According to Head of School, Deborah Skolnick-Einhorn, “Hanoch’s philosophy for art-making closely mirrors MILTON’s ethos of joyful learning through discovery.” So when the chance came to have him join us on campus for a series of workshops, MILTON’s team seized the opportunity.
The students who had gathered to hear from this famous Israeli artist were at first hesitant to participate, even as Piven invited them to spot faces in his slideshow’s photographs of door knobs and fire hydrants. By the time he got to the slide showing a found “face” with toilet roll eyes and a toilet bowl mouth they were roaring with laughter and pointing with their neighbors. The artist’s own eyes flickered mischievously. He had them.
“When we play, we are allowed to behave differently. We can be a different version of ourselves. We can be funny; we can experiment; we can fail; we can be vulnerable. Art space is a place to play and to practice a variety of behaviors, to learn new things, and then to apply these newly learned behaviors to other processes.” – Hanoch Piven
After asking kids to identify faces among a picture of assorted vegetables and hand tools, Piven shared his inspiration for his first found-object portrait in 1990. Even students who weren’t familiar with Saddam Hussain could see the resemblance between his mustache and the box of matches. They admired the matzah he used to create Moses’ beard and considered the symbolism of the open handcuff as his mouth. Did it speak to his past as a slave? Was it a metaphor for his youthful stutter? Even Piven admitted that he hadn’t initially considered all the possible meanings of that object choice.
Then students began eyeing the objects in the room and imagining how they might use them to create their own portraits. Pre-K students were invited to create portraits of themselves. Second grade students were asked to create portraits of heroes, and grade eight students were prompted to envision themselves as change-makers – all deeply connected to the curriculum they’re working on in Hebrew and General Studies.
Each group was eager to get to work, sorting through objects that had been carefully curated by their teachers. They considered bottle caps, miniature toys, and office supplies for their shape, color, and symbolism. They cut and tore colored paper into various shapes. Piven circulated throughout the room giving encouragement and asking insightful questions – “If your mom is your hero, what should we use to create her eyes?” “What do the nails represent as hair?”
At the end of each workshop, Piven gathered the completed pieces for an impromptu exhibition, asking artists to share one object choice and what it symbolized. The explanations ranged from concrete and straightforward to whimsical and abstract. A Pre-K girl had chosen yellow feathers to represent her blonde pigtails. An older student ringed her face with tiny camels representing a desire to travel to Israel. A plastic toy with a hatch squatted in the center of a Pre-K boy’s portrait. He was too shy to speak about his creation. His teacher shared for him, “It opens and closes like his mouth,” she explained while the boy demonstrated the delicate plastic hinge and then closed it again and returned to his seat.
Later, on the same whirlwind day, teachers and staff members were invited to participate in the process as well. As a staff member carefully lined shells in an upturned smile Piven gently inquired if all mouths should be smiling mouths. “That was a revelation,” she shared. “So much in that simple question. Do portraits always have to smile?” She reconsidered and created a straight mouth from a seashell. “I was hesitant at first; I don’t consider myself an artist,” she shared, “but that was an amazing process.”
While the portraits created by the students and teachers will be displayed on both campuses,this experiment in symbolic self-portrait and the importance of playful discovery will linger in our community and continue to inform our work together.