You should know… Anton Merbaum

Photo by Daniel Schere
Photo by Daniel Schere

Anton Merbaum, 28, has a creative mind that that he has put to work as an artist and, these days, concocting innovative art and film programs at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, where he is arts engagement coordinator. Born in San Francisco, Merbaum lived in Israel before returning to the United States to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He lives in Old Town Alexandria.

How did you get into art?

My mother’s an artist. I grew up very much in the studio. I don’t make any art of my own anymore. I’m just observing. Now I do as much collecting as I can afford.

My real passion is in public programming that involves different disciplines of art, bringing those into the public spheres, and bringing the public into places they haven’t been before, be it physical space or connecting them to new concepts or new cultures or parts of our community using art as that bridge.

What stimulates you creatively?

For a while I was really spending all my time when I wasn’t eating or sleeping in the studio, just trying to find a way to visually communicate all the things that were going on in my mind. It’s really difficult to do that and put it on something that’s two-dimensional.

I was really influenced not only by the high Renaissance masters, but also digital language. I’m very inspired by graphic design, which I now do a lot of. But really the life of an artist, there’s a certain pressure to make something new and it’s not easy to make a living. So now I just seek out artists that are living and breathing it.

What aspect of this job has opened your eyes?

Reelabilities [the annual film festival about people with disabilities that Merbaum directs] was an awesome experience for me, especially because when I came into it my connection to that section of our community was almost nonexistent. I had never really encountered people that were differently abled from a deeply personal connection. So through the experience of the film festival, I learned so much about people with different abilities and at the end of the day there’s no difference between the desires I have and the desires someone with a disability has. We can’t look at it as a disability. So my perspective has really changed and I hope I’ve changed the perspective of others.

What is a typical day like for you at the JCC?

We’re constantly juggling and then always something comes up that you just didn’t even expect. And then someone reaches out to you for a partnership or something you didn’t expect. I’m doing everything from community outreach, marketing, researching films and film distributors, looking at possible authors for literary events, artists.

I mean, there’s so much going on in this world that we have to look at, so much stuff to find out what’s relevant for our audience. There really is no average day here. It changes. Sometimes I’m on the road most of the day meeting with people in the community from different arts organizations or running films to send back to distributors.

What other programs do you have coming up soon?

The Jewish film festival is the big project coming up. That’s in March. But we also have our season kicking off on Oct. 30. That’s the beginning of our performing arts series. We just installed “Combat Paper,” which is a visual arts exhibition. It’s prints made by veterans. They cut up their uniforms to create the pulp for paper. So it’s printmaking using their uniforms as a way to express themselves. We have the culture of the silent veteran and this printmaking project is giving them a voice. So we just put that up right now.

Then, in December, we’re doing a whole series of events that showcase the Jews of Italy, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the first Jewish ghetto in Venice. We’re doing a whole bunch of programming that shows different sides of Italian Jewry.

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