Pico Union Project is officially the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles, adorned with beautiful stained-glass windows, stunning reliefs and a still-operable organ overlooking the pews.
It’s now home to one of the most unique (and diverse) spiritual communities in the city, serving as a “multi-faith arts center and house of worship” for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists—everyone. For years they’ve been hosting all sorts of groundbreaking events, including barely-PC multi-faith comedy showcases, concerts and more. But until recently, they had never formalized any sort of artistic residency.
Then they met Sharon Kagan.
Kagan is an LA-based multi-media artist whose career has spanned every medium from sculpture, to installation, to video, to performance, drawing, knitting and of course painting.
In addition to traditional one-off artworks, Kagan has found herself involved in communal efforts more than once, including Judy Chicago’s famous project “The Dinner Party.” She also created an installation piece in Santa Monica called The Love Chapel, which went viral through word of mouth in the 90s before “viral” was even a thing.
Appropriately, and pretty much by accident, Kagan became Pico Union Projects’ first official artist in residence, leading their diverse, multi-faith community in a six week long group painting effort that captured their prayers on canvas.
“I went to Pico Union Project to celebrate Yom Kippur,” Sharon recalls of how this came together. “And about a month later I was working on my painting ‘The Untangling.’ And I was thinking, ‘I should show this painting there over the Passover Easter holidays.’ I asked [Artistic Director Craig Taubman] if he would ever include this as part of their programming for the holidays. And he said, ‘Yeah that sounds great. But would you ever do something that would involve the community where they could paint on something?’ And without even hesitating I just said ‘Yes!’ None of us had ever done something like this before.”
The most exciting thing about the project for Kagan was going into the unknown.
Her most recent body of work formed the skeleton and backdrop of the group painting, which would be transformed over the six week residency as everyone made their contributions to it. The original painting utilized nearly every facet of Kagan’s artistic background thus far: She knit hemp string and rope, pulled the string apart, photographed it, enlarged it, and recreated it as a half photo-realistic, half abstract painting. Kagan explains, “It’s a reflection on the messiness of life.”
And that’s the perfect global, humanistic concept the diverse community of Pico Union Project could relate to.
“It was communicated to me that I would be working with a very mixed audience,” Kagan says. “Everything from little kids, to senior citizens, to Hispanic people, to Arabic people, Muslim people, Jewish people, Christian people. It was really diverse. And the audience had no art experience. So I really didn’t know what to expect and that was what was thrilling to me.”
Events and opportunities for Sharon to lead the painting effort were added in a flurry. On average she was at Pico Union Project two to three days per week, supervising everyone from church-goers to concert attendees in their painting.
Eventually, the structure and format for the project revealed itself.
Kagan admits herself she has a lot of control in her technique, so the process of supervising un-trained artists make their additions to the painting was sometimes difficult, to say the least. However, when a group of gradeschoolers made a veritable mess of the painting, she realized that the project would require more structure and guidance—something she was more than happy to provide.
“I just started filling in the squares that were there with solid colors,” Kagan recalls of restoring the destroyed painting. “And then I knew what to do. I knew I needed to re-grid the painting. And that I would have to instruct each participant to limit themselves to one square on the grid, and fill it with a prayer. After I had that breakthrough, people really got it. They wanted to come and add their prayers. So then we had Arabic and Hebrew script cropping up all over the painting. Christian symbols. Jewish symbols. We have all these different things that I’m just so happy about.”
As the painting transformed, so did Kagan, herself.
“I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors,” Kagan admits. “So going to a church service becomes a challenging thing. But they were so kind to me. That first Sunday that I went there the minister called me up and asked me to introduce the group painting and talk about what we were trying to do with it. When I stood there and explained the whole idea of the knitting [that formed the background of the piece] the entire congregation made this audible gasp. It was palpable how deeply they got what this piece was about. I had to step back and catch my balance. It literally knocked me off my feet. And I have to say since then I look at strangers differently. I expect them to be my neighbors. I expect them to be friendly. And again, as a child of Holocaust survivors, that is a huge deal.”
Kagan concluded the painting on April 9 during Pico Union Projects’ Third Annual Downtown Seder, one of their biggest events of the year.
Though it reflects the attitudes and prayers of members of every walk of life, of every major world religion, ultimately, the painting is exactly as simple and pure as it should be: It’s about love.