“Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck” is Pure Magic

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Like Alice and the rabbit-hole, viewers of director Olympia Stone’s “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination Of David Beck” know they are entering a very different world from the get-go. The film opens with whimsical jazz and a close up of “Movie Palace”, an elaborate miniature pretend movie theater that combines the pleasures of the bygone Hollywood regal era with the intricacies of handcrafted windup toys.

 

“As a child, I loved to go to the movies. I still do,” David Beck says as the camera lingers over animated figures talking and eating popcorn made of painted birdshot. “It’s almost a little temple, a religious shrine to the movies.”

 

Movie Palace

Movie Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beck then takes us on an enchanting tour of this fantastical creation, explaining his inspiration and process. Close ups of reliefs on the outside of the dome show various movie house golden age genres, such as film noir, Westerns and musicals. A tiny man, loaded down with popcorn and drinks, stands in the aisle, searching for his seat. Within minutes, Beck’s charm, humility and humor have hooked us.

 

Director Olympia Stone has a soft touch, following Beck about as he works in his studio. There is no troubling backstory or dramatic agenda; just an absorbing glimpse into the private thoughts and efforts of an enormously talented artist.

 

If it seems that there is a special connection between director and subject, it’s because there is: Stone’s father, Allan Stone, was Beck’s art dealer for many years, and Beck often visited the Stone home in Purchase, N.Y. Olympia has said Beck stood out as the artist she was most deeply inspired by from the time she was seven years old. Her fascination with the tiny scale of his work never waned, and she undertook “Curious Worlds” to introduce the little known artist to a wider audience.

“David is someone I have known most of my life, and I am honored to say that we have remained and continue to be close friends,” she said.

Beck’s childlike fascination with, well, everything and his playful sense of humor cannot mask this modern renaissance man’s extraordinary gifts for creating unique and powerful miniature sculptures that combine the meticulous craftsmanship and precision of a mechanical engineer with the sometimes wacky worldview of a Tim Burton. He is a unique synthesizer, absorbing that which interests him – Medieval miniatures, European cabinetry, comic books, gothic carving and the art of Joseph Cornell and Joe Marmol – and weaving subtle references into his work.

His works beckon us to come closer and to enter the secret compartments, open the windows, explore inside drawers and assume that nothing is as it seems. Little marvels open to reveal additional, even more miraculous intricacies. Alice’s rabbit hole has no bottom.

 

Beck at work

David Beck in his studio

Watching Beck craft his worlds in miniature is a magical adventure in itself. His highly original, intricate and kinetic artwork combines sculpture, painting, textiles, mechanics and foraging in a way that is part obsessive, part ethereal. His pieces take the form of miniature buildings and entire worlds populated with mystical and whimsical creatures that seem to live in a world all their own. The artist spends hundreds of hours in his oriental rugged workshop, methodically tending to the minutest detail. He learns whatever technique is appropriate for whatever he is trying to build.

 

Olympia Stone

Director Olympia Stone

 

Stone peppers her film with critics, curators, gallerists, collectors and friends who offer insights on Beck’s career, style and importance to the art world. When she films Beck in his studio as he shares his inspirations and frustrations, their rapport and trust is palpable.

 

 

 

 

 

David-Beck-DODO-MUSEUM-1980-Mixed-media_-wood-feathers-copper-and-electric-lightbulb-86-1_2-x-34-x-36-inches-overall

Dodo Museum

 

Much of Beck’s inspiration springs from nature, but rather than replicate it, Beck creates his own romantic version of it. His “Dodo Museum” is a valentine to the extinct creature, complete with Paleolithic skeleton and Cluny-type tapestries with dodos in place of unicorns. Sharing his sketchbooks from the early 1970’s, Beck recalls being completely “obsessed and fascinated by this friendly bird.”

 

A Many Splendored Ode to the Dodo

A Many Splendored Dodo

Dodo windup

Dodo Windup

When pressed to identify her personal favorite among Beck’s works, Stone reluctantly names the large Dodo sculpture that is on screen for a few seconds in the film. Its wings open, revealing a diorama of a tiny dodo paradise. “As a child, I used to love looking inside those wings – it just transported me into a magical world. But honestly, there are so many things I love – it’s impossible to choose just one,” she said.

