“You do not have to finish the work of perfecting the world,” says an ancient Jewish text, “but neither are you free to desist from it.” Joe Brenman, a singularly gifted public artist, sculptor and mosaicist did not perfect the world, heaven knows, but he did more than anyone I know.
A couple days after Brenman died of cancer on Jan. 25 at age 69, the sanctuary of his synagogue, Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough, was packed with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Vietnam veterans, Philadelphia artists, social justice activists, and former students sharing firsthand stories of how Joe’s lifelong journey as an artist had enabled deep connections among so many people of different spiritual paths.
Among those at the synagogue were Imam Mohammad Shehata, as well as Adab Ibrahim of Al Aqsa Islamic Society, where Joe is cherished for the artistry and care that helped transform the exterior of their mosque building, a onetime furniture warehouse in Kensington, into a community landmark. The first phase of the project began not long after 9/11, with a second phase in 2014-2016, both times of surging Islamophobia in the city and the nation.
Spearheaded by an organization called Arts and Spirituality (now Artwell) and Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Project, it brought together a Catholic artist, an Islamic calligrapher and Joe, as well as community members and schoolchildren to create tiles and murals that now adorn the building.
The celebrated project, like so many others in which Joe participated, allowed both the artists and the members of the mosque to take the risk of exploring unfamiliar ideas and navigate the tensions that often happen when people encounter differences. Ever since, Joe’s deep calm and inner peace, his humility and his smile – everyone always mentions his smile -- has made him like family to many members of Al Aqsa, so much so that at the memorial service, said Ibrahim, people were offering condolences to her.
It was the same openness that guided Joe’s four-year project of creating Stations of the Cross, 14 terra cotta depictions of Jesus’ passion and death. Originally commissioned for a chapel serving Latino Catholics in Philadelphia, the Stations eventually were finished by Joe on his own, taking on the challenge of encountering the symbol of the cross, coming to see it as emblematic of all suffering. The stations were carried to El Salvador in 2002 and are installed in a tiny church in Las Anonas, a village populated by returned refugees from that country’s civil war.
Joe served in the Army in Vietnam and when he returned became an anti-war activist. In 2009, he went back to Vietnam as one of two Americans invited to participate in the country’s Second International Sculpture Symposium. The sculpture he created remains on exhibit in a Buddhist retreat there. Last year, Joe completed a mosaic portrait of Dwayne Erik Green, a victim of gun violence, as part of Souls Shot, a show designed to memorialize the lost lives. In the process, as he so often did, he formed a strong bond with Green’s mother.
But the most indelible image I have of Joe Brenman is from the schoolyard at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in New Orleans a year after Hurricane Katrina, where the Building Group had come to volunteer. Here was the master sculptor painstakingly repairing and painting a factory-made plaster statue of the Virgin Mary that had been damaged by the flood, working with loving intention for people whom he didn’t know and who would not know him.
In his final days, said Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Joe had no regrets, just frustration that he would not be able to complete all the work he had envisioned. In particular, he was disappointed that he had not been able to complete the last three sketches for 12 wood-inlay panels on Jewish values for an installation at Mishkan Shalom.
Members of the Mishkan community are committed to finishing that work and dedicating it in his honor -- and then taking on new challenges. Joe Brenman did not finish perfecting the world, but he did what he could and has left the rest to us.