Artist Interview: Judith Brotman

Today we share an interview with Judith Brotman, one of six artists that make up the exhibition, The Tip of My Tongue, on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from January 26 - March 17, 2018.

The Tip of My Tongue is organized in partnership with the Chicago Literacy Alliance and aims to draw out the complexities of language as a tool not only for communication but also for connection, discovery, and growth. This group exhibition takes an expansive approach to the theme of literacy as it explores the many issues caught up in the web of words we each navigate, from notions of identity and belonging, to autonomy and self-expression. Through sound, color, book arts, and text, this group of works by six Chicago-based artists provides access points to a multiplicity of voices, ideas, viewpoints, and conversations.


New Word, 2018, 1,012 invented words, graphite 127 x 44.5 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your piece New Word, holds a significant place in this exhibition centered on an expansive approach to literacy. New Word consists of 1,000 words uniquely invented by you and written across the gallery walls. Visitors are invited to cross out a word and keep it as their own. You’ve even created a contract for them to sign stating that you, the artist, promise not to give this word to anyone else. We’ve had an overwhelmingly excited response to this project, people seem struck by the notion of having a word that is all their own to place meaning to. You preface the work with a quote from the Zohar: “I have been pursuing this word all the days of my life” --a beautiful sentiment. Can you tell us a little about how you conceived of this idea and the origin of that quote?

Judith Brotman: The Zohar is considered to be the most important text (13th Century) in the Jewish mystical tradition or Kabbalah.  I find much of the Kabbalistic writing deeply moving although I am not a practitioner in any literal sense of the word.  The phrase, “I have been pursuing this word all the days of my life” (this translation is from Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah) is the inspiration for my project, New Word.  I take this passage to mean that we—each of us—have a central core focus.  If we live our lives with our eyes open—mindfully—we will come closer and closer to the essence of who we are over the course of a lifetime.  I don’t think of this as an easy process, quite the opposite. My hope is that the gift of a word might inspire you to engage a bit more deeply in this process.  On the other hand, the word is a gift and the “owner” is not actually obliged to do anything whatsoever. All of my work is concerned with the possibility, but not the certainty, of transformation.  I am extremely interested in the fact that we are faced with continual choices each and every day and in how these choices play out over a lifetime. Some, of course, matter far more than others, although it’s not always clear in advance which ones will be most significant.  Most of my projects, including New Word, involve what I call “complicated generosity.”  On the one hand, I am giving something away that is rather appealing.  However, I do have an underlying wish that in, accepting this gift, you might take on the obligation or challenge of pursing your word.  Defining what I mean by complicated generosity is a bit tricky. I certainly believe in generosity and think our world needs a whole lot more of it!  I also think people are complex and their motivations are, too. This includes the motivation to be generous. Rather than this being a criticism of generosity--it is not--I think of it as a reminder to be paying attention to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

WNG: An interesting conversation arose about this piece during one of our high school workshops. Someone posed the question, “Can words have ownership?” -- I’ve personally seen this piece as less about ownership of a word and more about the gifting of something more akin to a meditation phrase, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

JB: Great question about the possibility of words having ownership! I worked with an attorney in the writing of the contract for this project and I was curious about that, too.  In fact, a word cannot be copyrighted and anyone can theoretically use “your selected word” from New Word.  If you read the New Word contract carefully, one of the things it indicates is that I personally won’t give your word to anyone else but it doesn’t (and cannot) prohibit anyone else from using it. That said, you are correct that the piece is not truly about literal ownership. It is about a kind of meaning, understanding, and value that has the potential of revealing itself over time only if you have made a commitment to paying close attention. The contract, which as I mentioned was drawn up by an attorney, also indicates that you can’t sue me in regards to your word!  This was not something I would have thought to add, but the attorney was quite insistent about its being in the document. I hope it doesn’t detract from the gifting aspect of the piece!


New Word (detail), 2018, 1,012 invented words, graphite 127 x 44.5 inches

WNG: You also have an audio piece in this exhibition titled The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You Are There). I’ve poured over this piece a number of times and find it incredibly evocative. The Chicago Literacy Alliance’s mission is not only to provide the tools necessary to be functionally literate, but also to promote a life-long love of reading and writing. Literacy is a way to expand the ability to express oneself, to share stories, and to connect with others. Your audio piece in many ways exemplifies the second half of this mission. It feels very journalistic, like a record of personal history or even a description of an imagined future. Each section of the audio begins with the line, “One day when you are very far from home…” -- are you speaking to yourself in this piece?

