Portland, Oregon Religious Complications, by Inara Verzemenieks


Three artists discover that art can’t erase religious differences — or can it ?

Her idea was straightforward enough: Anne Barber Shams, a Christian, would invite a Muslim and a Jew to join her in an art project highlighting the common ground the three religions share.

But what happened next ended up being a great deal more complicated, full of disagreement and difference of vision, as three strangers struggled to find their own common ground, both artistically and personally.

At first, Shams, who has also spent many years doing peace work, had imagined an exhibit of her own work, exploring the similarities in the Abrahamic faiths — specifically a biblical vision of the column of fire that the Hebrews had followed around the Sinai for 40 years, which, she says, came to her in a dream. She then wanted to assemble a panel of representatives of other faiths to discuss their common beliefs.

But then someone suggested going beyond a panel to include other artists, other perspectives, other voices in the exhibit itself.

This led her to Portland artists Kanaan Kanaan, a 39-year-old who grew up in Jordan, and Rhoda London, who grew up in New York.

None of them had met before.

“I remember thinking at our first meeting, ‘How are we ever going to do this?’ ” London recalls. ” ‘We are so different.’ ”

And they were.

Shams, 61, who attended art school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, preferred bright colors and was free with hugs. She used her dreams as inspiration for her artwork.

Kanaan, who had grown up in a refugee camp and whose love of art had been nurtured by his father, a furniture finisher from Palestine, veered toward spare, meditative works that embraced the beauty in transition and decay.

London, who had come to art later after a successful career in publishing, leaned toward topics such as women’s rights, immigration and environmental degradation. Her installations were stark, arresting. So was her talk. A blunt woman, London never shied away from saying exactly what she thought.

And she wasted no time in saying that the emphasis on religion in Shams’ idea made her uncomfortable.

Kanaan, it turned out, felt funny about the emphasis on religion, too.

“I don’t know how religious I am, how spiritual I am,” he says. “Culturally, I am Muslim — I have all the values Islam taught — but I am not a practicing Muslim. I am secular. I don’t want to be somebody who represents all Muslims.”

And so the debates began about who they were and how they defined themselves, and whether that had anything to do with their art. “In some says,” London says, “we each come out of whatever our backgrounds were. Growing up Jewish and what was happening at the time formed me in a way. You can’t really get away from it.”

But at the same time, Kanaan and London did not want to see religion define the work the three of them did together. They wanted to find other “points of connection,” as Kanaan put it.

They didn’t want to gloss over differences, either. “There’s commonality, yeah. We all pee and . . . cry over our babies,” London says. “But our ideologies are extremely different.”

It was hard for Shams to see her initial vision shift. She had already written, and received, a grant based on her similarities-among-the-Abrahamic-faiths idea. She had called it the Wilderness Journey.

But London and Kanaan, who immediately hit it off — ” I felt like certainly our ancestors came from the same swamp,” London says — were firm: They didn’t want to do that.

And so, like that, they were all heading off into uncharted territory. “Our own wilderness journey,” Shams says.

The three artists met regularly — London took to calling them “the Trinity” — sketching out the direction the project would take.

It was easy enough to talk logistics. Easy even to come up with a theme: They agreed, appropriately enough, to base one show on the idea of balance. But where things got more difficult (yet in some ways more interesting for the overall goal of the project) was when conversations drifted into personal territories.

“They taught me a new word,” Kanaan says. ” ‘Digress.’ ”

Even though they had all agreed that they wanted to keep politics out of the project, the topic would inevitably come up. “I’d just go, ‘AHHHH!’ whenever it happened,” says London, who found herself getting upset, for example, when Kanaan said the only thing Palestinians really want is a job and a place to live. “That’s a benign reality,” she thought. And yet, she called him the next day as soon as she could to make sure she hadn’t said anything to offend him. (Kanaan said she hadn’t. “Rhoda has her views, and I have mine; our friendship is stronger than our views.”)

“God, it’s so complex,” London says. “How do I know what’s right? How does anyone?”

She found herself wanting so badly “for it to be OK between us. As if I could heal the world if I could heal us.”

There were other tense moments, like when London wanted Shams to understand why she might feel apprehensive about standing up at a public discussion of the project and identifying herself as a Jew.

“I realize now,” says Shams, who sometimes signed off her e-mails “Shalom” and who had studied kabbalah, “how little I knew.”

When the time came to create pieces for the two shows they had planned, they each responded in different ways. For the first show, London and Kanaan worked together to create a series of grids depicting tic-tac-toe games, symbolizing the unwinnable nature of the conflict in the Middle East. Shams worked alone, on her vision of the fiery column that had launched this whole project.

For their second show, highlighting balance, everyone worked alone. No one saw anyone else’s work until the day they came to hang it in the gallery of the First Congregational Church in downtown Portland, where the exhibit is now on display.

Shams, for her part, held to her original idea of highlighting the commonalties of the religions. At her studio in Southwest Portland, she painted a vivid grid of canvases depicting Arabic, Jewish and Christian symbols and prayers. “I guess that’s just my nature,” she says, “to always focus on similarities, rather than differences.”

London took a very different approach. She covered a large canvas with pages from a children’s encyclopedia and its message of learning. Over this, she painted rows and rows of light bulbs, an image inspired by a photograph from an installation by Joseph Beuys, the late German conceptual artist as well as paintings by the late British expressionist Francis Bacon. She filled several smaller canvases with light bulbs, too. It wasn’t until later that the symbolism hit her: the idea of enlightenment. Of stepping out of the darkness into the light. And yet, while on the surface the rows of bulbs appear symmetrical, balanced, when you count up the bulbs, they’re not.

Kanaan, for his part, used doors as his canvases — “a door can become a symbol of something you are entering into, or getting out of,” he says — although it is not obvious from looking at his piece that this is what they really are or that the rich colors he has used are actually house-paints. He liked the idea of making people look at something familiar, something they thought they understood, in a new way.

Seeing their works next to each other on the walls of the First Congregational Church’s gallery, their visions could not be more different. Yet, as Kanaan put it, “maybe people don’t have to be exactly alike in order to create balance.”

In some ways, London says, what the whole process highlighted for her was not the similarities, as Shams has originally intended, but the differences between them.

And yet, in the end, that seemed more true to life.

“This has been as much about the process as anything else,” Kanaan says. “The fact that we have worked together, that we are in a show together, is going to give a different view to the world. We are trying to say people can work together — even when they disagree.”

Inara Verzemnieks: 503-221-8201; inarav@news.oregonian.com