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Arts & Culture

An Artistic Beacon Of Light At The End Of A Dark Year

Mike Wirth
Artist and Queens professor, Mike Wirth, drew inspiration for his menorah design from the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Drivers passing by the campus of Queens University might be doing double takes on their commute home in the days to come. Every night of Hanukkah, which runs through Dec. 18, a large-scale menorah will be lit — not by flame — but by spray paint.

The design for Mike Wirth’s menorah mural, which stands 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide, came from none other than the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"She really stands for so many things," Wirth said. "And, you know, as a Jewish boy from Long Island, she is a matriarch. She is a strong, Jewish lady, and I’ve known a lot of strong, Jewish ladies."

Wirth, a professor of art and design at Queens, took inspiration from Ginsburg’s iconic dissent collars. The interwoven X pattern in the menorah design — spray-painted in white against a black background — is a clear nod to the late justice.

Mike Wirth
Artist Mike Wirth poses in front of his menorah which will be "lit" each night not by flame but by spray paint.

"Her collars are amazing because they connect to ancient Jewish arts of embroidery and thread work that really comes from all over the Middle East," he said. "And really that is called the dissent collar. So I thought, 'What if I have a "dissentful" menorah?' "

The mural is part of the Jewish Street Art Festival which this year, is best described as a collaborative street art effort with an important virtual component. Eight artists in eight different cities have created menorah murals that will be “lit” each night of Hanukkah by a different member of the Jewish community.

Wirth says as the sun begins to set, a small group will gather — masked and socially distant — around the free-standing mural. The person “lighting” the candle will climb a short ladder and fill in the flame that has been lightly outlined. Wirth plans to stream the lighting from his Instagram. Viewers can also watch the livestream from the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice Facebook page.

"There is something amazing about the flame," Wirth said. "Just think about what everybody going up that ladder is going to be feeling and thinking when they paint this. They are going to be faced with this menorah. It’s so simple. And really, the art is them."

There’s a meditative quality to this project, he says.

"When you work with images and symbols, you engage them and you take on a little of their power — and you give a little of your own," he said.

Over the summer, Wirth helped organize the Black Lives Matter mural in uptown. He was one of the white artists who outlined the letters of the mural that were later filled in by Black artists in the community. He believes in the power of these street art pieces that encourage interaction with the public — much like the Black Lives Matter mural and now, this large-scale menorah.

It’s a little odd, he admits, not to be encouraging people to come see the art in a group setting. He hopes people will see this painting as they walk or drive by Selwyn Avenue and visit it when they can — or watch the livestream each night of Hanukkah. Or both.

"This is a coming-together time and you want to be close to people, but it’s just not safe," Wirth said.

It’s strange, he says; we’ve been home and away from each other for a long time. And the calendar typically indicates this is the time of year we are supposed to gather.

"You’ve got to do something to cope," he said. "And I think the menorah always creates a beacon. And I think that’s important to see, that there can be points of light in darkness."

He hopes as people tune in to watch this menorah mural being lit as bursts of color escape the spray paint canister, they’ll feel something we all could use right now: A little light, a little hope, that the darkness of this year will one day soon be over.

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