The image of a dignified bird standing in an open palm shows up again and again in “Nature/Nurture: A Prayer,” a new exhibit from Pittsburgh artist Leslie Golomb showing through Sept. 10 at the Charles M. Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on JHF Drive.
The image appears on lap quilts hanging on the walls of the aviary of the center, and on the pages of an illustrated version of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story “Utzel and His Daughter, Poverty.” Although Golomb is an artist and designed the image of the bird in hand, she didn’t make the quilts or the illustrated book.
Golomb’s art isn’t among the pieces on display. Her art took place months ago. With funding from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Golomb spent the last six months showing the elderly and infirm residents of the center how to make things of beauty.
Golomb is a printmaker, typically working alone or with other artists. She spent more than a decade as curator of the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, but left three years ago to allow herself more time in the studio to focus on her own projects. She got the time, but felt something was missing.
“I really started to miss the community and the interaction,” Golomb said, seated in the aviary among the sound of chirping birds. “I’ve said this before: I really don’t believe the artist has a right to isolation. Art is about communicating, but it’s also about community.”
The PCA grant made Golomb the first professional artist to hold residency at the center, where she hosted workshops between January and June of this year. Inspired by the aviary — the first room visitors see when they come to the center, and the last room residents see when they leave — Golomb focused her project around the theme of birds.
Through its various interpretations, the simple image of a bird in hand defines “Nature/Nurture.” It symbolizes trust, protection and care. It represents the healing power of the natural world. It also signifies gratitude: a bird in the hand, after all, is worth two in the bush.
Golomb involved as many residents in as many ways as she could in the project.
They shaped clay into pots and planted herbs in them. They retold the story of Utzel, a man opposed to work, by changing his daughter Poverty’s name to Pearl to signify her empowerment at the end of the story. They made a book of the story, each resident designing their own page, and together they crafted a congregation of stuffed Poverty/Pearl dolls, each embroidered with statements of wisdom gathered from life.
Golomb also sought connections. She brought 60 teenagers — split between urban and suburban high schools — to spend a day at the center. Together, the students and the residents decorated papier-mâché masks: bird faces each with long sloping beaks.
For those with no interest in creating art, Golomb created an “art experience,” arranging for the National Aviary to bring a parrot, an owl and an African penguin to showcase.
During the presentation, which took place inside, but in the middle of winter, Golomb said the residents complained about being cold. So she sent her bird images to quilters across the region and received dozens of lap blankets using her designs.
“That’s where my art comes in. Because that’s my iconography,” Golomb said.
Ask the residents about the workshop and they don’t mention the final products. They talk about the joy of creating things. Helen Levin, in her 90s, looked at the sprig of rosemary she planted in a tiny clay pot she made. “The whole idea that I could make something — see something grow from it — was thrilling to me,” Levin said.
Golomb usually works on paper, in two-dimensions, but the residents required a different approach. Many can’t see well or hear well. Some only have one good hand. Having something to hold gave them provided some relief from the isolation of age and infirmity.
Renee Isac, a former schoolteacher and current resident at the center, looks over her page in the illustrated version of “Utzel and His Daughter Poverty.”
“Oh! Look at that! Oh!” she says, placing her hand on top of the page she painted months earlier. Then she says, “I did all this?”
For the residents, the act of creating is more important than any work of creation.
“That’s what brings the serenity,” said Sharyn Rubin, volunteer coordinator for the Jewish Association on Aging, which runs the rehabilitation center.
That serenity is suggested in the title of the exhibit, Golomb said. At the final workshop, one of the residents, a woman who never spoke during the six-month residency, held her face against Golomb’s hand. “That’s a prayer,” Golomb said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)