Cross-fertilization. Ayala Shimelman has observed it within groups of artists she and her husband, SiriOm Singh, have exhibited with. Together, they have seen it happen between themselves. And now they are actively spreading “seeds” from gallery to gallery.
In the fall Shimelman and Singh opened a gallery, aptly named Cross Pollinations, in Lambertville. As teeming as it is with their artwork, the Trenton residents had no trouble filling up the Lakefront Gallery at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital Hamilton. And, Shimelman says, they have enough work to fill yet another gallery this size. “Surface Complexity,” curated by Sheila Geisler, in cooperation with the Princeton Photography Club, and with additional works by Jaynie Gillman Crimmins, is on view at the Lakefront Gallery through March 30.
When they are not creating artwork and running galleries, Shimelman and Singh work as occupational therapists. In fact it was through occupational therapy that they met in 1994. They married two years later — after negotiating a long-distance relationship with phone calls and transportation costs — and moved to Lakehurst and then Trenton, buying a house in the city’s Glen Afton neighborhood. “Our requirements for a place to live was that it had to be near intelligent life in the universe,” says Shimelman, a native of Israel. Having the D&R Canal and foxes in their backyard was an added bonus (not so much the groundhogs).
When asked how they have time to run the gallery, Shimelman responds “Who says we have time? You don’t ask if there’s time to be in love, you just love. It’s not easy, we have to negotiate who is at the gallery and who is at the hospital.” The 1,100-square-foot space at 69 Bridge Street is open Friday through Sunday in winter but in April will expand to five days a week.
The gallery is in a two-story home, and the upstairs is used as a framing studio —Singh, also a musician and a yogi, makes all the frames. Framing is part of the work, they point out, and must work well with the art. “Plus it makes it possible to sell at a reasonable price,” adds Shimelman.
With plenty of their own artwork to show, Shimelman and Singh have not yet included other artists in their gallery but may do a group show or host other artists in the future.
Singh sometimes paints landscapes on location; other times he paints from his imagination. He considers himself an abstract expressionist and layers the paint with a palette knife. When the acrylic dries he sands and scrapes and adds another layer of paint. He may spray the paint when wet to achieve drips for, say, a seascape. “It’s a process of adding and taking away,” he says. He works on panel because the distressing process can be too aggressive for canvas.
Look closely at Singh’s paintings and you will see a mysterious little square. It’s a signature technique, this collaged-on square, representing “a window of opportunity,” he says. “It’s my life story. When I was young and living in Dallas, I was not open to change and needed to find a new direction to move forward. I found a job that allowed me to live outdoors year round, working with emotionally disturbed youth and juvenile delinquints. (This was before he became an occupational therapist.) My angel tapped me on the shoulder and told me to take the job. I loved it. I had no clue I’d enjoy working outdoors in the wilderness, but it changed my life. After that, doors opened and so I put the square there to remind me there’s always an opportunity. It can come in a small package, but if you go through the window everything is possible.
“Every moment in life is different, even if it looks the same,” Singh continues. “The square represents the individual moment.”
Self-taught as an artist, Singh says he has known since first grade that he wanted to make art. Born in White Plains, New York, he grew up in Philadelphia, where his father was a laborer who was also a jazz percussionist and his mother a domestic worker. “My mother always wanted to be a nurse,” he says. “She became a nurse’s aide and then an operating room technician.”
He studied physical education at St. Augustine University in North Carolina and, later, occupational therapy at Texas Women’s University in Denton.
Living in North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and Trenton, and traveling to the Middle East, Singh absorbed different landscapes, light conditions, experiences, beliefs, and human connections, he says. It broadened his visual horizons and affected his technique, use of color, and subject matter. “Being involved with many different cultures opened my eyes to see the sameness in all.”
Whether the subject matter is trees, flowers, buildings, or landscapes, he considers all his artwork portraits. “They are all a representation of humanity, our need to plant ourselves solidly in the world, to relate to other elements and beings around us, to create structures that have a personality, become living things, and serve as a testament to how we care for our world.”
In 1999 Singh’s life took a turn into a focused spiritual practice and the lifestyle of a yoga practitioner, he writes on his website. “This transition and his commitment to peace in the world has had a powerful impact on his work, which he sees as a representation of the divine in our life, and a statement on the impact of humanity and nature on each other.”
It all began when Shimelman invited him to join her for a weekend meditation retreat in the Poconos offered through the Khalsa Healing Arts Center in Yardley. “SiriOm had never meditated before,” Shimelman says. She recounts how they had to wake up at 3:30 a.m. for morning practice and observe silence until the breakfast bell at 9:30 a.m. “I thought, I have to get up so early and I can’t even bitch about it?” says Shimelman, her curly white tresses tinged with blue.
