For more information about Laurie Wohl and her work you can visit her website: www. lauriewohl.com
Before the Opening Reception for Laurie Wohl’s exhibition, Birds of Longing: Exile and Memory, I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her work and background as an artist. Laurie Wohl, an internationally recognized fiber artist, lives and works in New York City, where her pieces are held in the collections of the Museum of Arts & Design and the American Bible Society, in addition to numerous other public and private collections. She has also given a series of lectures and workshops at home and abroad, including South Africa, on art and faith, art and worship, resistance to apartheid, and textiles as narrative and ritual. The questions in this interview are inspired by the current exhibition and its content in the Doug Adams Gallery.
Q: How would you describe the parallels between the religious texts you chose as both visual and poetic?
A: In “Birds of Longing,” I show the similarities and striking parallels of contemporary poetry of the Middle East, and the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian poetry and spiritual texts from the Convivencia period in Spain. There are the common themes of exile, nostalgia for Andalusia, spiritual love, enemies and reconciliation. Portions of these texts are included in my pieces here. The unwoven forms are inspired by – are a visual interpretation of – these amazing texts.
I use Hebrew and Arabic calligraphies because they are beautiful – the Arabic is especially lyrical – and to convey the time element of the texts. I also used Greek for the New Testament texts. The calligraphy also becomes a design element in my work, and relates to my iconography – the little figures I have developed
Ezekiel – which is the foundation piece of the exhibit – is a response to the events of September 11, 2001. I live in New York City. The desolate imagery of the valley of dry bones came into my mind – seeing the ashes, the photographs of those lost. The architecture of the unwoven parts of the piece evokes a ghost of the Twin Towers. As I studied the Ezekiel further, I saw that it also speaks of hope and resurrection. Through my art, I’ve worked on interfaith projects for many years, particularly focusing on Christian-Jewish dialogue. In the years after September 11, as Islam came more into our political and cultural consciousness – and many Muslims were demonized – I wanted through my art to contribute to a better understanding of the relationship of the three Abrahamic religions. I wanted to make the world of Islam more comprehensible to others. Not to say everything and everyone is the same, but I wanted to show the common themes and imagery, and show how we feel, speak in similar ways.
Q: Working closely with Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths, how do you define yourself spiritually and are your own beliefs represented in your work?
A: I grew up in an era of assimilation, not in an era of ethnic diversity. I remember in my Sunday school class, we visited ten different churches. When my sons heard this, they were shocked, because their generation prizes ethnic specificity.
I so appreciate the beauty of Christian ritual, imagery – and of course, there is the music of Bach! I’ve also read a lot in the Eastern religions. The mystical and meditative elements are very appealing. I was raised in Reform Judaism. And I was very close to my maternal grandfather, who was an Orthodox rabbi. For myself, Judaism – it is just part of me.
Interfaith work is not unusual for me – it comes very naturally. But I know that many Jewish artists find that unusual! My interfaith projects came about when people were first expressing interest in Jewish and Christian dialogue. All of my Church commissions, and private commissions contain Hebrew as well as English texts, at the request of the various clients.
Q: What role does sound and music play in connection to your art? How did the process of creating the soundscape perhaps change your perception of your work?
A: I often have music on in my studio. The “Birds of Longing” project is the first time that I have incorporated music into a project. It is so important for people to hear the sounds of the languages, to hear the similarity of Arabic and Hebrew. The soundscape literally gives voice to the texts – we used native speakers of Arabic and Hebrew, both from Israel. As background to these spoken texts, the composer – my nephew Daniel Wohl – adapted portions from the album “Provenance” by Maya Beiser, which highlights music from the period of the Convivencia.
Q: What should viewers understand about textile work? How is it different than other mediums- oil painting, ceramics, etc.?
A: I enjoy working with canvas as a textile because it becomes a more living medium. The fabric is more than just a surface for paint. You can go inside it! At first, I tacked canvas to the wall rather than wrapping it on stretchers. But the material still felt static. So, I started pulling threads, opening up different spaces. As I worked, I created different shapes, reflecting and incorporating texts. I learned that there is a long history of narrative textiles – textiles used in spiritual settings, everyday textiles, textiles wrapping both the newly born and the deceased. The beads I use are yet another way of working with color, texture, and rhythm. I think of beaded doorway curtains, the rosary, worry beads – they create a “veil” – and, for me, they are also prayers and marking points – for meditation.
Interview by: Lily Manderville, Programs Manager, Center for the Arts, Religion and Education