Temple Judea Museum’s “Out of the Whirlwind: Fire, Air, Water, Earth; Reflections and Forecasts on Global Warming and Climate Change” was dreamed up long before COVID began. For TJM director and curator Rita Poley, there’s never been a more apt time to put on the exhibit.
The art exhibit, opening Aug. 26 at Montgomery County Community College, is a study on the impacts of global warming, inspired by Jewish texts replete with commentary on the subject. A recent heat wave across Philadelphia, other parts of the U.S. and Europe only made the exhibit’s theme more appropriate.
“From the Zohar to the Talmud to the Bible, it was just this whole unfolding of beautiful references and thought about nature as a force,” Poley said. “And that was how we gravitated to seeing this theme of the elements and global warming as a threat to nature as a man-made problem.”
The exhibit from TJM, part of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, will feature the works of 17 artists from the TJM Artists’ Collaborative, a group of professional artists and KI members, and 14 Jewish guest artists from the community. MCCC Gallery Director Patrick Rodgers will help Poley curate the pieces.
Even a month before the exhibit opens, Poley and Rodgers are putting in the hours to organize the show. Though the weeks leading up to the exhibit’s Aug. 22 installation are “the calm before the storm,” “Whirlwind” has lived up to its name; it’s a show three years in the making.
In late 2019, Marlene Adler, chair of the Artists’ Collaborative, approached Rodgers, a longtime collaborator, about a show on climate change. Even at the onset of the pandemic, the commitment to bringing the exhibit to fruition was unwavering.
“It’s a signal of how important a topic climate change is,” Rodgers said. “On top of all that, we’ve just kept at it all these years.”
At this point, artists have submitted all pieces for the exhibit and are finalizing the descriptions that will accompany the pieces. Though Poley and Rodgers selected each piece specifically for the show, they will not be able to organize and curate the pieces in the space until four days before the exhibit opening.
Despite the crunched timeline, there’s little Rodgers can do to prepare for the layout of the exhibit beyond painting walls and pedestals.
“You never know how everything is going to play until it’s all in front of you,” he said. “And that process is just sort of magical and fun in its own way.”
Though the pieces range from paintings to sculptures, Poley believes they are all cohesive in their relevance to the show’s theme.
“It was pretty obvious that the artists who got it really got it,” Poley said. “That they were moved by the subject, moved by what’s going on in our environment today.”
The pieces — beyond showing one of the fire, air, water and earth elements — also have a layer of commentary, often somber, about climate change.
“Some artists were submitting artwork that was like pretty trees,” Poley said. “I had to say to them, ‘This isn’t about pretty trees.’”
Diane Pieri, a guest artist for the exhibit, is showing her series “Fire Danger High” about forest fires in California, where she lived in the 1990s. She completed the pieces in 1997, but according to Poley, they fit with the theme even 25 years later.
“Fire Danger High” was created on large sheets of papyrus that Pieri set on fire, creating splotches of scorch marks. Gold leaf and flowers adorn the destroyed papyrus.
“Flowers, to me, represented a kind of beauty, and the fire wasn’t. It was a destroying factor,” Pieri said.
The purpose of the pieces is to draw in the viewer to the gold and floral patterns, but as the viewer pays more attention to the piece, they realize its deeper meaning.
Leon Chudzinski, a newer member of TJM’s Artists’ Collaborative, also uses gold in his piece “Legacy,” a sculpture made out of found materials from Chudzinski’s garden and backyard shed, including chicken wire, stakes and a hose reel.
The sculpture, which was created specifically for the exhibit, is shaped like an hourglass and spins, showing off a moving tornado at the top of the hourglass feeding into the bottom chamber filled with gold “sand.” In addition to showing the increase in natural disasters climate change will cause, the piece also illustrates that the younger generation is running out of time to fix the climate crisis. The gold represents the wealth the older generation extracted by using natural resources at the expense of the environment, Chudzinski said.
“As part of our [Jewish] teachings, obviously we all should be stewards of the Earth,” he said. “We all should care; we all should give back.”
“Out of the Whirlwind: Fire, Air, Water, Earth” will be exhibited at MONTCO’s Blue Bell campus from Aug. 26 to Sept. 30. For more information, visit kenesethisrael.org/out-of-the-whirlwind.