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Tobi Kahn, Artist in Residence

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Tobi Khan


Temple Adas Israel’s guest artist in residence on reflecting spirituality in art, finding holiness and helping people live.

By Lucy De Souza

In your early years as an artist, you painted American landscapes. How have you evolved from painting landscapes to what you do now, art that reflects religion and contemporary science?

Well I’ve always been interested in the power of land. My early work was really about looking at landscape and simplifying it. I did that for many years and became fascinated with fractal geometry. In fractal, you start noticing that things repeat themselves in nature. My childhood closest friend, who is still my closest friend, is a scientist. Every summer his family and my family would go to Cape Cod and he had a place in Woods Hole. He would study electron microscopy and looking at cell formations. At the same time, I had a friend who would take me on these planes and look at aerial views. Because I was so interested in fractal geometry, I started looking for things in nature and in science that overlapped. I started to realized that landscape and cell formations looked very similar, especially if they were aerial views of landscapes. Then I thought of things that were related in science and in landscape. I’ve always been interested in creating sacred spaces. I’ve always been interested in religion and the art in healing. As the years went on, I always did more than one thing at a time…really, everything happened so organically.

What first influenced you to make these art pieces with these themes?

Well, I’ll tell you a story. I was 19 and I was in London and I saw a beautiful show of Turner, a very famous English artist. I told my then girlfriend, “One day I want to make inspiration like this.” [Walking into] that space, there were all of these beautiful landscape paintings with ships, huge skies and water; it felt like you were on a journey. I decided very early — I was just in college, I wouldn’t have even considered myself an artist at that time — I really wanted to make art that transforms the way you feel. I was very lucky that I did study in seminary for many years, I did a lot of studying of comparative religion, I lived abroad for four years and saw a lot of the world and I know that it impacted me greatly. Having a scientist as my best friend who has always pushed me to look at images in science really changed the way I look at the world and then meeting someone who is very interested in fractal geometry.

How would you say spirituality is expressed in art form?

I’m really interested in holiness, I’m very interested how art can take you to another place. That fascinates me…[For example] when you walk into one of [artist] Mark Rothko’s rooms or James Turrell’s rooms, there is a certain calmness that comes over you and that’s what I’m trying to do in my work. I think religion can be interpreted in many different ways. What interests me is how art can take you to a higher place. I understand that some people want to make art that’s political, but I’m really interested in the art of healing and art of meditation. That’s what my goal is, whether that happens all the time or people feel that, that’s up to them, that’s not really up to me. I do create ceremonial objects, paintings, sculptures, and with all of them, I want the same thing to happen, that the art transforms the way you think.

Would you say your pieces physically or emotionally represent spirituality?

I don’t like anything literal. I would never put a Star of David or a cross or a crescent moon, I’m not interested in images that people think of as religious. I’m much more interested in what’s in you as a person…One of my favorite articles ever about me was on a show at the Neuberger Museum and I had an installation of 80 paintings. A writer from the New York Times wrote they were very hard to write about because they were so abstract, that to him they were means for meditation. I felt like crying, I couldn’t believe he totally got what I was trying to do. And then the show got reviewed over and over again and everyone got it. I said to people that was one of the first times in my life where I felt like it worked, because everyone felt this great sense of calm. And that’s what I’m looking for in my work.

In the art you’ve done reflecting spirituality, you’ve made a collection of shrines. What is the meaning of it?

Well the first ones I did were just like little meditative spaces. I was very interested in looking at Torii Gates, those Japanese and Chinese meditative spaces or meditative rock gardens. And that together within the Bible, and the Torah, they talk about the Holy of Holies, where the high priest went in once a year. As a kid I read about that and I found that fascinating. So there is an amalgam of places like Stonehenge, Torii Gates in Eastern Philosophy and Religion and the Torah and the Bible in the Christian world; having a space to bring you close to something internal.

What kind of materials do you use primarily in these works?

I carve everything in wood, and then I very often cast it in bronze. I use paint, stone, bronze, canvas. I like doing spaces that you can actually walk into or around. There are spaces that I’ve done in the past that are 14 feet, 20 feet and you can walk around it. But I also do very small pieces that you can hold in your hand, which are ceremonial objects…I love wood because it’s natural, I love carving. Early in my career, I’d used to use clay but if I wanted to change things or add things, it was much harder. With wood, if I carve too much out of it, I can add a piece back on.

You’ve dedicated a lot of your time to teaching; why is it that you love teaching so much?

I love teaching because I think [living visually] is such a valid way to live. It is the way I live. I want to help people do that. And I think art for me is all about communication, I love a visual conversation, and the only way you can do that is if you engage in it…I think more people can enjoy things visually if they give themselves the chance, and I really like being the guide for that.

Do you have any input for artists who possibly want to create art like you have?

The most important thing is to be honest; whatever interests you is what you should do. Don’t wait for other people to tell you what you should do. I so deeply believe you are an amalgam of everything you are. You should embrace that, embrace who you are. Make work that comes straight from your inner being, whatever that is…I just think it’s a blessing and gift if you can make work that talks to other people, whatever the subject is matter is.

Temple Adas Israel will present Tobi Kahn in its first Artist in Residence weekend Friday August 12 through Sunday August 14. Mr. Kahn will speak at Shabbat Services on Friday August 12 at 8 p.m. on “What is Sacred Space?” On Saturday morning August 13 at 11:30 a.m. following 10 a.m. services and 11 a.m. Kiddush Mr. Kahn’s topic will be “Judaism and the Visual” an interactive discussion and text study. On Sunday morning August 14 at 10:30 a.m. Mr. Kahn will speak on “A History of Art” with a slide presentation. The community is welcome to attend all sessions. They are free of charge.