Written By Patricia Rouzer
If you doubt the existence of destiny, a chat with Union Bridge artist Jo Israelson might give you pause.
Guiding a visitor through her firehouse studiohome, which is currently undergoing a new round of renovations, Jo weaves her story of transformation and evolution:from metropolitan yuppie to community activist and working artist, from stone carver to documentary maker. It’s a tale woven with several dominant, almost mystical threads.
One thread is the almost palpable presence of Jo’s beloved father. Another is the convoluted string of occurrences that led her here. A third is her steadfast devotion to community; to Union Bridge and communities far beyond.
But back to the beginning–the heart of this narrative labyrinth–Jo’s father, Leon Israelson.
Jo’s transformation began in 1987. Her father, a World War II veteran who during the war had come near the atom bomb’s radioactive ground zero, and contracted a rare cancer. He died in November of that year.
As his life ebbed, his dream of becoming an artist unfulfilled, he advised Jo and her siblings, “If you have dreams, do them now.” Each took heed in their own ways. One married, another had a baby, the third bought a house. Jo, who also yearned to be an artist, embarked on a life quest.
She began to study art. And she began to search for a studio, drawing concentric circles around Washington, seeking an affordable place within range of the day job that provided the down payment for her dreams. Years passed, prices skyrocketed and the circles of affordability ranged farther–all the way to a sleepy town known for cement and trains.
A friend on an excursion aboard the now extinct “Entertainment Train” that plied Carroll’s tracks a decade or more ago, spied the 120-year-old, former Union Bridge firehouse, a cavernous but charming pile, long abandoned and awash in local lore. Previously a general store, silent movie house, and town jail, the old firehouse would be the perfect studio, she thought.
Jo came for a lookÉand was dumbfounded. She had dreamed of an identical building . . . had, in fact, sketched it from her dream. Destiny? Maybe. But destiny doesn’t ensure ease.
Tax records identified the owner, a curmudgeonly mechanic long ago denied a permit to open a garage in the building. Thirty years later his rage still burned hot.
“I’ll never sell that @#%*&$ building,” he told her. “That building can just fall down around those people.”
Years of searching had led her to her dream studio–affordable, but seemingly unattainable.
Months later, a call. Circumstances had changed; the owner needed money. Have it appraised; draw up the contract; it’s yours. Ah, destiny.
So began a new circadian rhythm–work, renovation, art. Four days in Washington at her job; weekends gutting, dry walling and insulating; art when she could work it in. A year later the building was still without heat, but Jo had accomplished enough to “camp” there. After five years she had a wood stove, electricity and running water and began working as a stone carver. Time to quit the day job.
Inspired by a film, Jo became fascinated with women’s spirituality, agricultural-based rituals and ancient goddess cultures. She also became aware of rural hunger.
She spent a year creating “Seeds of Change,” an art project calling attention to hunger among the rural poor–a problem that continues to exist and grow. Jo organized pancake breakfasts, creating forums in which to talk about hunger in the county. She rallied support from more than 100 local businesses and organizations to help educate people about hunger.
She carved a huge sculpture and built a fake Neolithic temple to exemplify the ancient customs of community in which people took care of each other. It took two more years of “day job” work to pay the bills.
She embarked on project “Journey to the Crossroads,” designing a series of labyrinths intended to bring people closer to the earth, their own spirituality and further to create a sense of community.
Jo began working on community-based art projects using natural materials–transient projects that would not last through time. To document them she made movies and enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to study for her Master of Fine Arts degree in imaging and digital art.
To complete her MFA, Jo had to write thesis and create an exhibit. She began exploring potential topics.
Enter her father, once more. Jo was confident that his cancer resulted from exposure to radiation. She had spent years researching, trying to get her father’s war records and locate his comrades, but couldn’t get enough information on which to base her thesis.
A friend told Jo about her own father’s wartime civilian public service. He was a Quaker. The story peaked Jo’s interest. She began researching civilian public service by groups such as the Quakers and the Brethren as a potential thesis topic.
She went to see Jim Benedict at the Union Bridge Brethren Church in hopes of getting some books and the names of few residents who knew about the subject.
He proved to be catalyst–destiny again?–not only for her thesis, but her current passion: the Heifer Project.
Jim told her of Olive Roop, who with her conscientious objector husband, Roger, had heard David West, a charismatic Brethren preacher, speak about thousands of children who died on the scorched landscape after the Spanish Civil War from lack of food and milk. West resolved to ensure that did not happen in post-war Europe; he founded Heifer International.
It was, Jo says, “a crazy idea–putting cattle on a boat with some seagoing cowboys and shipping them to Greece or France or Italy.” It was a crazy idea that worked–and Olive and Roger Roop of Union Bridge played a pivotal role in its success.
The Roops, committed Brethren and Union Bridge dairy farmers, pledged to help West, by creating a collection center for cattle from around the country. Over the years the Roops fed, dehorned, vaccinated and prepared more than 4,000 cattle for shipment by boat to war-ravaged Europe.
Roger Roop died several years ago, but Olive is still alive and mentally sharp. When Jo first interviewed her, she still lived in Union Bridge. “The minute I talked to Olive I knew this was my thesis.”
She began to compile data–names of people who had participated–farmers,
veterinarians, seagoing cowboys, merchant mariners–and contact them. They responded, sending Jo photos, film, diaries, letters–all manner of memorabilia they had been holding since 1946, when the project began.
As a result of her thesis work and her burgeoning knowledge of the organization, Jo approached the county Historical Society about staging a conference. “These men are in their eighties.” she says. “We need to pull all this data together, we need to create a website, compile oral histories, we need to have a commemorative event in honor of the 60th anniversary of Heifer before they are gone.”
Today Heifer Project sends a variety of animals–lambs, chickens, ducks, cattle, pigs–to people in underdeveloped areas around the world. The animals provide a form of sustainable development that allows people to improve their lives and the lives of members of their community.
The conference–entitled Passing on the Gift; a Commemorative Conference–will be held in August at the Brethren Service Conference Center in New Windsor. It will not only honor Heifer Project’s founding workers, it will examine the impact of the peace churches of Maryland on the international arena. Admission to all exhibitions and panel discussions is free.
Up to her ears in pre-conference details, Jo is eloquent about the vision behind the conference. “These people have made a tremendous difference in the world. Yet they go unnoticed because they were taught to be humble in the sight of God,” she says. “Our goal is to call attention to this wonderful program that is headquarters at the Brethren Center in New Windsor. Most of the people who live in our area have no idea what it is or what it does. But there are people all over the world who feel its impact.”
Spreading the word about Heifer Project appears to be an important part of Jo Israelson’s destiny.