ENCINITAS — A tree stands in the heart of an old barn atop the Leichtag Foundation’s property in Encinitas.
The tree has no roots. In fact, the tree is not a tree at all — the “trunk” is a parfait of alternating thin columns of eucalyptus decorated with colorful tiles and fresh earth. The “branches” are wooden two-by-fours, connected in a maze-like pattern. And a vine from a fledgling passion fruit planting snakes its way through the wooden branch structure.
The tree, however, tells a story. It sends a message.
A story of finding roots. A story of starting over. And the message of acceptance.
The artwork was created by Israeli artist Raffael Lomas and Abdullah Taysan, a Syrian refugee who arrived in the United States in the summer. It is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Leichtag Foundation called the “Refugee Artists-in-Residence,” which features the work of Taysan, as well as an Iraqi and Russian immigrant that were all created in the barn space.
The exhibit will debut this week to a private audience at the Jewish philanthropic organization’s flagship event, the Sukkot Harvest Festival Oct. 23.
Leichtag officials said the exhibit and the barn spawned naturally over the past few months, as Lomas —who was visiting the region preparing for an exhibit at the New American Museum — and Leichtag officials contemplated a way to embrace the region’s refugee and immigrant populations in the spirit of “radical hospitality” and the Jewish command to “welcome the stranger.”
“We saw this remarkable opportunity to try to find people who had been relocated, such as refugees and immigrants, to allow them the possibility to do their own work in a space like this,” said Lomas, who converted the old storage barn into a makeshift art studio using materials inside of the barn. “It was a very natural development of the situation, and we would be blind not to have done it.”
Both Leichtag officials and the artists acknowledge that given the political climate around the Syrian refugee crisis, some might see the exhibit as a political statement. But they all said the story is much deeper.
“In my opinion, it’s not a political statement, it’s a humanistic story,” said Joshua Sherman, a spokesman for the foundation. “This is all about what can a person who is here contribute to this community, and we can look at the fact that there are refugees in our community and what can they contribute, and open up a space to say that there is a creativity, thought and a desire to contribute on behalf of these refugees. And by using this barn and turning it into this space, we are saying ‘we welcome you, and we want to bring the community around you and let you thrive.’”
Sherman said that while politicians in the U.S. election and Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union have questioned whether both nations should be limiting the number of refugees from Syria and the Middle East due to fears of terrorist ties, there is another narrative often overlooked.
“That’s not the entire narrative, that is the easy narrative, it is easy to say no and to be fearful,” Sherman said. “But there are so many people who are welcoming, and who want to embrace these people. It is not maybe the most exciting story, but we are seeing it everywhere, and I believe people want to see this.
“This is America. On the Statue of Liberty it says to, ‘give us your tired and your weary,’ and people know this and they want to be reminded about it,” Sherman said. “This is not a political reminder, this is a human reminder. This shows how our communities and lives are richer for embracing and creating a space for expression and contribution.”
The seed for the idea of the exhibit were planted back in early January, when Lomas visited the Leichtag Foundation to create some sculptures to tell the story of Jewish agricultural tradition.
The foundation opened up Barn 8, essentially a storage shed, for Lomas to work during his visit.
Seven months later, Lomas returned to Encinitas to prepare for his New American Museum exhibition for his project “8000 Paperclips and one Skype Call,” which the Foundation will also display at the Sukkot Harvest Festival. The exhibit tells the story of Sudanese refugees who grew up Israeli, were deported to Sudan and forced to flee to Uganda, and there — through Lomas — formed a connection to the Ugandan Jewish (Abayudaya) community.
While Lomas was in Encinitas in July, he learned that the Leichtag Foundation was I nvolved in assisting Syrian refugees that had settled in San Diego County.
Lomas said he wanted to find a way to contribute to their efforts in the medium he knew best — art. Inspired by the ocean views that he couldn’t see from inside of Barn No. 8, he decided to transform the barn into a studio that could host refugees and give them a place for artistic expression and creativity.
And from there, he and the Leichtag Foundation searched for people to participate.
They first met Taysan, whose family, which includes his wife and four children, had lived in a refugee camp for three years before arriving to the United States. Taysan, who didn’t speak English, made crown moldings for ceilings in his native Syria.
After a visit to the farm, in which Lomas and Taysan’s family broke bread and got to know each other, Lomas invited Taysan to return to create artwork. Over the next 10 days, they started the process of creating the tree.
But with Lomas headed back to Israel, he and the Leichtag Foundation looked for other refugees to participate and bring together and support one another.
Unable to find another refugee, they turned to the region’s immigrant population, and found Adeeb Makki, an El Cajon resident and painter who immigrated from Iraq 10 years ago, and Olga Workman, a Carlsbad professor of art and photography who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years after immigrating from Russia.
“It was challenging to find Abdullah, and while the original vision was to have three refugees come and do a creative art project together, the vision then became, ‘What does a refugee look like after 10 years, after 20 years, and that is how the project really got started,” Sherman said.
Over the course of the next two months, the artists would convene at the farm, and, under the direction of Lomas by way of Skype conversations, each created their pieces of artwork that would be on display.
Along the way, Sherman said, the outpouring of community support has been amazing. Veterans groups, local artists and others have provided supplies, expertise and encouragement to the artists.
“To see it all materialize has been a very emotional experience for all of us,” Sherman said.
Lomas, who returned to the barn as the exhibit nears, said it was rewarding for him to watch as the space and the vision behind it became a reality.
“Art is beautiful because it offers us a time for reflection and growth,” Lomas said. “For the artists, and especially Abdullah, who had the willingness and courage after three years in a refugee camp…to see how he has thrived here, and it isn’t for money or for work, but for his need to go through this process of expression and to meet new people, for me that is the most beautiful thing.
“To go through the process of being a refugee, of building a new life, of finding food and shelter, there is very little time for this type of self-reflection,” Lomas said. “To see how productive he has become, it really is a sign that this place needs to exist.”
Lomas said that he is not blind to the project’s political undertone and message about immigration. He also said that for him as an Israeli artist, working with a Syrian provided another layer to the experience.
“Our countries are enemy countries. In all of my travels, this is the first Syrian that I have ever encountered, and for me to meet a Syrian refugee on an eye-to-eye level through creativity and art, I think it is above the politics,” Lomas said. “It reaches to the human aspect of whoever we are and regardless of our political identity or socio-economic status, there is a need for humans to meet on an eye-to-eye level and I think has been an important experience for both of us.
“I am not saying that by Abdullah and I working together we have made peace between our countries, though if it were up to he and me, that would already be over,” Lomas said. “But being able to meet without a dream, and not even understanding the language, we were able to make this art without words, I think that is why art is so important.”
Makki, who was working on his piece in the studio with Lomas last week, said the experience has been life changing for him.
His artwork is a series of plaster suitcases, one that will include a plaster face on one side and paint that looks like water on the bottom. The symbolism and the story behind the immigration is obvious,” he said.
“You remember the stories of immigrants, and the boats they traveled to get here,” Makki said. “It means that this man or this person has moved and he’s taken a piece of himself.”
Makki said he hopes his art and the others stir up in the visitors the welcoming spirit he experienced when he arrived in El Cajon a decade ago.
“You just remind them,” Makki said. “For many people, there is something very kind inside. If you just remind them, this feeling grows up and you will see it.”