In Search of the Artist's Beginnings

I’ve cherished the “oasis of silence” within Nevelson Chapel just about every day for the past 15 years. It is a gift I do not take for granted. I’m keenly aware that opportunities to sit within immersive, artist-designed environments don’t generally come along every day. And, when the environment was crafted by one of the first artists to create such installations—Louise Nevelson—the experience brings an even deeper sense of awe.

It is this sense of awe that inspired the name of our Renewing a Masterwork campaign. Named as such because Nevelson Chapel is not simply a sculptural environment; it’s a Nevelson. But, not only a Nevelson; it is her masterwork. And more than her masterwork, it is a masterwork among masterworks.

This masterwork is at once intimate and grand; immediately impressive and wondrously deceptive. At first glance, it might seem but a collection of walls adorned with a thousand shapes each lifted, flattened, unified by monochromatic white paint. And yet, the more the shapes and the shadows of the environment take hold of the eye, the deeper and longer the eye is compelled to look. Nevelson draws us into contemplation, into a world beyond that which is immediately perceived. Like the searching of our truest selves, “looking at” becomes dwelling within. In a Nevelson environment, the eye is never fully satisfied; each experience is always filled with something deeper, a new perspective, a longer view.

If Nevelson’s genius gives us this gift in the heart of New York City, what’s the world beyond to which she is inviting the viewer? The question may be as elusive in experience as it is unanswerable in words. And, maybe this is precisely how Nevelson draws us in.

My daily encounters with Nevelson have drawn me to want to know why, and where, and how this singular genius came to be.

Earlier this month I visited Nevelson’s childhood home, Rockland, Maine. Officially, I was there for a public conversation at the Farnsworth Art Museum with the museum’s chief curator Michael K. Komanecky. This public event was also an opportunity to express my gratitude to staff and friends of the Farnsworth who have cared for and lovingly cherished Nevelson Chapel’s Trinity Columns, transferred there as the new museum-quality HVAC system was introduced in the chapel environment back in NYC.

But the visit was more than a single public event. Thanks to the many communities—Jewish, “Mainer,” art, and civic groups—that welcomed me to their Rockland homes, I had the opportunity to explore the place that nurtured this singular genius. Millions know her as Louise Nevelson, but Rockland also knows her as Leah Berliawsky.

Generations have been and continue to be shaped by this place. To learn of the arc of its history from those who know it intimately is a gift not unlike the Chapel itself.

This side of my visit to Rockland was part probing the past and part pilgrimage. All of it was driven by Nevelson who once said “My whole life is very important to me. I claimed my life long ago. I saw from the very beginning how one exploits another in the world, and saw the most important thing was to claim my life totally.”

I am no historian, but as a clergy person I seek to know history deeply. I tend to carry history—people’s history—with me in my heart. And so, in visiting Rockland and talking with those who call this bit of coastland home, I kept Nevelson’s words, “I claimed my life long ago” in the face of “how one exploits another in the world” close to my heart.

Among members of the Jewish community, I wondered about her fortitude in immigrating from Ukraine to the United States, from a land of active persecution of Jews to a complex place of “tolerance.” Sitting within the Adas Yoshuron Synagogue her family helped to establish, I wondered how growing up at the center of a community that was, in the larger cultural sense, at the margins of the wider community had affected her. Among those who grew up in Rockland, I wondered about her success as the captain of her high school basketball team, and about the art teacher who praised her early work.

Standing in front of what used to be Nevelson’s brother Nate’s Thorndike Hotel, I wondered what sorts of conversations were shared at the speakeasy under the street and over the main dining room’s lunch tables. I wondered what it was like to journey outside Rockland to the wooded lands Nevelson’s father, Isaac, owned. Standing within the Small-Berliawsky Cemetery where Nevelson’s parents, sister, brother and sister-in-law are buried, I marveled at the sense of place and time marked by these gravestones, these lives lived. Is Nevelson’s deep reflection on the importance of her whole life not at its root a profound interpretation of what is said in the Jewish tradition when someone dies, “May his/her memory be for a blessing”?

Like Nevelson’s immersive environments, these Rockland experiences linger with me. Reflecting on this time, I am certain of at least one thing: I have more questions than answers. “We started at least ten conversations today,” I remarked to Deborah Weisgall, whose father’s and grandfather’s music still is heard at the Synagogue.

Given who Nevelson was, and how this place contributed to her genius, having more questions and answers may be precisely as it should be. Our questions and conversations ought to help us think long and hard about our own place and time. This is the gift of history, when it is taken it seriously.

Here are ten of my lingering questions:

What artistic eye is being shaped among the children of Rockland and other such towns in America today, and how will they help us all see the world differently?

What sort of hospitality do towns across this nation provide people immigrating to this country?

What material do we discard, forgetting its inherent beauty?

What ways are our religious communities continuing to shape the American landscape?

How can we understand all of what we do in life to be for the building up of a community?

How do we, together, shape the places in which we dwell?

What is our heritage?

What can a small, Jewish community in WASPy Maine tell us about the world?

How can a single art lesson, a single teacher build up (or tear apart) a dream?

Who is Nevelson, I wonder, as she turns it around: who am I; who are you?

Not everyone who experiences Nevelson Chapel will also visit Rockland, Maine. But the spirit of Rockland is present here, just as Nevelson is present; her life story, intersecting with our own.

Pastor Jared R. Stahler