The artistry of making the best of what’s left

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Janus was the two-faced divinity of ancient Rome, facing backward and forward. The past and future, left and right profile, double homily and divided. If someone is described as  “two-faced,” it’s not a compliment!   

Of course, this Hebrew moon-month, Tevet, reminds us of the loss of a great temple and the gain of rabbinic freedom to interpret scripture creatively, not only literally. 

 Will it be a stormy season or will we have a “January thaw”? Who knows?   

Many, many semesters of life in the past, in a previous century, I studied biology as a pre-med requirement during my sophomore year. It was a lab class and we had to “pit” a living frog, dissect it, as well as peering through microscopes at one-celled creatures all the way to fetal pigs in vats of formaldehyde. Yuck! 

It wasn’t for me, but no elective left me unscathed: I gather memories that last forever, even if merely whimsically. 

I used to “redeem” whatever I could sneak out of the class, and I raised my rescued brood in my fancy Yale dormitory chambers. On my windowsill, I had a jar with protozoa, algae, one-celled designs and a single green atom with the name “Euglena.” Now, this moving item could “eat” the sunbeams. It had a green chlorophyll hue, but could wriggle and swim about in its glass urn. 

So: was it classified as plant or animal?  Both!  Which meant, somehow, that perhaps we are derived from cousins we can trace back to the very beginnings of planetary time. Maybe we are related to trees! 

This is how my mind works, like a crazy children’s book. But bear with me here. 

We had a guest at the Rhode Island School of Design some time ago, in my classroom.  At my invitation, I have a photograph of Roman Vishniak with his arm around me. You may recall that he was interviewed on PBS, and more recently his photographs were displayed in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. 

Vishniak was a Holocaust survivor who had buried his photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto and later returned to retrieve them. But fate and fortune changed his career as an artist and photographer. In time, he would go to New York City’s Central Park with a chicken baster and borrow a little water from a puddle. 

With a chip of mica from a meadow – not a square of glass – he would invite the one-celled guests into his home, where he would snap a few shots before returning them to their habitat in the free waters of the Manhattan park. The theme of his lecture to my students was:  Every living thing, no matter how tiny or seemingly negligible, shares the very same, indeed identical, “emotions” as you. Fear, hunger, longing: the whole “human” range of feelings. 

After witnessing and experiencing the worship of the technology of murder and of death, Roman Vishniak determined that the smallest dot is valuable and sacred! Wow!  In the “scientific” slides he showed us, he mixed in pictures of his backyard garden with snaps of a grandchild. He was charming, mystical and at once melancholy and merry!

We have a “wintersession” mini-semester at RISD during which I teach a course on documentary designs; celebrations of the actual, not the fanciful. In the class, students have to share their discoveries. Sometimes, if I have a free afternoon, I put my camera in my coat pocket and seek little adventures around town. I have noticed that the stumps of some trees that have been axed and removed remain, and a secret sculptor chops away at the living corpse, with the roots and lowest portion of the trunk intact, and produces … mushroom shapes!  That’s what an art education is all about, really. Looking at the troubles of the world and making the best of what’s left, with humble humor and with skills and craftmanship.  

I dedicate this January, or Tevet, column to the anonymous artistry of our community. And to the weeds that bless our yards and the bits and pieces of wilderness that restore our broken world. I know it’s a complicated concept, but somehow when big things go wrong, poets make things right. And, for me, it was Vishniak, and the souls of the living things I took away from the slaughterhouse of a lab course, which inspired this homily.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.