Q&A with Rick and Laura Brown

 

Q. What’s it like to see the story of this huge project—one that’s dominated the last decade of your lives—told in this film by other people?

Rick: Our primary objective is to create dynamic learning environments. Within this realm, participants can follow their own interest and generate their own avenues of inquiry. The learning process develops naturally and exponentially in a multitude of directions that creates unlimited learning possibilities. Our best hope is that the beginning idea will expand and explode into many directions that will energize and stimulate learning.  Film is a powerful popular medium that can be seen around the world. We are very grateful to have this project so beautifully documented on film. With this artistic device, the synagogue replication story is destined to inspire and inform.

Laura:  When we are in the thick of any project, time flys by. The story of how a project is done can quickly evaporate if not captured immediately in photography, film and verbal stories from all the people who are experiencing the project. With the Gwoździec synagogue project, the completed roof and painted ceiling is so powerful and speaks with such a grand voice to the world; the story of how it was made—the story of all the hundreds of people who came together to make it—can get lost in the importance of object itself.  Also the story of the original Gwoździec synagogue—which was lost for many in decades of silence—cries out for a voice. Both the contemporary story of the making of this synagogue as a huge international hands-on educational project in Poland and the story of this synagogue's history must be told to the world and deserves this film. The “back” story told by this film is as important as the Gwoździec synagogue reconstruction.

Q. You only mention it briefly in the film, so explain how and why you first became fascinated with Polish wooden synagogues, and then how you connected to Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Laura: We first learned about the wooden synagogues of Poland through a picture we were shown while working on a project at Handshouse Studio to make a wooden human-powered crane. Wooden synagogues and wooden cranes may initially seem unrelated.  But for us, as artists and as lovers of history, wood and early technology, the fact that both the wooden synagogues and the human powered crane no longer existed except in art (drawings, prints, photographs), both were constructed with large timbers joined with traditional tools and methods, and  both were wonderful examples of 18th-century wooden technology, connected these objects.  But that was just a connection—the start, the beginning.   
     We then followed the synagogue picture and story to Poland in 2003, attending a conference in
Białystok, Poland where other organizations from many countries were meeting to discuss the glorious history and tragic ending of the wooden synagogues of Poland and an international desire to make a full scale replica in Poland some day. We also learned that all the wooden synagogues were destroyed by the end of WWII and that the remaining information, the documentation, drawings and photographs, was done by Polish architecture faculty and students in Poland’s interwar period. Polish students 80-years ago helped to document these synagogues and as educators, we took this idea to heart and back to our college and began organizing classes and workshops where students today could continue the work and walk in the steps of the students from 1930’s Poland—and bring back this history and work to make a full scale replica of one of the synagogue some day in Poland.
     
 From 2004 to 2007 we worked with students and professionals, in classes and workshops, researching and making large scale models of the exterior of Zabłudow synagogue and interior paintings of Gwoździec synagogue and a full scale replica of the Gwoździec bimah. In the winter of 2007, after completing the bimah—which was filmed by Trillium Studios—we were asked to travel to New York City to meet Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, who was leading the team developing the Core Exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a multimedia narrative experience dedicated to the 1000-year history of Polish Jews. After seeing the film and what we were doing, she asked us to go to Warsaw and meet with her team to discuss making a replica of a wooden synagogue for the Core Exhibition. That was the moment we became connected with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  

Q. What did you learn while leading the reconstruction that most surprised you? 

Rick: I always tell my students to think big, that they can create their own world, to believe in themselves and their ideas and that every moment can be a creative moment. When this project began over 12 years ago, I told my students that our goal was; "to one day build a full-scale replica of one of these magnificent synagogues." I am a relentless optimist and I believed I was telling them the truth. I think maybe most of them thought I was a little crazy but while working on the project and learning about the significance of this lost history many of them began to believe that one day it should be made full-scale and they wanted to be part of the project. They were inspired. They became believers. They did everything it takes to make it actually happen.  Since our success, many of my students have reminded me of my bold statement. They say they will never doubt me again. For myself, now looking back at our "nothing short of amazing journey to get here", I find I can hardly believe that we actually did it.