 

Beck was born in Muncie, Indiana in 1953 and studied painting and sculpture at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1976. That year, he moved to New York City and had his first exhibit at the Allan Stone Gallery. Scenes of Beck reminiscing with friends from those early “starving artist” days are among the film’s most intimate moments.

Allan Stone and David Beck late 1970's

Allan Stone and David Beck in the late 1970’s.

 

Just when we think that Beck has to be the coolest, most talented person we’ve ever encountered, he gets even cooler with the introduction of the jazz improvisation group, “The Melancholics”, and his role as composer and baritone saxophonist. Beck first met bassist Bill Noertker in the late 1990s, and the two developed a collaborative relationship, with Noertker scoring a short film Beck made of seven of his sculptures. Because of their longstanding relationship, Stone asked him to score her film.

 

Curious Worlds Soundtrack

 

“I love the music in the film. Bill Noertker has a long history of composing music for David’s pieces – you can see/hear more of their collaboration on David’s website (davidbeckartworks.com). Bill “gets” David’s artwork,” Stone said. Noertker composed a few pieces specifically for the film, but many were from his band, Moxie (http://www.noertker.com/).

 

By the end of the film, we are not surprised to learn that Beck is the only living artist to have had three solo exhibits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, nor that his work is sought by private collectors across the country. The only thing that does surprise us is that we have never heard of this quirky, friendly, enormously talented man who creates these wonderful and enchanting microcosms, and for that we owe Olympia Stone a huge thank you.

 

Visit floatingstone.com for more information.

Scores Brave the Storm to “Ask a Muslim Anything”

 

 

Heavy rains and winds did not douse the interest of over 125 people who braved the elements last Sunday for the opportunity to ask Arab-American Muslim Robert Azzi, a longtime photojournalist, newspaper columnist and former Middle East advisor to Phillips Exeter Academy, “anything.”

 

The event, hosted by the First Church in Salem, a Unitarian Universalist church, is the kickoff in a series of events the church is sponsoring to foster interfaith dialogue and engagement.

 

“We are at a crucial time in modern U.S. history as far as understanding other faiths — especially Islam,” said Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell, a pastor at the church. “It is crucial that we develop some rudimentary understanding about different faiths.”

 

Barz-Snell admitted that the title of the question and answer session — “Ask A Muslim Anything” — was deliberately provocative to “invite questions and produce dialogue.” And for over an hour and a half, the crowd of mostly non-church members complied, asking about everything from why women wear hijabs (head scarves) to the origin of violent jihad.

 

Two young Muslim women, Zoha Qumar, a Columbia University student and Phillips Exeter graduate, and Tan Nazer, a Saudi Arabian senior at Phillips Exeter, accompanied Azzi and were available to answer questions. Neither wore a hijab.

NAzer and Qumar

Phillips Exeter senior Tan Nazer (left) and Columbia University student Zoha Qumar answered questions from the audience.

 

The first question, asking about the distinctions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, drew a chuckle from Azzi, who joked, “I love it when we start a forum with a softball.”

 

Salem resident, Jeff Cohen, asked Azzi whether it is difficult to encourage children to continue to wear traditional clothing in the current American climate of Islamaphobia. “It should break our collective heart that women are shedding the head scarf because of intimidation.” Azzi said.

 

He later noted, however, that a lot of women here and abroad are covered not by preference, but because their families and, in the case of patriarchal Saudi Arabia, where men are in control, their governments impose it. “This is wrong. It should be a personal choice,” he said, adding that the definition of modesty in Saudi Arabia has changed in an oppressive way that burdens women.

The questions turned to contemporary American life when Nat Carpenter of Beverly asked how an observant Muslim, who desires to pray to Mecca during the day, can also work in an environment that might not accommodate that desire, as recently happened to a group of Somali workers who wanted to convene for prayer during their work shift in Colorado.

