Musings on Purim Art

by Laurie Bellet

I write this as I am flying home from my holiday weekend, spent directing the Art Studio at the first annual Limmud conference in Los Angeles. Conference art experiences always put me in a reflective state, musing on the creative endeavors of the venture and the remarkable, unexpected ways children and adults use art materials.

When I used to plan my work, project by project, I would select the activities that I knew would assure a pleasing outcome. Participants created according to my plans, knowing the expected outcome from my sample and, they would generally be reasonably satisfied when finished. I could survey 25 or so completed art pieces and content myself with a competent job. But, there was no anticipatory curiosity, no ongoing dialog or challenge and certainly no concluding thrill of discovery.

Now, I conduct conference studios as I do my school art program. I stock my temporary, art studio, homes with art essentials like paints, a variety of “canvasses,” supplies for sculpting and materials for collage and always include some irresistible items of Judaic significance. Then, I wait for my attendant artists to create the magic energy that fuels the conference art experience. I apologize that I do not have photos of our LimmudLA Art Studio triumphs but, the studio was, happily, too busy for me to play photographer! I will try to transmit the joy with my words.

Given the proximity of Purim, I stocked the LimmudLA studio with, among many other things, masks and graggers. Through the years, my students have taught me that masks provide an amazing blank canvas on which to reveal emotions, relate stories, and give dimension to characters.

At school, my students have the time and space to mix plaster and mold individual masks. This technique is not practical for a weekend experience so, I purchased 5 inch, designer mask forms from Nasco which retail for a reasonable $15.15 for a dozen, miniature, full face, blank, masks. This mask (which I consider to be an alternative, blank, canvas) takes a variety of art media well, so I knew it would be a wonderful activity for artists of all ages and abilities. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the first triumph of the conference weekend, to be completed by a woman who, after precisely decorating two masks, glued them to a box (emptied of paints), she had wrapped in fabric. She added a variety of embellishments from my selection and left the room with a new centerpiece for her Purim table!

The most surprising mask outcome had no relationship whatsoever with Purim. A middle school boy, as part of Camp Limmud, was in the Art Studio to illustrate mitzvot the group had been studying. This young man had undertaken ‘visiting the sick.’ Using the mask to represent a hospital patient, he applied soft tones of acrylic paints to create a sickly pallor, drew details with Sharpie pens and added his crowning touch…tiny bits of green, self stick foam dots to represent some kind of dreadful pox. It was stunning and brilliant.

The graggers we used came from Benny’s Educational Materials which cost slightly over one dollar apiece. Not only were these popular amongst the children, who used them to make puppets, to show off newly mixed paint colors, to cover with collaged treasures and to demonstrate favorite drawing skills, but they were also popular among the grandparents who designed personalized graggers as souvenir gifts to take home to their grandchildren!

Regardless of the season, I always make certain to have plenty of large, hemmed, silk squares with which to paint or dye challah covers. Before too long, the studio was draped in splendid silk paintings. The true surprise, though, came from a participant who, as she held her finished product for all to see, declared that hers was to be an “Esther scarf.” She explained that, during the Megillah reading, she intended to wave her new masterpiece, high in the air, whenever Esther’s name was read! Why have I never thought of that?

There is a definite security in knowing that you have a project that will result in a successful student product but, in carrying out standard, class wide projects, you might be cheating your pupils, and yourself, out of the learning excitement that is generated when each student devises a unique creation from an array of supplies.

Purim is coming! Gather yourself a collection of sequins and foam shapes, fabrics and paints, masks and other decorate-able surfaces and let your students design the learning. Consider yourself to be the host of a sumptuous banquet of art extravagance and learning. Interview your student artists or encourage them to write artist statements and share the unique student successes for your entire community to enjoy!