Interfaith Identity at 50: The Art Car

For my fiftieth birthday, I began transforming my ancient minivan into an art car. I called on friends to drop by with any small, recycled, impermeable objects that could be glued onto my front hood. The inspiration came from my years living in Baltimore, where art cars are a tradition, celebrated at the American Visionary Art Museum, and in a parade at the suberb summer festival known as Artscape. I told my friend Rebecca, “In my second fifty years, I’m going to let all the beautiful, quirky stuff that was buried inside me rise to the surface and go on diplay on the hood of my car.” She laughed and sighed, “It wasn’t all that buried, Sue.” Fair enough.

Originally, I had no plan for the interfaith theme to infiltrate the art car project. It simply began to happen, based on the objects my friends offered up. My friend Ellen brought over a colorful cross. My friend Ann Marie contributed a chipped ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary. A plastic angel appeared, followed shortly by a tiny rubber fingerpuppet of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, and then, an orange dreidel. My friend Julia arrived with a jumble of alphabet beads and asked, “Guess what it spells?” The letters fell into place to reveal the answer: “On Being Both.”

While lovingly applying the cross to my car, I thought back to the 1980s, when Madonna made giant cross pendants a pop culture statement. As a young woman who was raised Jewish, I did not think it was seemly for me to participate in this glam punk trend. It made sense to me that Madonna, raised Catholic and saddled with a religious name, could get away with appropriating, twisting, or paying hommage to the cross in this way. She also wore a star of David alongside her cross at times. (She later discovered Kabbalah, though it rankles many Jewish leaders when celebrities (or others) study Kabbalah without committing to Judaism.)

I still would probably never wear a cross by itself: I would not leave out my (prominent? dominant?) Jewish side this way. But on my birthday, a minister friend created for me a necklace with a dozen tiny religious charms: a kiddush cup, a matzoh, a menorah, a cross, “JC” (Jesus Christ? Jewish/Christian?). I wore the necklace to my son’s graduation from interfaith Sunday School, safe in the heart of my interfaith community. I don’t know if I would wear it just anywhere: it will probably flummox people. But it does represent me, and our family.

Meanwhile, I am somehow not only comfortable with all the religious symbols affixed to my car, I am getting a huge creative kick out of recombining them into an optimistic and inclusive art project. The religions theme is subtle, woven through the mosaic, alongside other motifs emerging organically (peace, the cast-off toys from our growing children, art for the sake of art). But though I did not set out with this intention, I see now that my religious interior–complex, colorful, joyous, open to interpretation, simultaneously familiar and incrutable–now has an exterior manifestation, on the hood of my car. If you see my “Bothmobile” at a traffic light, honk for harmony.

5 Replies to “Interfaith Identity at 50: The Art Car”

  1. I love this! Is it the Baltimore girl in me, or the mom? I’m not sure. As I get older I am more and more inspired by the Jewish women in my life to let my Christianity show more and more. Is that odd? Maybe. What I mean is, I see that letting one’s religion show a bit is not like letting your slip show below your skirt. It is a part of who I am and more and more I am inspired by the fantastic Jewish women in my life to go with that and not try to hide it. A friend just posted on facebook that her son’s kindergarten class sang this little light of mine at their concert and it made her bawl her face off. She’s Jewish, but I thought of all the years of summer bible camp where we sang that and realized the funny thing that meant to me on so many levels. I also thought of the brave Muslim women in my life (and I am blessed to know many) who everyday choose to let their light shine, no matter what kinds of derision they face in this weird post 9/11 world we live in… so I read this and mentally held up a toast to you. I am inspired!! And I am glad to live in a place where many strive hard for religious tolerance and understanding everyday. Here’s to you for writing about the topic and happy birthday!

    1. Alison–
      Your comment is inspiring! I definitely feel that with age, all of us become more comfortable revealing our hearts, our cultures, our beliefs, and our artistic sensibilites.

      It’s interesting you should mention “This Little Light of Mine.” It’s a gospel song from the early 20th century, based on either Luke or Matthew. But of course it does not mention Jesus specifically, and many of us (Jews), ironically, adore gospel music, especially songs like this one that became associated with the Civil Rights movement. Personally, I find this one a little corny at this point, perhaps because it is sung so often (including recently on “Glee!”). But recently, in a Jewish community context, I heard Rabbi David Shneyer give it a twist new to me, with Hebrew lyrics! I suspect it’s a Jewish camp song at this point, as well as a bible camp song.

      We all continue to influence, and I hope enjoy, each other, as we move together into a (more harmonious?) future.


  2. It’s rather unbelievable that expressions of your religious self haven’t surfaced as an artwork (other than your word/photo interplay on your blog) before! A canvas is the perfect place to manifest the duality of the symbols and illustrations of your multi-facetedness. And your van seems the perfect canvas for a work that is—like you—surprising, serious, playful, collaborative, and wry.

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