Scripts, Scripture and Sculpture in the Art of Joyce Steinfeld
By Sangeeta K. Luthra
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting local sculptor, artist, and poet, Joyce Steinfeld. As I drove up the narrow winding road to her home in the Saratoga hills, the serenity and quiet beauty of the hills became palpable. The railing of the stairs leading to Joyce’s front door is decorated by a series of cutout metal figures and abstract shapes. As I walked up the stairs, the bright sunlight glinted softly off the metal art, and I knew I was in the right place. The foyer, which also serves as a gallery for Joyce’s work, was filled with sunlight streaming in from windows and door giving the effect of spotlights on the artwork and sculptures therein.
Over the next two hours Joyce described her artistic and spiritual journey. Although Joyce has identified as an artist since her childhood, over the last decade she has begun a new phase focused on interpreting sacred scripts through abstract shapes and sculpture.
I have always been interested in art (it is my gift) since I was a child. Especially being dyslexic, this was my gift. I have also had an interest in many spiritual traditions – Judaism, Tai Chi, Buddhism, Christianity, and now Sikhism. I always had an interest in the spiritual but they were always separate from my art. About 12 years ago, I started to ask myself – why am I doing this art? Once I started to put the spiritual and artistic together, that represented my mature development (Steinfeld, July 1, 2014)
In her work with Hebrew, Chinese, and most recently, Sikh scripts, Joyce explores the divine through abstract interpretations of sacred scripts. Her interest in sacred scripts has grown alongside a desire to become a sculptor. Before becoming a sculptor, she had been an art teacher and jewelry and accessory designer, and had engaged in other design work, but she said she never felt completely fulfilled. She said she often felt like she was,
Putting my ladder against the wrong wall, getting to the top and realizing I didn’t want to be here. Becoming a sculptor was like a PhD. The sculpting, the large projects, and in particular exploring sacred scripts is very fulfilling to me – I am so happy. This is something I know I can do for the rest of my life!
Joyce described the technical nature of her work as both a challenge and a way to join a community and cooperative of sculptors and artists through organizations like the Monterey Sculpture Center. Once Joyce built up a body of work in sculpture she began to wonder again about the meaning of her work. At this point, she decided to write about her work and eventually published a poem called, Signposts of Living Shapes. In the poem she explores the connections between the different pieces with the names: Eternity, Figure 8, Ascending, Aspirations, Infinity, and Wind.
As Joyce read the poem to me, she pointed out each corresponding piece in the gallery. When she finished, she described the powerful effect writing the poem had had on her:
There is an element of the divine or God in all of them – I made the sculptures all separately – just made them. and then at some point it occurred to me that I could bring them all together with this poem. So I made this poem. But it is hard to explain – I don’t know how it all came together. I couldn’t have done it logically. It was a divine gift. I don’t know where it came from or how I could have put it together to make sense… I think that is the whole thing about life and art – you don’t have the control. There is a point at which you have to let go. You just have to say “God show me the way. How do these things fit together?
Making the world a better place:
Joyce’s art communicates to us through a number of mediums – the visual and in particular the three dimensional features of sculpture and multi-media collages, in explicit and implicit utterances in the naming and poetry, and finally the unspoken meditations that lie at the root of her creative process. Although clearly Joyce is inspired by meditations on the divine, her work is also rooted in the world. She is not interested in escaping the world through her art but in trying to nurture and preserve it.
For example, at the entrance of her house, she has displayed a metal piece called Adam and Eve. The piece is circular with a powder-painted pale gray finish. The profiles of a woman and man arise like conjoined twins from a single base. Joyce said she wanted to depict Adam and Eve in this way – as conjoined at the base – because she wanted to explore the equality of men and women arising from a shared humanity. Rather than see men and women as different but equal, Joyce suggests that what they share – their humanity – is of greater significance than what makes them different.
The theme of unity is also very important in Joyce’s work. She described her interest in the concept of “One” in different religious traditions. This is what inspired her to create the sculptural interpretation of the Ek Onkar because she was struck by the message of a unity within the diversity of all creation that is the message of Ek Onkar.
Joyce describes the concept of “oneness” across different spiritual traditions in the following way:
We are all wearing different coats but we are all really the same.
Recognizing the “oneness” in different traditions is especially important for saving the environment – if we can see this, we will be able to work together for that purpose.
One of the most striking examples of how this theme is reflected in Joyce’s art is in her use of both the “positive” and “negative” pieces of her cutout metal sculptures. The positive piece is the sculpture itself while the negative is the piece of metal from which a shape or figure was cut out. Like the positive and negative of a photograph, Joyce finds meaning and beauty in both. Her ability to see beauty in the “negative” that which is often discarded or disregarded is a reflection of her respect for all of creation and her explorations of spiritual traditions.
Joyce’s values as an artist and human being resonate deeply with the Sikh concept of Ek Onkar and with Sikh tradition in general. The Sikh Gurus were steadfast in their respect for all humans and they celebrated the beauty and diversity of Waheguru’s creation in the poetic Gurbani they created and exalted.
Joyce’s art is truly homage to something larger than the individual pieces she creates, or even to her own personal experience. Her art seeks to build bridges across religious and cultural communities and in the process reflects the essence of human existence – technology, art, representation, reality, and the divine. Ultimately when we consider this we are led to ask ourselves the question: is art also another form of prayer?
Sangeeta K. Luthra, PhD
Dr. Sangeeta K. Luthra is an anthropologist and educator. She has taught classes in cultural anthropology and gender studies in public and private universities. Her research interests are in political economies of development, gender and women’s studies, feminist theory, and Sikh studies. Her current research explores Sikh American institutions and identity. Her writing on diasporic Sikhs has been featured in Punjabi Beat Magazine, SikhChic.com, Sikhpoint.com. She is also a member of the editorial board of The Sikh Love Stories Project.
Since moving to the Bay Area in 2002, she has been an active volunteer in her local Sikh community and in South Asian cultural associations. She has been an advisor to the Kaur Foundation since 2011.
Currently Sangeeta is teaching at Santa Clara University as an Adjunct faculty in the Anthropology Department. She lives in Los Altos, CA with her husband and two daughters.