Paper Prayers/In the Spirit

At the Howard Yezerski Gallery

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, December 1991)

Paper Prayers began last year in a small room at Howard Yezerski’s gallery on South Street. Inspired by a Japanese tradition of making paper prayers and tying them to a tree as good wishes for healing the sick, the artist Tom Grabosky put out a call to artists to donate small works of art — within an inch of  4″ x 12″ — to be given away in exchange for a donation to the Boston Pediatric AIDS Project on Visual AIDS Day — a national day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis. In an amazing outpouring of creativity and generosity, hundreds of prayers were donated, thousands of dollars were raised, and a tradition was born.

This year, more than 200 Boston artists contributed over 2,000 prayers made from handmade paper, newsprint, birch bark, gold leaf, dried flowers, old photographs, cyanotypes, personals ads, menus, and sheets of music. Grabosky created a serene and meditative installation for the prayers, with a sound environment of soft and soothing New Age music composed by Karl Lundeberg. The rest of the gallery is filled with In the Spirit — a show of larger works of art made in the spirit of Paper Prayers. They are for sale, but 20% of the price will be donated to the Pediatric AIDS Project.

“A number of artists told me that last year’s Paper Prayers was a springboard into other work, in terms of format, content, and the experience of giving — the creative spirit of giving,” said Grabosky, who guest-curated In The Spirit.

Domingo Barreres, a painter whose work is usually big and dark,  was captivated by the small scale of paper prayers. He continued to make luminous, richly textured drawings of spirals and organic forms that look like something you might see under a microscope — or a vision in a dream. Ellen Banks, an artist whose work is inspired by music, created a painting in dark, burnished tones of silver and bronze, based on Lundeberg’s music for Paper Prayers. Mark Pevsner composed Elegy — an elegy for solo violin — and wrote the music out as a long, thin paper prayer. In the notes for the musician, I saw the words sempre (always) and fine (end).

Jesseca Ferguson made a collage from an old postcard showing a Gothic crypt and a bleached white bone, on an old, sea-washed piece of wood. “My work is about memory and loss, decay, the passage of time, travelling from one realm to another. In short, I deal with mortality. In an age haunted by AIDS, my work becomes political,” she said.

Many of the pieces have words you can’t quite read — as if the artists felt a need to reach beyond language to express their feelings of sorrow, fear, and hope. Cheryl Warrick‘s wonderful charcoal drawings are larger, horizontal versions of the paper prayers. They show curled-up babies floating through a river of crosses, scratches, and marks — like souls travelling towards the light, waiting to be born.

Anne Neely, a landscape painter, makes small oil pastel drawings as healing rituals to give to friends who are ill. The one here is called Healing Trees. It shows trees reaching for the sky — a healing glimpse of the living earth. “They represent to me the human spirit — stripped down, revealed, vulnerable and yet strong,” said Neely.

Some of the work focusses specifically on losses from AIDS; some expresses a more abstract sense of loss. Paul Shakespear‘s small paintings on lead look like pale, ghostly figures dancing on a deep, dark ground. Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky combined fragments of monotypes into a linear grid containing lyrical moments of darkness and color. Lorie Hammermesh created a small arched shrine and decorated it with roses and tears and the words To My Love, for her brother, who died of AIDS last year. Her friend Steven Muller penciled the words I didn’t know Lori had a brother onto an abstract painting. Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz made a collage with a small picture of an open window looking out at the sea and a rose-covered pillow, mounted on what looks like pages from an old, unreadable book. She told me that the background was actually the reverse side of some of her old work, which had included pictures of rooms taken from old House and Garden magazines. “Now, seeing the emptiness is more evocative than the actual images,” she said.

Three generations of Southworth women made collages. June Southworth‘s AIDS Bike-A-Thon shows skeletons and dolls riding on rusty motorcycles and stark white, skeletal trees, all inside a rusty metal frame. Her daughter Dawn Southworth made Marker — a collage with a cross, a heart, old photographs, and dried roses mounted on  worm-eaten wood and framed by rusty bottle-tops. Dawn’s six-year-old daughter Jahna Salvo made a collage on wormwood painted bright pink and decorated with golden diamonds, hearts, and stars. It’s called I Hope You Get Well Soon.

The feeling at the opening was more like the feeling of a big family gathering — a wedding or a funeral — than the usual art event — a place to share wordless feelings of loss and grief, pain and fear.

Many of the artists here are of a generation who by and large rejected the conventional comforts of organized religion — and now they find themselves facing the inevitable mystery of death alone. Some have returned to their roots; others are re-inventing rituals that feel authentic to them and finding new ways to satisfy their spiritual needs. Paper Prayers has become one such contemporary healing ritual — a small congregation of artists gathered together in the spirit.

Some of the work here is sentimental — but it’s the season when a little sentimentality is not out of place, especially when it comes from the heart.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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