JB: My intention in this audio piece is to narrate to “you.”  I have talked about complicated generosity and I think that it’s embedded in this piece, too.  I sometimes describe this piece (and others I’ve made) as a mixture of: 1) a horoscope for your future  2) a push for you to wake up and smell the flowers and 3) my need to be bossy. The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You are There) includes over 100 mini fictions of what will happen to you one day when you are far from home. They are all very different, one from the next, but just as an example:

“One day when you are very far from home, you will meet God during intermission in a concert hall. You have a lifetime of questions you’ve been saving for this encounter but you’re distracted by being insanely attracted to God. Instead of asking God why life is filled with so much pain and misery, you ask God out for a date. Things go well.” 

I began writing this piece while I was on sabbatical leave in Vienna and Prague; I was very far from home. Most of the scenarios have some tiny inflection of something I experienced while I was away. It is not typically obvious what that component is; I don’t intend for it to be. The rest is invention often in a kind of dreamlike/parallel universe way.  People often tell me these scenarios seem real despite the strangeness of them. I think it’s a result of the infusion of something that I actually experienced no matter how small that component is. The situations move rapidly from ordinary to ecstatic to erotic to disturbing and back again. Things don’t always go the way you might have planned…sometimes better than you ever imagined and other times not so much. I am, by my own admission, a Type A personality who wants to control 93% (actually 99%) of everything that happens.  For better and for worse, it just doesn’t work that way. I think many people struggle to locate certainty in an uncertain world; it doesn’t exist. My narrations are a nod to a world of certain uncertainty and trying not to miss any of it.


The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You are There), 2017, Audio 31 minutes and 27 seconds

WNG: Earlier during the exhibition you held a program called The Reading Project, where you asked participants to read aloud to you. How do you feel the act of listening functions in relationship to literacy?

JB: I think a lot about the relationship between reading silently and being read to. (I know I’m straying slightly off your question) I’m an avid reader and reading silently provides me with a kind of nourishment that nothing else does.  Being read to, while it can be an extraordinary experience, involves very different parameters than silent reading. For one thing, being read to involves a linear experience of the text. You cannot go back and reread the previous page or line.  You cannot savor the same passage multiple times. Reading silently is a private experience involving the reader and the text. Being read to, by contrast, involves a wider range of sensory experiences, including the sight and sound of the reader.  Also, at least for me, I find that my mind wanders more when I’m being read to and focusing takes greater effort. Returning to your question, I feel that the act of listening and the focus it takes emphasizes the empathy component of reading. Reading takes us out of our own heads and gives us perspectives we might never imagine.  Listening adds an extra relationship to the reading equation. Instead of it being simply your private relationship to the text, other components-- the reader and their relationship to the text-- are added. You mention in another question, “Literacy is a way to expand the ability to express oneself, to share stories, and to connect with others.”  Listening is an opportunity to connect by means of a shared story. I have strong feelings about the necessity of listening and spaces for listening. It is not easy to listen open heartedly and we live in times that are begging for these efforts.

WNG: Is there any project you’re working on now that you’re particularly excited about?

JB: I’m working on two projects that I’m excited about—one long term and the other more immediate.

I’ve been writing short multiple choice questions (on napkins) and posting them on Instagram.  They are questions for and about “you”; I don’t evaluate, respond or judge the answers. (Ok, I try not to do any of those!)  My main interest in putting these questions/choices out into the world is for you to ruminate on them. They are meant to be funny but (as is my usual when I’m writing) there’s typically something serious underlying what I’ve written.

The other project is an in-process work called 1001 Nights - More or Less and is composed of many (potentially 1001) small weavings on paper. There will also be an audio component in which I briefly describe (but not in a one to one correspondence to the weavings) 1001 odd tales. It will be the first time my audio work and an installation will function in such an interconnected manner.


Works in progress shared by Judith Brotman

JB: Thank you so much for these fantastic and thoughtful questions.  Everything about this exhibition was pure joy…..and this includes working with curator, Kasia Houlihan and exhibiting at Weinberg/Newton Gallery along with the extraordinary artists Kirsten Leenaars, Andy Moore, Huong Ngo,  Regin Igloria & North Branch Projects, and Udita Upadhyaya.

I also need to add that New Word would not have been the same (or even close) had the words not been transcribed on the wall so beautifully by another extraordinary artist, Tim Nickodemus!  Had I written the words, the selection process would not have been so appealing. I grew up thinking I was going to be a doctor and seem to have acquired the typical doctor’s terrible handwriting. My shift from  pre-med to art is another one of my transformation narratives; I seem to gravitate toward these stories!


Tim Nickodemus transcribing Judith Brotman's New Word on the walls at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

To learn more about Judith Brotman please visit her website.