 

“I don’t see a reason why employers couldn’t make accommodations for workers to exercise religious rights and freedoms during lunch or coffee breaks as they would for any other American,” Azzi said.

IMG_4111

Over 125 people showed up last Sunday at First Church in Salem to ask Arab American Muslim Robert Azzi “anything.”

 

Perhaps the most pointed question of the forum, and the one on many people’s minds judging from the nodding heads in the audience, was asked by Paul Marquis of Salem.

 

“Does the Quran (the principal religious text of Islam) advocate violent jihad?” he asked.

“There are a lot of Muslims who misunderstand jihad,” Azzi said. “Those who believe in violent jihad have not read the Quran with an open heart.”

 

Azzi suggested several times throughout the Q&A session that poor, illiterate Muslims are recruited by political factions, like ISIS and the Taliban, that distort religion in order to gain a military and economic foothold. “Who is it that profits from this kind of rhetoric? We can’t yield the playing field,” he warned.

 

On the domestic front, Azzi described recent one-on-one conversations he had with several Republican presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, who has advocated bombing and putting American boots on the ground to defeat ISIS. Azzi said the American obsession with ISIS could be traced to the fact that we did not get the success we wanted after 9/11 when we invaded Iraq.

 

“ISIS is a cancer. We have elevated them way out of proportion in terms of their capability, threat and theology. We love to have villains,” he said, adding, “We have never come to terms with having Muslims in our midst in this country.”

 

Azzi’s comments about mainstream American press and the role it plays fanning the flames of anti-Muslim rhetoric met with loud applause. “Radical Islamic terrorism sells,” he said. He then challenged the audience to turn away from Yahoo, the New York Times, NPR and other Western media sources and read the English Al Jazeera instead. “Take a look at the world the way the rest of the world sees it.”

 

He believes that it is possible to put a “stake through the heart” of the religious debate that polarizes people in this country.

 

“There is common ground. The question is how many people are willing to challenge the orthodoxies of their religion to get back to the scripture and look at the similarities in messages among all religions,” Azzi said, citing the prophetic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which all have a version of the “golden rule.”

 

Asked what questions he wishes he had been asked, Azzi said that he would have liked to talk more about the connections between faith traditions and also the history of Islam in America going back to the days of slavery. Nonetheless, he was pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable and interested the questioners were — and how respectful everyone was.

 

“I believe that as long as people keep talking to each other — to host forums where opinions and information can be exchanged with respect for each other — then there is hope,” he said.

Pictured at top: Robert Azzi, an Arab-American Muslim, answered questions at the First Church in Salem’s forum, “Ask a Muslim Anything.”

 

For more information about future programs, go to firstchurchinsalem.org or call 978-744-1551.

One Handful of Mud at a Time

Pictured above: Professor Mohammed Khallouk

When is the last time you read the same two articles in a Jewish newspaper and an Islamic e-magazine?

This is a story about a Muslim professor and e-magazine publisher and a Jewish writer and editor who saw in each other’s writing an opportunity to broaden the horizons of their readerships. It is a story about hope and possibility. It does not dwell on the challenges that politics, culture and religion pose. Instead, it focuses on common human ground and the way each of us can build a better future, one relationship at a time.

As editor of the bi-weekly Jewish Journal, I received scores of unsolicited articles and opinion pieces. A small percentage of the ones I actually read were appropriate for our publication and of those, I only had room for a handful in every issue.

Every now and then, however, an article would reach out and grab me in a way that I knew I had to publish it. Professor Mohammed Khallouk’s “Can Sworn Enemies Ever Become Friends?” was one.

This is how it began:

“In my youth in Morocco I was taught to hate Jews, and especially Israelis. I was convinced that Jews and Muslims could never become friends and that the relationship between Israelis and Arabs was based on hostility. The reality of cultural and religious pluralism in my new home country of Germany and an examination of Moroccan history, which shows that Jews and Muslims have lived in harmony for centuries, have convinced me that differences in religion cannot be the true reason for the animosity between them in the Middle East today.

