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A physical representation of a spiritual expression

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Fiber artist Laurie Wohl’s unique ‘unweaving’ process is on display at the Sabes JCC’s Tychman Shapiro Gallery

By DORIS RUBENSTEIN

There is a difference between unraveling and unweaving.

Unraveling is something unintentional: you see a thread hanging from a piece of clothing or a towel or any piece of woven or knitted material; you pull on it instead of cutting it off and start a process, by mistake, of undoing what has been done and often ruining the material. Unweaving, on the other hand, is intentional: you choose what and where to remove or separate string or thread or fiber so that the textile will look different or serve a different purpose.

Fabric artist Laurie Wohl has created an entirely new art form — so original that she’s copyrighted the name of “unweaving.” Her show, On Wings of Prayer: Unweavings, now displayed at the Sabes JCC, gives visitors to the Tychman-Shapiro Gallery a wonderful introduction to the art, the process and the spirit behind them.

Wohl’s technique is unique and, to the best of her knowledge, is not employed currently by any other artist. Starting with a standard piece of artist’s cotton canvas, she carefully and deliberately removes threads from the warp or the woof from discrete areas of the cloth; hence, “unweaving” the fabric. The next step is creating English or Hebrew words and stick figure “icons” reminiscent of ancient petroglyphs using modeling paste applied with a very fine brush. To these she adds beads and other adornments; finally, traditional oil paints complete the artwork.

“Who Shall Ascend” by Laurie Wohl (Photo: Courtesy of Sabes JCC)

“Who Shall Ascend” by Laurie Wohl (Photo: Courtesy of Sabes JCC)

Such artistic innovation doesn’t just happen by accident.

“I felt constrained by the finite borders of a stretched canvas,” Wohl told the AJW. “I started unweaving out of sheer frustration. It was my way of making the work organic and freeing it from the frame.”

Wohl’s painstaking process can only be likened to the creation of a Buddhist mandala, a maze-like circle in colored sand that represents meditation and prayer. The same can be said of Wohl’s unweavings — each piece displayed in On Wings of Prayer is a physical representation of a spiritual expression drawn from the Torah or other parts of the Tanach.

“Ezekiel 2011” commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and evokes the image of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The colors tell us the story of what happened that day: the blue of the sky from which the terror emerged; the blood red of the victims who appear as stick icons. Are beads suspended from the remains of the unwoven cloth really the tears shed by our entire nation?

“Prayer” from 2002 incorporates the Hebrew lettering for the Modim Anachnu Lach (“We are grateful to you”) prayer into what might be a tallit. The tallit is the ultimate Jewish “unweaving” with its traditional fringes of unwoven cloth.

The gates of prayer that open on Rosh Hashana and close during Ne’ilah at the end of Yom Kippur are strongly suggested by Wohl’s 2009 diptych “Ne’ilah,” inspired by the closing hymn “Open the gate… for the day wanes.” The artist has chosen colors that clearly mimic those of wooden gate doors; the gates are opened by the unweaving and allow us to see past these physical impediments to the forgiveness that is ours when we pass through.

Wohl, a California native and a lawyer by training, felt an artistic bent since childhood but never acted on it until the 1990s. Although she had a strong Jewish background (her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi), it was her exploration of Eastern spirituality and living in a foreign culture in Kenya as an adult that first led her to revive her creative impulse. This, in turn, led her back to the richness of Jewish prayer and culture.

Though Wohl’s early works were not necessarily based on mainstream religious themes, “I love the poetry of the Psalms,” she says.

The public responded enthusiastically to such works and Wohl now concentrates on unweavings that incorporate Jewish and some Christian spiritual themes.

“My biggest fans are the Presbyterians!” she claims.

Wohl has exhibited her unweavings throughout the United States and around the world, including Israel and South Africa. She will be coming to Minneapolis (her son and daughter-in-law have settled here) for the show’s closing on April 25. Catch it before it unweaves entirely and leaves the Sabes JCC.

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On Wings of Prayer, an exhibit featuring work by fiber artist Laurie Wohl, is on display through April 25 in the Tychman Shapiro Gallery at the Sabes JCC, 4330 Cedar Lake Rd. S., St. Louis Park. For information, visit: www.sabesjcc.org.

(American Jewish World, 3.29.13)

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