Laura: We learned that students really can make history. Literally, students from the past made history when they documented the synagogue and students today made history when they constructed the Gwoździec synagogue in the Museum. Student, who are willing, open, young, fearless, and when led and encouraged by professionals, teachers and fellow students, can make a difference in the world—they can make history. This became the title of this learning adventure. MAKING / HISTORY: The Wooden Synagogue Replication Project.
     What surprised me was the awesome power of the finished synagogue roof and ceiling to everyone who saw it, who walked under it. It made me speechless and overwhelmed. And then the lack of awareness of the history of the wooden synagogues in the Jewish world community and in Poland. And the need for more knowledge about it—the who, the what, the why—the many questions that came from directly experiencing the Gwoździec synagogue. And we cannot provide the answers. We just provided the synagogue. What surprised me was that in the end, after the years of work and hundreds of people whose hands and heart and minds went into the finished synagogue roof and painted ceiling and the bimah—that this was just the beginning. Just the beginning of many many questions.  

Q. Talk about one aspect of the research you did into the original synagogue that was particularly challenging or satisfying and helped your reconstruction.

Laura: The cupola ceiling is made up of 32 curved and flat panels to create the complex cupola shape that you see today. We had, as our resource, 17 photographs of the ceiling and a print copy of the Breier painted color-study of only the right side of only 1 of the 32 panels. We also had architectural drawings showing the north/south and east/west sections of the synagogue that could be used for measuring and scaling. In order to translate the 17 photographs into the cupola painted ceiling of 32 curved panels, we had to map the ceiling determining the height, width and length of each panel and the length and sweep of curve of each the panel in the cupola. The very first thing we did when starting the ½ scale replication of the ceiling in 2005 was to have each student make a model of the cupola so we all could understand the space and form of the cupola. From those models we could map the photographs, but this process was a continuous journey of discovery as the students looked closer and closer to every part of the ceiling. We literally had to get inside the painted ceiling to navigate all the architecture of the painting design and each element. And this was all done with flat panels. When these flats were put into the final cupola shape in 2013, the painting truly became alive.  

Q. In terms of the experiences that you saw the volunteers having, do you think the project was a success? 

Rick: I believe everyone wants to do something significant in his or her lives. On top of that I believe that institutional education is performing far below its potential in the 21st-century.
    
We try to create projects that are al-encompassing: international, multi-cultural, interdisciplinary, community service minded, collaborative, cooperative, team building, high-energy, and active-learning based. We are inclusive. Everyone can participate and everyone learns. The goals are very high and almost seem unreachable. We always try to attract the best scholars, educators, design professionals and students and to put them under the same roof to replicate an object nearly lost in history. This creates a high-stakes game. People feel the significance and they want to make it work. The project triggers a will to do your best to serve the project and solve the problem before you. Everyone’s personal inspiration is infectious and everyone becomes inspired to reach the goal. These projects often are like an unforgettable mythic journey. Many participants find themselves doing and achieving things they never imagined.  In simple terms: signing up for a 3 credit college course that ends in building a major, nearly-lost example of significant art and architecture that is placed in a world class museum for the world to see goes well beyond the course description written in the college catalogue. At Handshouse we say: Learning is the Last Great Adventure!

Laura:  I do not like using the word volunteers. We are all students—students of this amazing project that had not been done before or at least since it was originally built over 300 years ago. Volunteers give time—but students learn. Everyone learned and I think that is the success of this project. Each person has a part of himself and herself in the final Gwoździec synagogue in the Museum.  

Q. You only mention it only briefly in the film, so describe why you held painting workshops in 7 different Polish towns. To what extent were these goals satisfied? What kind of reactions did you get from local Poles? What range of emotions did you encounter among Poles and Jews on your project about the history of Poland and Polish Jews during World War II?

