Enter the current display in Oakland’s Carnegie Library’s Community Engagement Gallery and be ready to take in an array of artwork and poetry created to inspire empathy, understanding and joy. The pieces are eclectic, but that is precisely the point.
Presented by the newly revived interfaith literary organization Crossing Limits, the multimedia exhibition “Common Threads: Faith, Activism, and the Art of Healing” showcases 12 poets and 14 visual artists from diverse racial, cultural and religious backgrounds, coming together to form a veritable tapestry of what it means to be a woman as well as a minority in contemporary society.
“Our world is shaped by stories told and the memories they leave behind,” said Carol Elkind, founder and president of Crossing Limits, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit established in 1998 to foster interfaith understanding through the arts. “Everybody has stories, and art of all types is a form of storytelling.”
Included in the exhibit is the visual artwork of Jewish community members Leslie Golomb and Deborah Liberman, and the poetry of Sue Elkind, Tikvah Feinstein and Rachel Goldstein. The diverse collective of artists is also comprised of Muslims and Christians, and those representing African-American, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, Asian American and Native American communities.
“Poetry and stories told through art are agents for social change, vehicles for individual expression, and tools for honest dialogue through which we can promote deeper understanding and allyship in service toward a more just, equitable and compassionate society,” said Rashida James-Saadiya, the co-curator and creative director of “Common Threads.”
The themes explored in the pieces underscore the challenges and triumphs, dreams and the obstructions to those dreams, faced by the artists, their families and their communities.
The poems of Rachel Goldstein — who was born in a displaced persons camp and who died in Boston in 2015 — were inspired by her parents’ experience as survivors of the Holocaust, said her sister, Rosie Goldstein, who was in town for the exhibit’s opening on Oct. 7.
“Rachel’s work fits in beautifully with this exhibit because she was a visual artist and a poet, and her work touched on her culture and her experience,” Goldstein said. “Rachel would have been very proud to be part of this exhibit. It is so important, especially nowadays, to bridge communities.”
Leslie Golomb’s print, “Aza Sheyn Meydll,” Yiddish for “such a pretty girl,” depicts a young woman with braids tied on top of her head, along with the words of a Yiddish poem suggesting that following marriage, the woman’s braids will be those she creates when shaping challah, as her own braids disappear underneath a head-covering.
“It’s a feminist poem,” Golomb said, one that she encountered as she was exploring her “own place as a contemporary Jewish woman.”
For Golomb, a highlight of being a part of the exhibit was working alongside women from different cultures and communities.
“I love this group of artists,” she said. “There are not many opportunities out there like this.”
One standout piece in the collection is self-taught sculptor Dominique Scaife’s life-size “Serenity,” a likeness of a beautiful African-American woman with her arms outstretched.
“Working with clay is my form of prayer,” said Scaife. “And now I get to share that with this great exhibit.”
Other highlights include the colorful quilts of Tina Brewer, recently named Pennsylvania’s Artist of the Year, and African-American activist Michele P. Ellison’s spiritual poetry.
Elkind established Crossing Limits 20 years ago at the suggestion of a friend who had seen the “Bridges and Boundaries: African-Americans and American Jews” exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society. That exhibit, originally sponsored by the NAACP in conjunction with the Jewish Museum in New York, examined the historical relationship between Jewish and African-Americans through art.
Although, at that time, Elkind knew little about the visual arts, she did know quite a bit about “the world of poetry,” she said. Her mother, the late Sue Elkind, had begun writing poetry at the age of 65, and in the next 15 years, published eight books of her poems. In 1978, the elder Elkind founded the Squirrel Hill Poetry Workshop, which remains an active group to this day.
At the suggestion of her friend, in 1998, Carol Elkind put out a call for poetry to African-American and Jewish people in Pittsburgh and published an anthology of 51 poems, “which explored our relationships, our similarities and our differences,” she said. “We got to know each other through poetry instead of by attending lectures and protests.”
The project “had a profound impact,” she recalled. “We had a big citywide reading, and presentation on Martin Luther King Day that year. Then we got calls to do other readings.”
Crossing Limits then took a 20-year hiatus.
“Life happens,” Elkind said, citing personal responsibilities as consuming her time and energy.
But in 2016, after attending a “sacred activism retreat” at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico along with poet and friend, Rashida James-Saadiya, Elkind was motivated to “reboot” Crossing Limits.
“That retreat cracked open my heart,” she said. “And that’s a good thing because that lets love out, and once the love is out, it can flow back in.”
Elkind filed the necessary paperwork to re-establish her 501(c)(3) and got busy organizing “Common Threads.”
The “Common Threads” exhibit is germane to the purpose of Crossing Limits, according to Elkind.
“We cross limits,” she said. “So, we believe in what minority groups are capable of doing, and I think that’s relevant and has been relevant in our country since its inception.”
The exhibit will run through Oct. 28 and will include a discussion on Oct. 17 and a poetry workshop on Oct. 26. All events are free and open to the public.
The exhibition is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. PJC