Beauty as Common Ground, by Nancy Haught, Religious Editor

Beauty as Common Ground

Three artists hope an exhibit will help bridge the divide between their three Abrahamic faiths
Kanaan Kanaan works in his Northeast Portland garage, a space he has converted into an art studio, far away from the Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan where he was born 40 years ago.

He uses wood, a saw, a computer, wax and plaster to create a series of square tiles. Each bears the image of a curve from an Arabic letter. In muted colors, the random images shimmer as if they’re glimpsed through heat rising from desert sand.

Traditional Muslim art, which scorns the human figure, makes use of Arabic calligraphy, geometric designs and color. In Kanaan’s hands, these elements point to themes that transcend Islam and touch Judaism. The shape of his tiles, a perfect square, has been used by many cultures and, in Islam, is a symbol of paradise. The fragments of Arabic that he works with echo the lines and curves of Hebrew letters.

“I want to look at something differently and open up a dialogue,” he says. “I want to reach out. Art enters everybody’s heart and opens them up to immediate dialogue, sometimes without their permission.”

Believing that beauty speaks when words fail, Kanaan is one of three artists with backgrounds in Islam, Christianity and Judaism who are displaying their work in hopes that beauty will evoke the common ground between their religious traditions. Their show, “Cross Cultural Bridges,” opens Sunday in a synagogue, Havurah Shalom, during the Jewish High Holy Days and moves to Bilal Mosque on Nov. 6 to mark the end of the monthlong Muslim fast of Ramadan.

Much has been written in recent years about the biblical patriarch Abraham, whose faith in God led to the establishment of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Books, essays and articles describe the people, places and values that are shared by all three of these Abrahamic faiths. Cross Cultural Bridges aims to express this common ground in artistic terms.

“Each faith tradition has a strong history of ecumenical tolerance and of work on behalf of social justice, peace and ecological stewardship,” says Portland artist Anne Barber-Shams, who conceived of the exhibit and recruited Kanaan and Shahna Lax of Crestone, Colo., to take part. “We all share a conviction that reconciliation of the three traditions of the Abrahamic faiths is possible if we can embrace our common ground,” she says.

All three artists hope that their work stands in opposition to what Barber-Shams calls “the current loud monopoly of religious voices promoting discord, polarization and reactionary policies.” At the same time, all three hesitate to predict how the public will react to their work.

Kanaan, a graduate student and instructor at Portland State University, explains that his art is, literally and figuratively, a way to break down a larger concept into its smallest parts in order to begin a search for common ground.

For Barber-Shams, her paintings and fused glass work depict images from vivid dreams in which she saw cooperation supplanting chaos. She grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and has studied mysticism as it is expressed in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

For her, the notion of common ground is embodied in recurring images of pillars that recall the biblical columns of smoke and fire that guided the Hebrews through the wilderness. In one of her paintings, the pillar has wings and seems to hover like a mother bird over its young.

Barber-Shams sees the pillar as Shekinah, a Hebrew term for the presence of God. “In the kabbalah, Shekinah mediates divine energy,” Barber-Shams says, “circulating it back and forth from the infinite to human beings.”

“When judgment is not motivated by love, that’s when evil comes into the world,” she says. “That’s what I think is happening in the United States. People in power are defining things as being right or wrong, my way or the highway, in a very judgmental way.”

Lax, for her part, works from her own Jewish background, etching copper and fitting it into delicate arches in the Moorish style. She draws on sacred geometry, where shapes and numbers have religious significance, and incorporates Hebrew, Arabic and, sometimes, English phrases.

“I am a Jewish woman in love with the aesthetics and values of my Islamic cousins,” she says. She has studied the Andalusian golden age of Spain, which began in the eighth century and saw Jews and Muslims living peacefully alongside each other. By the 11th century, the era had ended, but Lax insists that a kinship still exists.

“Outside the machinations of political agendas, territoriality and closed-circuit religious dogma, what has really changed?” she asks. Jews and Muslims are both still Semites, with their languages rooted in three-letter verb forms, beautiful melodies and geometric patterns.

In her piece “Tree of Life,” she crowns the image of a spreading tree trunk with a lute rose and crowns it with an Arabic phrase from the Hadith, or sayings of Mohammed. “Allah has sent a healing or cure for every disease” is her paraphrase. At the foot of the tree is a line of Hebrew, “O God, please heal her,” from the Hebrew Bible story of Miriam and Moses. And finally, she incorporates an English translation from the New Testament book of Revelation: “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations.”

For Lax, the piece is powerful because she sees these three religious traditions being in need of healing. “For me, that is the reason for doing this,” she says of the art show, “to be part of that process.”

Artists have an advantage when it comes to healing, Barber-Shams says. Art, because it deals with images, color and texture, is not bound by words and phrases that can offend some people or hamper dialogue.

“We artists work with metaphors and symbols; we’re not stuck with the signage, the hot buttons that turn people away.”

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625;

ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo by MOTOYA NAKAMURA / The Oregonian