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Creating Art From Life's Momentoes

'Genizah Project' plays on artist's attachment to her stuff

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One section of Rachel Farbiarz's art installation, "The Genizah Project," at Artomatic in Crystal City through June 23. 
Courtesy of Rachel Farbiarz
One section of Rachel Farbiarz's art installation, "The Genizah Project," at Artomatic in Crystal City through June 23. 

Rachel Farbiarz is standing over her kitchen table, looking down on banker boxes full of paper. And these are not just any old papers. Love letters are piled on top of newspaper clippings, playbills, journals and holiday cards; there's even a high school class schedule from 1992 in there.  

"I have two bundles here of love letters," she says, picking the letters up off the pile with a chuckle. "I can't actually bring myself to reread these."

Farbiarz, an artist, is turning these personal artifacts into public art as part of Artomatic, a month-long free festival of art and performance that opens its doors tonight in Crystal City. With more than 1,300 featured artists, it's a lot to take in. 

Farbiarz has always been the type of person who held on to these sorts of things. She recently realized, however, that she had kept way too many of them. 

"There was a desire that I had to edit my collection, but I really felt like I needed some place sacred to put it," Farbiarz says. She told her friends, and realized everyone has the same feelings.

"Every single person has a relationship with their stuff that is unique and special and also, fraught," Farbiarz says. "I think it's just a very human impulse to hold on to things that seem important to us."

We hold on to things, she says, because they remind us of who we were and also because we're not sure how to get rid of them in a dignified way. And thus, she started collecting these items from family, friends and neighbors for her Art-o-matic piece. She calls it "The Genizah Project." 

"The idea is inspired by a traditional Jewish practice, where in people don't throw out papers with the name of god on it," Farbiarz says. 

The papers are stored in a room at the synagogue called the genizah. In Jewish custom, the papers are buried. But so far, Farbiarz doesn't have a plan for the papers after Art-o-matic.

"I have no idea! I'm thinking my lord, maybe I'll have to buy a burial plot," she says.  

Farbiarz is accepting items for "The Genizah Project" throughout the length of the exhibit, and she agrees to take some of mine off my hands. Recognizing this is the perfect opportunity to get rid of some of the piles in my own home, I brought a contribution for the project. 

Two birthday cards, several years old: one from an old co-worker, and another from a very good friend. The latter has a "High School Musical" theme and plays one of the Disney musical's hit songs when opened. 

I hand over the cards with a twinge of regret. Farbiaz says she knows how I feel.

"It's emotional to go through your stuff," she says. "It's like a painful process! Bittersweet doesn't even communicate it, because it's more than bitter and it's more than sweet.

Artomatic opens tonight at 6 p.m. and will run through June 23.

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