Rivkah Beth Medow on What Matters Most

Rivkah Beth Medow (MFA 2003) had become a master at juggling freelance work and personal projects, but motherhood threw her for a loop. Lately, she reports, she’s putting the brakes on working for money and giving more priority to personal projects involving her family.

“I figure, I can always make money, but I don’t have a lot of time to hang out with my kids. I’m committed to creating interesting ways to integrate them into my work.” Her artist-mother role models include Ruth Asawa, whose kids helped bend wire for her sculptures.

One priority project is a photography series featuring the people closest to her. Partly staged and partly candid, the pictures explore relationships, mystery, joy, and tensions within families and friendships. “My portraits function as single-frame documentaries suggesting rich backstories and curious futures.”

Medow is also experimenting with pairing audio recordings with the photographs to give peripheral information about the person pictured, in their own voice. The idea is to provide another layer, secret or surprising, that helps dimensionalize the subject and affords them some power.

Why not just make a video portrait?

“Using audio with a photograph turns the image into a sort of freeze-frame -- a momentary glimpse of one of several possible stories.”

An Abiding Interest in Storytelling

Medow’s investment in storytelling -- and examining the relationships among people, and between people and their environments -- began at Indiana University.

“I took many art classes but didn’t see myself becoming an artist until after college, during an internship at a pottery studio. I started making sculptures with tension elements that related to the body, and eventually moved to Burlington for an assistant teaching position in the sculpture department at the University of Vermont.” She began receiving commissions and invitations to show her work in galleries.

“I had great teachers and mentors in Vermont. I loved being in my studio. But I also knew I couldn’t go any further on my own. I applied to grad school because I needed the space and the time to push my work to the next level.”

Medow applied to and was accepted at several MFA programs. A conversation with CCA graduate director Steven Goldstein solidified her decision to study here.

“I told Steven that I worked in a variety of mediums: ceramics, metal, wood. He said, ‘CCA is really cross-disciplinary. Come out and try it, and if you don’t like it we’ll send you back to Vermont!’ He made the decision less scary -- more of an experiment.”

Faculty Support

In her first year, she took film courses with Lynn Marie Kirby, Barney Haynes, and David Sherman. “Lynn is just tremendous! She is so patient, brilliant, and knowledgeable. I found myself spending more and more time in the Film department, learning how to use a Bolex and creating animations.”

In her second year she officially switched her emphasis to film and video. “The school was hugely supportive not only in letting me transition into another discipline, but also in helping connect me with people working in film in the Bay Area. All my professors encouraged me to find the best medium to express my ideas.”

In her last year at CCA she interned for Marc Thorpe, a production designer at Lucasfilm, and Will Wright, creator of The Sims and Spore. “I developed good building skills, and production design and art direction seemed like a viable way to make a living.”

She started work for a filmmaker who was producing a documentary about fisheries for PBS (Empty Oceans Empty Nets), and for the next three years she coordinated productions all over the globe -- in China, the Philippines, and British Columbia.

“It was a hustle, especially in the Bay Area, where you need to have several skill sets to make a living as a freelancer. I moved from the art department into producing, and then climbed from production assistant to director/producer.”

The Genesis of Sons of a Gun

It was in 2007, during the downtime of one of her commercial productions, that the inspiration for a feature documentary of her own was born. “After working on two PBS films that examined issues through a very educational and fact-based lens, I wanted to take an emotional, intimate, personal approach. That was the genesis of Sons of a Gun.

“My creative partner, Greg O’Toole, and I were looking to do a film about gentrification in the Bay Area. We got connected with this alternative family that had just been evicted from a low-income housing development in Alameda. They were a 60-year-old man and three younger men with schizophrenia. Though not related by blood, they had lived together and supported one another financially and emotionally for 20 years.”

Medow began visiting the apartment, recording the men’s daily routines and experiences. She and O’Toole spent a year editing the footage into a finished feature, and Sons of a Gun premiered at South by Southwest in Austin and went on to show at several festivals around the country. It had its television premiere on PBS in January 2013 and is currently under consideration for a 2014 Emmy award.


Another recent project is Signpost, an interactive urban art endeavor that depicts (via binoculars or a mobile app) past landscapes of San Francisco simultaneously with future projections of what that same landscape may become.

By visualizing human-engineered change on a 150-year timescale, audiences gain an in-depth understanding of how the present look and feel of a particular neighborhood came about, and, based on current plans and patterns, how the same place may look in 2150.

Medow explains her time-travel approach to urban mapping: “I think it’s really important to look at the history of an area to realize how quickly things have shifted. I’ve learned a lot about urban planning and infrastructure -- that every change that’s been made to the city’s landscape has been driven by economics, politics, or transportation requirements.”

Medow eventually imagines expanding the project beyond San Francisco to New York, Shanghai and Barcelona. In each city, she’d rely on local cultural and architectural experts to help her navigate to the best sites to highlight.

“This is my first foray into new media, and it’s very ambitious. I’ll be relying on a lot of really great storytellers to help me do it.”