After many years of formal art education and practice, I now understand and publicly acknowledge how totally my work is an extension of my spiritual and religious curiosity, a muse which has been relegated to a minority position during the twentieth century. Furthermore, I believe that the imagery that I produce is guided, in a very literal way, by the spirits of those who were my ancestors. I am only too aware that my position is considered naive by a majority of those who teach, create and critique art; so be it. I do not wish to suggest that my work is without intellect, for it reflects my concerns as a feminist, a citizen, a wife, a child, a mother, a sister and a Jew, not necessarily in that order. My art is not, however, constructed from intellectual abstraction, but rather comes from working through very personal questions, the answers to which are often provided from a dimension beyond myself.
My early work, some of which is depicted here, was centered around basic questions which explored the nature of my existence. I was interested in the relationships created by the specifics of my life, most importantly being female and being Jewish. Those two aspects of my identity were and still are sometimes at odds with each other, and in the work I tried to bring about an understanding of what it means to be a feminist and a Jew.
The difficulty of being a feminist and an observant Jew in a male dominated Jewish hierarchy was addressed in Ferboten , a plexiglas, wood and mylar construction. A 127-foot-long painting on mylar, depicting the dreams and aspirations of Jewish women (to participate in religious rituals, study Torah, own property but not be treated as property, and live an equal life), has been crushed and shoved into a clear plexiglas padlocked box; surrounding the box are two groups of five black-hatted men (representing the minyan), whose outstretched arms form a black web that encircles and binds the compartment, veiling the contents. The cabinet is standing on the shoulders of four women, forming the base and support for the whole structure, depicting the principal role women have played in shaping and supporting an institution that, on the surface, appears to have been largely the creation of men.
The Keeper in You Are Our Keeper can be taken to mean one who protects or one who controls. The stylized wooden figures translate the rhythms of a liturgical poem used in the High Holiday Service into a visual motif illustrating both the security and rigidity of repetitive pattern. The sculpture is intended to question the nuances of the phrase "you are our keeper", which appears in the poem.
Trapped in Character was created in reaction to the roles we are forced, or choose, to play every day of our lives. The most dangerous roles are the ones we don't think about anymore, the ones that supersede our intellect and determine the character of our existence.
I believe that my current work, paradoxically, leads me in new directions while returning to often-studied territories. My understanding of what the older work means has been enriched, while at the same time I have begun to develop a softer, more personal attitude in my approach to artmaking. In the past, working through questions about my heritage and cultural identity led me to re-examine my ancestors for an understanding of their identities; i.e., who they were, why they were as they were, and what they had to teach me. In the case of Spirit House , also an early work, I saw the house as a reflection of my structure, constructed of and supported by those who came before and who were essential to forming my spiritual foundation. The scrolls, or mezzuzot, that each totem carries are my stories about the influences they have imprinted on my soul.
All of those things were important, and they still are. I now feel, however, more closely aligned with those persons as I create my art, not as much for what I want them to teach me as for what they want me to know. I believe that I am now looking into questions which are, in the final analysis, far more important than the earlier ones. These are the types of questions which strip existence down to the essential elements, and of which the ancients are in a position to teach me far more than I could hope to learn on my own. This is a very subtle difference that is difficult to write or speak about, but the reader might find it to be similar to an accomplished musician who, in looking for the core after years of successful study and the creation of elaborate musical forms, returns to those teachers who can answer the most basic and perhaps profound questions of music making. I think it is crucial to understand the change.
The print series Nefesh Ami (The Soul Of My People) was an important body of work for me, for it was a first step into this new direction. The series uses elementary shapes and assigns to them traditional symbolic meanings: the circle is used as "the whole", "the unbroken", for "never-ending life" and for "consecrated or ceremonial space"; the pyramid represents "life force" and "power", and so forth. These forms are combined with the figures of the persons close to me, and the images are made available to me as I meditate. I work intuitively, and perhaps I should say that I understand the images more for the way they "feel" than the way they look. I do believe that the look of the imagery is significantly independent of my determination.
I am currently involved with an immense study of the Hebrew language, the Kaballah and other writings by the Jewish mystics, in an effort to read first-hand what it was that they had already discovered centuries ago.
Sandi Knell Tamny