I recently traveled to Jerusalem and wrote a travelogue about the experience. My meeting with one Jewish shopkeeper in the Western part of Jerusalem was especially unforgettable. My experience with this friendly and open-minded man named Abraham motivated me to write him a letter, which I included at the end of my book. This letter is a mirror of my experiences in the Holy City on the whole and my experiences meeting Abraham in particular.”

In his letter to Abraham, Professor Khallouk’s describes his revelations while in Israel, the gist of which are reprinted here:

“Even more than at the Holy Sites, I experienced this sense of brotherhood in Jerusalem’s everyday life. There were Jews like you who approached me as a fellow human with neither awkwardness nor fear. Appearance, origin and religious belief were unimportant. You saw me as a person who needed your assistance, and you spontaneously offered your help.

This human interaction has shaped my view of Jerusalem ever since. Jews are henceforth in my consciousness no longer my sworn enemies. I was able to experience them as my friends, soul-mates and spiritual brothers. While I continue to disagree in many key points with the State of Israel’s political stand on the Middle East conflict, Jews in West Jerusalem now matter to me as much as do Arabs and Muslims in the east of the Holy City. You have shown that you understand the importance of humanity essential to both Islam and Judaism.

The experience of seeing people of different cultures and religions coexisting so closely makes me long to return one day to the Holy City. The warmth with which we dealt with each other makes me hopeful that it might also inspire the political and social leaders. This is how political conflict can be overcome. Brotherhood and solidarity need to be the dominant image that Jews and Muslims have of each other.

I recognize your human kindness as a model for the rest of the world as well. This applies not least to German society, in which despite its cultural and political pluralism sometimes indifference and self-centeredness prevail. In Jerusalem I met a Judaism that reaches out to others. The guiding principle can be expressed thus: Only in dealing with the You, can the I find its identity.”

I emailed Professor Khallouk, telling him how much his message moved me and that, while I would have to edit it due to print space constraints, I wanted to publish it. I wanted our Jewish readers to hear a reasoned and reasonable Muslim voice, one that advocated human kindness and empathy, one that, these days and especially recently in the Journal’s pages, is too often ignored.

We exchanged several increasingly friendly emails. His article appeared at the top of the Jewish Journal May 28 Opinion page. Mine appeared at the bottom, an article entitled “Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony” that praised the interfaith Tufts University Baccalaureate ceremony for being a powerful reminder that we are members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, the differences of our separate identities.

When I sent Professor Khallouk the pdf of the Opinion page, he replied with this email:

Dear Shelley,

Thank you very much for the publishing of my  article. It was a great pleasure for me to find it on the same page with your nice literary report about diversity and the baccalaureate service.

If you do not mind I would like to translate  your piece into German and publish the translation on the website of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany

I also wish you a beautiful day and would be happy for another opportunity to work together with you.

Mohammed

The article appeared recently at http://islam.de/26575.php.

The point of the story is quite simple. We can recognize and seize opportunities to shape the future with a foundation of coexistence and compromise, or we can construct it from a place of separation, hostility and stereotyping. Either is possible and both require the same action: human hands, building together, one handful of mud at a time.

Prof. Mohammed Khallouk is a political and Islamic scientist with German and Moroccan roots. He is an expert in Islamic Thought and Politics, Political Islam and is skilled in intercultural dialogue between the West and the Islamic World.

Prof. Khallouk received his Ph.D. in 2007 in Political Science at the Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. His doctoral thesis dealt with Political Islam in his country of origin, Morocco. His M.A. degree in Political Science at Marburg University in 2003, based on his thesis about the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was honored with the German Academic Exchange Prize. He also received a M.A. degree in Arab and Islamic Thought at Mohammed V – University of Rabat, Morocco, in 1997.

Khallouk served as a lecturer in Political Science from 2008 to 2012 at Philipps-University of Marburg and from 2010 to 2012 at the University of German Federal Armed Forces Munich. Since 2014 he has served as Professor for Islamic Studies at Qatar University, Doha.

To read Professor Khallouk’s complete article, go to  http://boston.forward.com/articles/187449/can-sworn-enemies-ever-become-friends/#ixzz3fGMBw3Yy