Shmutz + Bolts
Amidst a pile of rust...mezuzahs? Rebecca Marcyes and Elon Rov think so. Last March, these two Bay Area artists launched Shmutz + Bolts, creating striking and unique Judaica from materials they found in the junkyard. Last week I had the pleasure of talking to them and learning more about what drives their work, and why they do what they do.
So tell me about how you got started with Shmutz + Bolts.
Rebecca: I was at a fantastic salvage store in Berkeley--sort of a mix of trash and treasure. I was finding beauty in a lot of things that day that I hadn’t seen before, and something caught my eye that had a beautiful pattern on it. My first thought, out of nowhere, was that it would make a beautiful mezuzah.
For a while, it was just an idea. Then I talked about it with Elon, who was an Adamah Fellow in the last group I supervised, and something sparked in him.
What attracts you about these found objects?
Rebecca: We live in a kind of confusing time, crossing from an industrial era to a technological/robotics era. Personally, I’m extra confused by it. I often wonder which direction I want to head in, and which era I should be in, and this felt like a way to honor the metal that we used to use in everything. (Now it’s all new plastics.) I’m very attracted to what came before, and that’s a big part of Judaism--respecting and honoring the past. So it felt like a great fit philosophically. There's something about seeing piles of objects in the salvage yard that once had a different purpose, and now are so peripheral they can be piled up without labels and bought in bulk. And that feels good, that we are saving and re-purposing these objects.
Elon: And that feels Jewish. Especially the mezuzahs that get hung up on the doorpost. Our project is a lot about about time. Playing with time, making the new old again and the old new again, that intersection of using time to mark a space.
Art has been a big part of our relationship. Our work at our day jobs--I'm working on the computer all day--is really exhausting, and not totally spiritually fulfilling even though I work at a Jewish non-profit organization. Being able to make art as part of a friendship and spiritual practice is really uplifting.
Tell me about your process!
Elon: We start by taking a lot of trips to the salvage yard. We look for things that are beautiful to us, and have the colors and history that we are attracted to. We are especially attracted to pieces that we can't tell what they were and what they were used for. Now we have this big stockpile of junk (probably all the parts you'd need to build a car!), and we start out playing with things, layering pieces on top of each other in ways that speak to us.
We’re looking for contrast and color, and we’re also trying for the final product to look like a mezuzah first and a pile of junk second. So we want it to read as a mezuzah before the viewer notices it’s made out of nails and springs and a hammerhead. We mix and match until we come up with some that we like. And then we finish them with a gloss finish to wrap it all up.
Rebecca: It’s been an exciting summer. We started reaching out to retailers and shopkeepers who have more established relationships with buyers of Judaica than we do. We are now being carried in Afikomen and Dayenu, two Judaica shops in the Bay Area.
We had an interesting conversation with a shopkeeper about candlesticks. He said that there are certain things that people really want to be traditional, respecting the past, and so maybe people don’t want candlesticks that only reminds them of today or ten years ago. That’s an interesting feature of this particular niche market.
Elon: We hadn’t thought of that until we had the conversation with this shopkeeper. After that, we decided to step away from Shabbat candlesticks, because that was the product that people didn’t feel that comfortable being creative with. We've mostly been focusing on hamsas and mezuzahs, because people feel like they have more space to play with those. Honestly at the end of the day, we’re more interested in being true to ourselves and having fun with our personal mission, and it's fine if we don’t sell as many things.
Rebecca: We also have been steeped in this Bay Area approach to Judaism that is all about redefining as necessary to make it relevant and interesting and compelling. I think it makes sense that we came up with this idea in this town. It resonates with people who live here and are also steeped in that.
What's your favorite part about all of this?
Rebecca: I like the idea of someone loving their mezuzah so much, reaching up to touch it not just because it’s a commandment, but because they can’t wait to look at it and love it. I’ve always loved the kissing tradition--kissing the Torah, kissing the mezuzah--I love the tenderness of it. I want to create work that people fall in love with.
See lot's more of their work on their website, and buy a piece for yourself, at Shmutz and Bolts.
Like what you read and hungry for more? Check out my piece "Not Your Bubbe's Judaica" in the Times of Israel, read our interview with artist Daniel Sroka of Modern Ketubah, and join us as we explore creative Jewish ritual by signing up for our email list below.