Made in the shade: CJM exhibit finds the link between trees, art and Jews

Within a short drive of majestic coastal redwoods, not far from the stately palms of Dolores Street and just a few miles from the controversial eucalyptus trees on Mount Sutro, all things arboreal will be celebrated in a new exhibit opening next week at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought” is an ambitious undertaking that brings together 80 works by more than 70 artists, with art indoors and out. The exhibit opens to the public Thursday, Feb. 16 and will run through May 28 in the largely concrete jungle of San Francisco’s South of Market area.

The exhibit is composed of three parts: the Dorothy Saxe Invitational, with works by local artists and others that focus on Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish “holiday of the trees”; works by international artists that examine trees more widely; and an installation by an environmental design firm that will be displayed in Jessie Square, the public plaza outside the museum.

“At the heart of this exhibition, we are looking at the extraordinary number of instances where trees are celebrated, mentioned, dissected and analyzed in Jewish tradition, and we are working with many contemporary artists who find the subject to be a natural fit,” said Dara Solomon, the exhibit curator.

“We are thrilled with the range of work in this exhibition,” she added. “We’ve got photography, video, sculpture, paintings and installations, all reflecting Jewish meaning, environmental meaning and issues of global importance.”

The exhibition’s title “Do Not Destroy” (bal tashchit in Hebrew) comes from a dictum in Deuteronomy that forbids cutting down fruit-producing trees during wartime. In the verse, soldiers are advised that they may eat the fruit, but because they are not at war with the trees, they may not cut them down.

The idea to pay homage to trees developed when Solomon and Connie Wolf, the museum’s former director and CEO, were pondering themes for the museum’s 2012 invitational. Held every two or three years, the invitationals allow artists to rethink, reshape and redefine traditional Jewish ritual objects. One year the theme was seder plates; another year, sukkahs.

The installation for this year’s invitational, the museum’s seventh, was designed in collaboration with Israeli artist Dov Abramson; it illustrates ancient Jews texts, contemporary rituals and mystical ideas, all relating to trees. One of the highlights is a map of all the different trees encountered in the Torah.

“We wanted to convey information about the role of trees in Torah, in Midrash and Kabbalah,” Solomon said, noting that an age-old discussion among rabbis and sages — what kind of fruit grew on the Tree of Knowledge? — is part of the educational installation.

“Afarsemon (Persimmon)” by Israeli photographer Tal Shochat photo/courtesy of andrea meislin gallery, new york

“The tree has always been an intricate part of Jewish life,” said Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of San Francisco. “The Baal Shem Tov tells a story about a leaf dropping from a tree to shelter an ant on a hot summer day. This story is about how divine providence affects our life — so I would say it is permissible for Jews to be tree huggers.”

Ironically, or maybe not, the topic of Langer’s next lunch ’n’ learn session on Feb. 23 is “Do Jews Hug Trees?”

Hugging a tree, however, isn’t where artist Beth Grossman of Brisbane got her inspiration to create a piece for the invitational. Rather, she turned to the certificate her family received when a tree was planted in Israel at her birth 53 years ago. On a 54-by-22-inch piece of reclaimed wood, Grossman created “Yearnings,” crafted with pyrography (wood burning), watercolors and ink.

“The tree’s outline is the same as the one on the certificate,” Grossman said. “My personal story, a timeline of events regarding my relationship with Israel, is embedded in the landscape. My love for trees and my personal story is complicated, but I left the wood of the tree blank, because the tree is uncomplicated.”

Local artist Deborah Lozier’s “Hand-me-down” includes found wood and several kinds of silver. photo/courtesy of the artist and velvet da vinci, san francisco

San Francisco designer and entrepreneur Yves Béhar fashioned “Alef of Life” from pieces of bay laurel driftwood found on the beach in Bolinas. “Our awareness of nature needs to be first, like the first letter [of the Hebrew alphabet], alef,” Béhar said.

Luke Bartels, a member of Woodshop, a collective of four artists in San Francisco, contributed “The Wood Standard,” wood from California bay laurel trees carved to resemble 108 bars of gold, each just slightly smaller than the real thing.

“When you take the cold, austere beauty of gold and warm it up with the infinitely more beautiful look of wood, you wonder how gold can be so much more expensive,” Bartels said. “Finance is so much a part of art that working the financial aspect into conceptual art was intriguing to me.”

   During the planning process for the invitational, the museum decided to “branch out” (Solomon laughed when she said it) and explore borrowing existing works from artists around the world. Pieces relating to trees by Gabriela Albergaria, Zadok Ben David, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono and Tal Shochat and others will be on display.

Albergaria’s untitled piece is the largest. The Portuguese artist worked with the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks to identify trees in Golden Gate Park slated for removal. After an olive tree and Victorian box tree were cut into pieces, Albergaria created a new tree, over 12 feet tall, grafting the pieces together with braces and screws.

“Alef of Life” by Yves Behar is 14 inches tall. photo/courtesy of fuseproject

Japanese artist Yuken Teruya contributed the smallest work. “Notice-Forest” is a delicate tree cutout that stands in the illuminated interior of a paper grocery bag.

“The work is only about 10 inches by four inches, and when you look into the bag, you see a beautiful little tree,” Solomon said. Teruya also contributed a second work, adding paper fold-out trees into the pages of Shel Silverstein’s book “The Giving Tree” — “perhaps compensating for the protagonist’s neglect in planting for the next generation,” Solomon said.

Ono’s “Wish Tree” installation will be on Jessie Square, complete with paper tags and pens so visitors may write a wish and tie it to the tree, a tradition Ono recalls from her youth in Japan. Ono’s tree will join other permanent trees on the plaza — ginkgos, flowering cherries, magnolias and Chinese fringe trees among them — and a special installation by Rebar Art and Design Studio of San Francisco.

“Reclaimed Time” by Terry Berlier, created last year with salvaged wood, is 24 inches in diameter. photo/courtesy of the contemporary jewish museum

Blaine Merker, a partner at Rebar who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District, described his company’s installation as five mobile wooden “islands” that will rest in the plaza. The islands are wooden shells, ranging in size from 5 by 7 feet to 9 by 14 feet, each one a different color. “Shaped like rough-cut gems, they can be pulled together to make an amphitheater or separated to provide quiet spots to hang out,” Merker said.

“Our inspiration was the experience of sitting or lying underneath a large shade tree, looking up at the branches. We wanted to create that experience in an urban way.”

“Trees,” Solomon summed up, “play such an important role in our lives. Growing up, we all remember a special tree.”

“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought”
runs from Thursday, Feb. 16 to May 28. Opening reception for CJM members 7-9 p.m. Feb. 15. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $5-12, free for 18 and under. www.thecjm.org or (415) 655-7800.

photo/courtesy of april gornick/danese, n.y.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.