In this age of "you're either with us or against us" Swords into Plowshare: Peace Center and Gallery is a facilitator of dialogue that seeks to bring people together and uncover commonalties between diverse groups. The gallery's current exhibition, Tom Block's "Cousins" speaks to the heart of the Center's philosophy by exploring the common links between what are often perceived as opposing belief systems.

For "Cousins" Block has created three series of abstract paintings, each based on messages found in particular sects within the larger faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Working in three different styles, the artist demonstrates a common thread between the religions: the search for love, peace and meaning.
Block's abstract paintings begin with text from the faith, and the paintings come to life not as illustrations, but as impressions and expressions of the text's meaning.

The "Heretic Paintings" are based on the teachings of 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart who was posthumously condemned by the church for proposing that all people could have a personal relationship with God, an idea that threatened the interests of the Church. In this series, Block uses oil paint on discarded wood planks. The wood is a signifier of the Christian faith, while the decrepit state of the planks reinforces Eckhart's idea that God is found in everything.

Of the three bodies of work in the exhibition, the Meister Eckhart series is perhaps the most representational (though no Madonna and Child are found here). Colors squirm and wiggle, crowded together in forms that suggest microscopic organisms in a living soup - where the organisms both individually and collectively represent God.
Angel Flea "A flea, to the extent that it is in God (and it is!), ranks above the highest angel in its own right. Thus, in God, all things are equal and are God itself."

The "Baal Shem Tov" series is based on the writings of 18th century Jewish mystic and founder of the Hasidic movement, Israel Baal Shem Tov. For him, God was not experienced through solemn worship but through joyous celebration. Baal Shem Tov's sayings are intended to create "spiritual vibrations" that allow a listener to be in tune with the Creator. Block develops the works in this series on canvas, weaving together paper collage, ink and acrylic paint. Though Baal Shem Tov images share a general palette and abstract quality with the Heretical Paintings, the abstract movement of colors here, which almost dance on the canvas, reflect the celebratory nature of this belief system.

Truth "The Baal Shem Tov said: What does it mean, when people say that Truth goes all over the world? It means that Truth is driven out of one place after another, and must wander on and on."
Block has transformed the Center's second floor gallery into an installation of hundreds of framed Sufi drawings and accompanying sayings entitled "Secret Garden." The Sufis are characterized by a mystical approach to Islam, and Block has created a quieter, more contemplative body of work, reminiscent of Zen sayings and drawings. Working primarily in black and white brush marks with a hint of washed color, these works are the least representational of the exhibition - mirroring the Sufi means for uncovering the enigmatic mystery of their God. The "Secret Garden" works go behind columns, around corners, on the ceiling, and against the floor. An image placed in a corner offers an explanation: "The Sufi acts according to whatever is most fitting to the moment." The imagery, writing and arrangement engage the viewer in continual discovery and contemplation of the work.

In exploring these seemingly different belief systems through different styles, the artist reveals a common need within each faith to express and understand the mysteries of existence. With "Cousins" Block provides an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of art and simultaneously come to understand other approaches to life.

"Of peace and pizza."
I went to Swords into Plowshares: Peace Center and Gallery to write a story about the gallery's latest exhibition, and left with a personal story about the importance of making connections with other people.

Entering the gallery, I received a warm welcome from volunteers Joe and Susie Lenzo, who told me about the gallery and the current show, and offered to answer any questions I might have. After telling them I wrote for the, the Lenzos gathered some additional press materials and introduced me to office manager Lois St. Aubin White, who told me more about the history of the gallery.

Fifteen years ago, James W. Bristah (who passed away last year) founded the Peace Center and Gallery as a ministry of the Central United Methodist Church in order to "relate the arts to peace." Since then the Center, which has been recognized by the United Nations as a Peace Gallery, has been maintained primarily by volunteers, and Lois is the Center's only paid employee. Though she's worked at major Detroit companies in the past, Lois chooses to work at the Center out of principal. Peace "doesn't pay as well as business or military," she says, but she contends that working for peace makes more of a difference in her life than any extra pay could.

Talking about the current political state of affairs, Lois states her belief that, "being for peace is not anti-patriotic." "United we stand," she says, has come to mean "our way or the highway" rather than an acceptance of the multiple voices and ideas within our nation.

Back in the gallery, the volunteers told me that they had just ordered pizza and I was welcome to join them for lunch. At the same time a homeless man banged on the door to be let in. Susie - a tiny, spirited, cheerful grandmother - welcomed the man in the same fashion as she welcomed me, explaining the artwork and the purpose of the gallery. This uniform treatment of all visitors goes to the heart of the Center's mission to pursue peace by accepting others for who they are and learning from them.

When the pizza arrived from Eastern Market's Flat Planet Pizza, I sat down and Joe offered me a plate talking about the idea that peace comes by erasing greed through sharing. As we ate, we talked of a round, connected world.

After taking another look at the exhibition, I prepared to leave. Outside, a meter maid was approaching my car to give me a ticket for an expired meter (my visit having been unexpectedly extended by the lunch invitation and welcome conversations). The people in the gallery jumped to my assistance, producing a quarter in the nick of time, and the meter maid went peacefully on her way. After purchasing a "No War" button, I said my goodbyes and left, full of food and good feelings.

Peace, I think, does begin with the sharing of ideas, and food, and care between individuals. And, as Block's work and the people at Swords into Plowshares demonstrate, when art is used to establish connections, it can bring people together.

(Swords into Plowshares: Peace Center and Gallery takes donations and has a wish list of items including disposable cameras, chairs, and much more that would help them continue getting their message out.)

Tom Block: "Cousins": Hasidic, Sufi and Christian Mystical Traditions
Swords into Plowshares: Peace Center and Gallery.
33 E. Adams Ave.
Detroit, MI 48226
Tues, Thurs, Sat 11am-3pm.
Sept 7, 2002 through Jan 25, 2003

© 2002