated thousands of biblically related images, many of which have now found their way into the Schechter Institute database.
While some of Milgrom’s artistic creations may take some gray matter shifting to work out, they draw the eye, mind and even heart to equal degrees. Filming at Sinai: Black and White Fire: The Congregation at Sinai in the current exhibition is a motley conglomeration of components featuring latticework from the Milgrom sukka, an assortment of kippot and reels of camera film. The range of kippah styles may, if the observer so wishes, infer a commensurately expansive take on Judaism.
Mount Sinai and Matan Torah crop up elsewhere in Milgrom’s offering. Israel at Sinai is a Troubled Union comprises “a couple” – a white wedding dress draped over a hat, crowned with a nest-like item, which Milgrom suggests implies roots, propped up next to a loosely presented blue parochet. The accompanying text reads, “The commitment begins. The Sinai figure is mysterious, hidden beneath the parochet, weighed down already by future responsibility. Israel the bride is pure and white, erect, with a head of roots – equally mysterious. How will their life develop?” How indeed? “A marriage, any marriage is a sort of leap of faith. Husbands and wives have ups and downs. At best, you could say they live parallel lives. Matan Torah is where the trouble began for the Jewish people.”
In our email correspondence before and between our two sessions together, Milgrom always signed off with the word brachot – blessings.
“That’s what my mother always said,” she explains with a smile. “She had a tough life, but she taught us to be grateful for what we had.”
One of the smaller exhibits is a cracked mirror.
“That should have been higher up on the wall, so people could see themselves,” Milgrom notes with a resigned shrug. In The (In)Complete Works of Jo, the work appears titled Self Portrait with Time with, typically, the artist’s smiling face.
Milgrom may have more than a bone or two to pick with Orthodox Judaism and the religious establishment, but keeps on searching for the truth and smiling.
“Whatever Is Whole Has First Been Broken” closes September 1.