Day Schildkret with his work "Ode to Autumn"
Day Schildkret with his work "Ode to Autumn"

Healing the soul with artistic altars in nature

Six years ago, Day Schildkret was mourning the end of a relationship that left him devastated and heartbroken. But his dog still needed walking. It was on one of his walks near his home in the East Bay’s Wildcat Canyon that he found a patch of mushrooms.

It was “a Spielbergian moment,” he recalled. “The fog was rolling in and the eucalyptus trees were swaying, and the sun was setting, and I came to a tree that was at an apex of three paths, and there was this patch of amber-colored mushrooms under this tree.”

Captivated by the colors and textures, Schildkret began to arrange the mushrooms in a pattern. He added elderberries and bay leaves and crow feathers, and when he was done with the composition it seemed to him that an hour had passed in mere seconds.

“It was the first time in five months that it felt like the heaviness of my grief had lightened,” he said.

Schildkret next to his piece “Propeller” (Photo/Day Schildkret)
Schildkret next to his piece “Propeller” (Photo/Day Schildkret)

While the creation of his “altar” was organic, he had no idea that the moment of inspiration would lead him to a new vocation. After that first piece with the mushrooms, he challenged himself to make an altar daily for 30 days straight. He found the practice so healing that he just kept going.

When he went on vacation, he returned to find that in his absence someone had left him a question mark made from eucalyptus buttons.

“People were communicating to me in art, and what started as a personal practice to alleviate my grief I started sharing with my friends, and that led to my sharing it on Instagram, which then, like mycelium, began to spread.”

Schildkret, 40, is now the author of a book, “Morning Altars: A 7-Step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit Through Nature, Art and Ritual.” In honor of Tu B’Shevat, he will lead two workshops: Saturday, Jan. 26 at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco as part of the JCCSF’s pop-up series, and Sunday, Jan. 27 at the JCC.

Schildkret has been gone from the East Bay for six months, traveling around the country on tour to talk about his book, lead workshops and create altars. He recently did a presentation at ground zero in New York City.

In the Bay Area, Schildkret is known as a Jewish educator. For 11 years, he was executive director of Midrasha of the Tri-Valley/Tri-Cities, and in 2013 he won a Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for creating and leading a program for teens at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom called the Fire Circle.

“The Faded Dawn” by Day Schildkret (Photo/W.W. Norton Publishing Company)
“The Faded Dawn” by Day Schildkret (Photo/W.W. Norton Publishing Company)

Schildkret grew up in Long Island and Florida in a Conservative home. He left a career on Broadway to move to the Bay Area because he didn’t want to be indoors all winter.

Schildkret said there is a long tradition of creating art from the earth’s organic materials.

“I’m just standing on the shoulders of so many indigenous cultures around the world, making earth art to connect with the land,” he said, noting that he has received images of similar altars made by people throughout the world.

But Jewish educator that he is, he also connects this art form to Jewish tradition.

“We have a tradition of making shrines and earth art as a people,” he said. “Earth art as a Jewish custom has been lost for hundreds of years, and so my interest right now is to somehow weave together again an ancient memory of when our people were making shrines to gather the people together.”

While Schildkret is somewhat surprised about how his life’s path has unfolded, he said that even as a young child, there were harbingers of what was to come. After it rained, he said, he would go outside to save the worms on the driveway, guiding them onto leaves and soil.

“I would also decorate their homecoming by putting little twigs and flowers and berries around their holes,” he said. “I had this understanding that beauty is a way of coming back home.”

Impermanent Beauty: A Nature Pop-Up,” 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26. At Yerba Buena Gardens, East Garden, S.F. Free. “Celebrating Nature: Earth Art & Mindfulness,” 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27. At JCCSF. $90-$100 per person; use online code ALTARS25 for $25 discount.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."