“I couldn’t sit still, and I was sitting on a board that creaks. We looked at each other thinking ‘this is not for us, we’ll leave after breakfast.’” Then the facilitator played the flute and everyone started chanting, “and we got hooked.”
The mantra, “ek ong kar,” was the morning call for Sikhs, meaning “there is but one god.” In his pursuit of Kundalini yoga, Singh embraced Sikhism; he doesn’t cut his hair and wears a turban. Occasionally he dresses in all white. “What got me was the love of humanity,” he says. “My mind was searching for so long, but I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found it. It embraces all faiths, supports the poor and the weak, defends the oppressed, and is about living in the community as one. It has impacted my work both as an artist and a therapist, as the work emphasizes peace, love, understanding, and being cognizant of waste.”
Shimelman, who defines herself a secular Jew, was not as drawn in, and these days she enjoys listening to the music. “It was a transition in how he looked, switching to a vegan diet, and overhearing him introduce himself with a new name,” she says.
Singh was born Philip Adams, and he says the name SiriOm Singh, meaning “supreme god, great creativity,” was given to him as a possibility to live into. “It’s as if I’ve always been SiriOm Singh and just didn’t know it.”
He says he was born into jazz, taught by his father. His mother got him involved in church, singing in the choir. “When I was singing sacred texts I would always cry. I also sang around the house when doing chores. It all came back to me when I began doing yoga — I rediscovered my voice, and it completed me as a human being.” The music he once sang from the hymnal at the Episcopal church and the mantra singing he does now, he says, have the same intention, to praise god. He has recorded three albums with chanting, guitar, bass, and percussion, including sacred texts from different traditions, showing that “while we may live in different parts of the world, we’re all human with the same wants and needs.”
Shimelman, born in 1953, came to New York in 1990 for a master’s degree in occupational therapy, which she had practiced in Israel. “I had hit the ceiling and needed to learn more. I was going to return to Israel but ended up staying to do research and publish the work.” From there she became a traveling therapist because it was a good way to see the country — and that’s how she wound up in New Jersey.
Her mother stayed home, her father was a nurse, and Shimelman, whose native language is Hebrew, studied English and French in grade school. She earned a degree in behavioral science from Ben Gurion University, working first as a social worker, but when she grew frustrated with the system she went through a certificate program in occupational therapy.
Art came to her by accident, Shimelman says. She had always written stories, articles, and novels — these remain in a drawer. In 1981 a favorite dress became stained with oil and no amount of OxiClean could remove it. A friend suggested she embroider over the stain, and she found she loved “drawing” with thread, taking it to tablecloths, pillow covers, anything cloth.
In Jerusalem she took an embroidery class with a graphic designer and her eyes were opened to the possibilities of what could be done with thread.
“I think of my art as collage, which uses threads, fabrics, and other materials as an alternative to a paint brush to create an image,” says Shimelman. “My work is not pre-planned. I may have a general idea of the image I want to create … I start stitching and then follow the story and let it manifest itself on my work surface. Fibers add complexity and mystery.” Shimelman also makes paper collages and may employ, say, metal shavings from an automechanic. “Out of a box of junk it’s amazing to see the graceful movement of wispy shapes. The piece usually tells me what it wants.”
On the Lakefront Gallery wall is Shimelman’s self-portrait, and Shimelman admits it’s very personal. Black feathers surround ruby red lips, which in turn surround a white lacy strip from which emerges a throbbing red center. It began, she says, with a white piece of embroidery she created while thinking about the wedding night of a couple whose religion only permits conjugation through a hole in a sheet. She had the piece in a drawer, and feeling restless, needed to have something wild come out of this restriction, she says. The red fabric coming out of the white hole had to be wilder, so she embellished it with red beads and feathers. “The gold frame SiriOm made for it really brings out the sensuality,” she says.
The self-portrait took a lifetime, she says; she had to live the self that she is portraying.
Shimelman likes to cook — she offers a free vegetarian cookbook on her website — and celebrates the Jewish holidays for the food. But she celebrates all holidays and finds her beliefs more toward Wicca and earth-based religion.
Back to the cross-pollination: “We affect each other’s work, bouncing off each other,” say the pair, finishing each other’s sentences. “Our backgrounds are different but we both believe in helping others and manifesting light and love in relationships. Our house is a home we share with other people, and now we see the gallery as an extension of that.”
Surface Complexity, Lakefront Gallery, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, One Hamilton Health Place, Hamilton. Through March 30. Free.