Laura:  During our years of travel in Poland we saw the many cities and towns that had masonry synagogues but no congregation. These synagogues were now used for various purposes—storage of town archives, art centers, theaters, culture centers. Some were just empty. We suggested selecting 7 synagogues in 7 cities throughout Poland to host the workshops to replicate the Gwoździec synagogue painting. The lost synagogue painting would be replicated in masonry synagogues and the project would become apart of that community. These workshop events served as teaching platform not only for those directly involved in painting the ceiling, but also for the local community. Demonstrations of the painting process were open to the public, bringing attention to local synagogues, the history of the people who worshipped in them, and the urgency of preserving existing masonry synagogues throughout Poland like those in which the workshops are being conducted.
     Each city and town had its own story and personality. Each workshop was unique with individuals who expanded the story of the project.  In Rzeszow we were asked to join a memorial march marking the day the Jews of Rzeszow were marched to the local train station for deportation to the camps. In Krakow, we worked in The Tempel, a grand synagogue which was large enough for us to work in the side aisle, while hundreds of visitors, from all over the world, entered the main prayer hall to see this magnificent piece of architecture and, at times, fill the prayer hall with song and prayer. In Wroc
ław, we worked in the White Stork, another grand synagogue that was recently restored by the Bente Kahan Foundation. It was a great honor to work there and daily visitors would come through with stories about their parents, their families, their homes and their lives.   
     In Gdansk we were invited by the Rabbi to work in their newly returned synagogue which had a small congregation.  Our whole group of 30 were honored and thrilled to be included in their Sabbath meal. In Sejny, we worked in the White Synagogue which is the center of the Borderland Foundation that has brought cultural connections and healing through music. There we painted the coves and enjoyed evenings of klezmer and other local music. In Kazimierz Dolny, we painted during the day and enjoyed the cultural festivities of that city during the evenings. Many visitors were constantly coming through.  In
Szczebrzeszyn, we found a wonderful community of friends and great food. And then back to Wrocław to the White Stork. We circled Poland and painted the ceiling.   

Rick: Our first objective was to replicate a wooden synagogue built in the 18th century. This of course was only the point of departure. Learning how to make the object quickly turned into a multi faceted learning adventure on a global scale. This project could not and should not have been studied in a petri dish. The history that surrounds this object is not a local history. It is global and it was relevant when it was made and destroyed and remains relevant to the world to this day. The project inherently needed to be researched, analyzed, and reproduced by a wide range of active participants including many individuals, organizations, communities, and countries. The idea to replicate the project in Poland was obvious because the history took place in a specific Polish town, but the complexity of the history is relevant to the entire country of Poland and more. Enjoining greater numbers of participants shares the learning possibilities and incorporates an expanding audience that became active players in re-discovering this nearly lost history.  

Q. What was it like to see, for the first time, all of the painted ceiling panels at once, after they’d been installed in the reconstruction? Did it have an impact? Were you able to step back and assess what has come from the massive time and effort you’ve poured into this project?

Rick: It was very difficult to put this into words. It was overwhelming, it is beautiful, it is significant in that it will evoke emotions, and raise questions and inspire many people. I am overjoyed to have had the opportunity to do this project as a learning adventure.  
     
But first of all for me. I always am reminding myself that our objective is "learning". I am far more interested in the process then in the final object. From a learning perspective, it is far more important learning how to get there than being there. Bringing this object back after having been lost in history reminds us of how fragile objects and life itself actually is. In the end, when we build anything we really are building ourselves.

 

Q. What’s next? It’s hard to imagine trying to top Gwoździec?

Can we top this project? There is so much work to be done in the world. I don’t doubt for one minute that we can’t find another topic for other powerful learning adventures.

PS: We have just written and published a little book titled Gwoździec Re!construction.  Now we are starting a big book that will be a more comprehensive story about the project.