In 2012 I worked as an urban planning consultant for a human rights NGO in Israel. I lived in a crummy, tiny little basement studio, furnished with leftovers and decorated with stencils, giving the room the look of a dollhouse decorated by a four-year-old. I never really got over jetlag for the four months that I lived there, and I spent a lot of time lying awake in bed, listening to the crackle of 1940s American jazz radio drifting down from my upstairs neighbor's unit. He would smoke on his balcony, staring gloomily into the dark, around 10 PM every night. I listened to birdsong when it began to get light outside—nothing feels quite as far from home as listening, half-asleep, to unfamiliar birds in the morning.
Being in Israel was both frightening and fascinating. I went there having very little idea what I thought of Israel as a country, or even as an idea, for that matter. I had grown up in a secular American Jewish household, with a secret distaste for my Jewish heritage, and, while my parents were liberal activists and devoured the New York Times every morning, I remained largely uninterested in political matters well into adulthood. Although I know very well that this was an illusion generated by the sheltered bubble I lived in, politics seemed like a large, frightening world that had nothing to do with me, and which I would never be equipped to influence.
But in 2011 and 2012, I seemed to have somehow tripped and fallen into the world of activism. I marched with Occupy Wall Street for several weeks, and then landed a position as a research fellow in Tel Aviv. I've always had a habit of taking any new opportunity that presented itself, and so there I was, working with an organization to raise quality of life in Israel, while feeling no real connection either to being Jewish or to any political orientation—I was not Zionist, I was not a Palestinian rights activist. I was nothing. But it turned out that nothing was the perfect thing to be that summer. As nothing, everyone felt comfortable talking to me—they all assumed I shared their viewpoint, with the added benefit that I was a temp—nobody would see me again. And strangest of all, I felt Jewish for the first time in my life, as I began to develop political opinions about what was happening in Israel.
But I kept those opinions to myself then, and I remained nothing.
I spent every day listening, and reading, mostly in nothing's natural state: silence. It was peaceful, but it was also lonely, and it drove me farther into myself. I felt introspective, spacey, distant, and preoccupied—when I wasn't listening to somebody else's stories. It was when I was traveling in the West Bank that I began thinking of these states of mind as a wishing well. It seemed to be where I lived so much of the time that summer. I would climb to the top of my well to listen to others and check on my surroundings, and then I would fall back in, curl up at the base of the well, and watch the darkness settle around me. It felt like a refuge, because it was so far away from the rest of the world—the safest possible place.
It wasn't necessarily pleasant down there. If I felt calm and thoughtful, the well was full of clear groundwater, and I would float gently to the bottom and the light from the sky would shimmer around me. If I felt afraid or ashamed, the well was dry, and I would hit the ground like a stone. Dry wells felt cavernously empty, and there was always a flavor of despair in the silence. Wet or dry, though, there were always ideas down there. There were dreams, and hopes, and bitter memories—and plans and ambitions as well. But a wish is all of those things, isn't it? Any idea has to begin with some desire, no matter whether we believe in the possibility of its ever being realized.
For the last eight months, I've been working on a series of paintings that I've been calling "composites". Each one is composed of multiple objects from a common category, superimposed so as to occupy the same space. The four wells in this painting are all from 2012: holy wells in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, water wells in Palestinian farming villages, ruined wells in Acre. These are the wells I descend into when I enter my own wishing well. The smell of the dry desert and the silence of being nothing—and the thoughts that rush into the absence—all these things are with me, down at the bottom.
I have since found out that wishing wells are not always safe. You need to be careful: the air can be poisonous, the water can drown you, and for a thousand other reasons, you might never come up to the surface again. And it's important that we do, because we all have to help each other. After all, of what use are the thoughts and dreams of the wishing well if no one else ever knows about them? I have come to believe that bringing these things to the surface is my job as an artist. Even if I have nothing else to give, I know that I always find ineffable, sublime things down in my wishing well, and I can bring what I have found up to the surface to share.
The only really important relationship is the one I create (or fail to create) with you, the person who is present with my art. I may not know you, and we might very well never meet, but the possibility remains that we will end up being beautiful together, in this thing I have made. Maybe it's just for a few moments, but it could leave something lovely superimposed on some dear, related memory of yours. Or even better, something from your own wishing well might speak, and then you would pick up your own tools, whatever they are, and make something more, add another layer.
That this most important relationship in an artist's life can happen between total strangers—strangers who may never see each other’s' faces, strangers who may not even like each other—seems miraculous to me. It's like discovering that I had the same dream as the businessman sitting next to me on the train. It's like realizing that the feral dog hunting rats in the city gutters has the exact same color eyes and hair as my late grandmother. It's like finding my childhood bedroom perfectly replicated deep inside an ancient, ruined palace on a distant planet. We are all drawn through a superimposed sequence of associations, through our buried thoughts, beliefs, memories, and selves, within each moment of our lives. What's more, these moments are shared, and the associative links interconnect and diverge into the vast, tangled nebula of human experience.
This is what I am always seeking as an artist. I know this relationship can't be forced, or even created deliberately. It has to grow up of its own accord, if it grows at all. The wishing well is dry, and the floor at the bottom feels hollow and cavernous. The dust clustered in the corner over there is a great vast desert of silence. That's where you keep your secrets. I will not find them out. I will walk over to the corner filled with dust and lay myself down in it, with your secrets, quiet like they are quiet.
We will not disturb each other.