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Arts & Culture

How A Jewish Prayer Helped An Artist Cope With The COVID Crisis — And Inspired Her New Exhibit

Beach sunsets and the mourner's Kaddish are part of Sasha Wortzel's 'Dreams of Unknown Islands' show at Oolite Arts.

The COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change impacts. The fight for racial equality and social justice.

For South Florida-based visual artist Sasha Wortzel, they're all connected.

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"One parallel is that we often are rushing toward some kind of quick fix without taking the time to really unpack how we arrived at this moment," says Wortzel.

"Why are we experiencing sea-level rise, toxic algae blooms? Why are we experiencing such mass death? Why are Black, brown and indigenous people much more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic?"

Like so many other people, Wortzel looked for ways to work through feelings of helplessness, uncertainty and isolation throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

So she began live-streaming Florida beach sunsets on Instagram — her way, she says, of dealing with the way the pandemic can distort our perception of time. And occasionally, she would take part in an online gathering of people reciting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.

Both the videos, and the ritual prayer, play major roles in Wortzel's latest exhibit, "Dreams of Unknown Islands," now showing at Oolite Arts in Miami Beach.

Wortzel reached out to her friends, acquaintances and colleagues with a request to record themselves reciting the Kaddish, giving them carte blanche to "make it their own."

Some recited in Hebrew, others in English. A number of the participants played around with certain words and sounds.

To mix the audio, she enlisted the talents of two people well known in South Florida's music scene — Denise Faxas served as sound engineer and the job of sound designer went to Emile Milgrim.

The result is a ghostly polyphony of voices, rising and falling above the sound of water — captured by Wortzel along Florida's West Coast.

In the gallery, suspended from the ceiling, are Wortzel's large-scale sculptures shaped like sea shells. They serve double-duty as audio speakers broadcasting the audio as a seven-channel sound installation.

Much of Wortzel's work — which includes filmmaking — has revolved around the fragility of the Everglades and degradation of the natural world.

Other parts of "Dreams of Unknown Islands" — which includes sculptures, video and a light and text installation — make use of snake skins, deck chairs and images of sea turtles.

Wortzel says the exhibit is an invitation to the audience to move together from the grief caused by injustice, political upheaval, a climate crisis and the pandemic — toward understanding and healing.

"And I think that's where the Kaddish, again, really resonated for me in this moment," she says. "It inherently understands grief and mourning and loss as a collective process."


“Dreams of Unknown Islands”
By Sasha Wortzel, curated by Kristan Kennedy
On view now until April 4, by appointment
Oolite Arts, 924 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, FL 33139

This interview is part of “Intermission,” WLRN’s series looking at how South Florida’s arts community is coping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’ve also been hearing from people who are NOT artists by trade, but who are tapping into their creative side during COVID isolation.

If you’ve got a story for us, please send an email to talktous@wlrnnews.org, with the word “Intermission” in the subject line.

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