Can Art Be Lost In Translation?

January 7, 2016

MarriageOfArts+LettersMy previous post, The Magic Of Ideas, addressed the frequently asked question,‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This week, I offer my response to another one: ‘What did you mean to say with this image?’. This question is less direct because its silent subtext is asking, ‘can you please translate this picture for me?’ as though it were a foreign language. And in a sense, it is.

Art and spoken languages are similar in that both are composed of symbols with which we express ourselves. But there is one major difference. Spoken languages have been standardized for global communication while the language and vocabulary of art remain fluid and singular to each artist as in the distinctive works of Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch or Belgian surrealist René Magritte. Upon close scrutiny, we might notice that certain elements appear and reappear throughout their larger body of works. Yet, beyond reams of third party analyses of these artists’ technical skills and cultural influences, who knows what they were really trying to say?

Some great artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Sandro Botticelli may have embedded obscure symbols and codes within their images, signaling their true intent to the cognoscenti of their times but leaving no written clues for future generations. An interesting article by Mark Hudson in the January 7th edition of The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/11449077/10-paintings-with-hidden-meanings.html) sheds some light on this idea.

Occasionally, someone comments that my work is always recognizable, yet they rarely give a specific reason for why that is so. In truth, I’m equally mystified.

I do know that a sort of visual language made of certain symbols and images runs through my work. These can be seen as ‘words’ in a dynamic visual dictionary with which I can construct ‘sentences that tell a story’. When I develop new ‘words’, this resource ‘grows’ as needed. To effectively use it, however, there is a two-part question I must answer upon beginning each new project: ‘what do I want to say here and how can I best do so’? The answer to this inner question is not a goal in itself; it is the opening gambit of an inner dialogue that guides my creative process and the narrative that will accompany the completed work.

Writing narratives to accompany my work was provoked early in my career by a mid-20th century anomaly, particularly among Abstract Expressionists. Their use of the word, ‘Untitled’  to name a work of art both intrigued and offended me, raising several questions. Were they simply inarticulate, unable to come up with a statement or title? Or were they convinced that their brand of creativity defied title or definition? If so, would they answer that ‘art just is and we create it because we can? Would they offer the hackneyed argument that writing is unnecessary because true art should speak for itself ?

Occasionally, when verbiage from gallerists and art critics includes only vague comments by the artists, these artists risk being misunderstood. Maybe they simply don’t care. Maybe they prefer to maintain their own mystique by foisting responsibility for interpreting their work upon others. Still, I am dismayed that relatively few bother to write about their work or what inspires them to create it.

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That said, Lee Krasner, who made the ‘Untitled’ work above, did leave us some quotes but these were mostly comments about the time in which she worked and not specific to any one work. As viewers, we may truly enjoy a work’s ambiguity. But if we accept responsibility for interpreting it and the artist provides no language that allows his or her work to ‘speak’, we are denied a starting point, thwarting our natural curiosity and rendering that work easily dismissed.

I am reminded of our fascination with both the art and  writing of such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh or Salvador Dali. In their journals and personal letters, we like to look for backstories behind their works but I think we mostly want to know what made these geniuses tick. So at the very least, I think that viewers deserve more information than just ‘untitled’; even if the intent of a work is only expressed with a relevant moniker or encapsulated in a couple of sentences.

The need to incorporate writing into my creative process helps me understand what I have made, who I was when I made it and how it fits into my larger body of work. Also, by ‘translating’ my ‘image story’ with notes that later become a more detailed statement, I recognize that as we all learn differently, so do we see differently and can sometimes appreciate art more through its descriptive text.  This practice actually grew from requests for more information about my images from those who attended my exhibits. Consequently, I began posting narratives beside each work and in an exhibition’s catalog.

But I really write about my work because it feels incomplete otherwise. I believe that words and images should not be mutually exclusive and that metaphorically, art and writing are like two faces of the same coin. This idea was inspired by the multi-talented French artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1962 when he wrote : “I relax from writing by working with my hands, by painting or drawing; I relax from painting by writing…as if drawing were anything other than handwriting {untied and} re-tied differently.” Each face of that coin brings different parts of my brain into play and I, like Cocteau, enjoy the challenge of engaging them both for mutual benefit.

Accordingly, I’ve chosen my 1985 drawing  ‘The Marriage of Art and Letters’ with its allegorical figures of Art and Writing to illustrate this post.

I can’t know whether my work and texts will survive me but I hope that my small contribution to the social and cultural history of future generations will be available in some form. Perhaps only this blog, preserved through some new technology, will allow my art to be ‘found’ in translation.

And that’s good enough for now.

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The Magic Of Ideas

December 27, 2015

TheElementalist-ImaginariusWhen any year comes to a close, it is natural to consider it in the context of the bigger picture of who we are and how we matter to the world. Given our human complexities, the challenge is a daunting one. Are we more likely to examine the facets of our lives that are personal, professional or a synthesis of both?

My creative identity as an illustrator and writer bridges and governs both facets of my life. But one of the keys to understanding them is the oft-asked question, “where do you get your ideas?” Though my answer, which is usually a shrugged ‘I don’t know’, is easier and seems to suffice, I’d rather be able to provide a more intelligent answer.

For this first installment of my 2015 review, I’ll try to do so. AcanthusRollingBorder3RGB.jpgWhen visitors to my studio pose this query, it’s usually because they are simply curious. But sometimes, I sense a shadow of suspicion in it. Do they suspect that ‘getting ideas’ for my work involves some sort of magic or trickery?  Are they really wishing for an answer that satisfies an ancient human desire to believe in the mystical? If that suspicion were directly stated, I would, of course, have to disavow any conscious legerdemain but what could I say about the unknown workings of my subconscious?

Though we currently embrace science and technology far more than superstition and have made great strides in understanding our brain’s organic functions, our perception of creativity via its numinous capabilities is only just beginning. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark’s maxim on magic, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” still holds true, but probably not for long.

Historically, the sources and products of creativity have always been subject to naked or grudging admiration and curiosity if not fear. From the earliest cave murals to paintings and sculpted masterpieces to installations of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde, it has been questioned, condemned, dissected and lauded by religious and political authorities, scientists, writers, critics, philosophers and poets.

In practical terms, the word ‘creativity’ does more than describe what artists, musicians, writers and other ideasmiths do. It integrates intuitive and learned skills with the influences of cultural heritage and world events, personal experience and relationships to generate ideas and facilitate artistic expression.

This past October, while watching a PBS series on the brain, presented by neuroscientist David Eagleman, I was fascinated by his revelations of our brain’s physiognomy and its effect on our bodies, human interactions, behavior and thoughts but disappointed that no insights were offered about its role in creative inspiration. I wanted to know, is creativity solely an organic process limited to the parameters of our brains and its madly firing synapses or is there some other catalyst that drives the process?

My curiosity prompted a look into Dr. Eagleman’s earlier writings. In the first chapter of his 2011 book, Incognito (Pantheon/Random House, 2011), I found that he includes some nice examples of the creative process at work.

With clearly explained scientific detail, he suggests that creativity seems to be an unconscious process and that the brain acts ‘incognito’ without permitting itself to be probed by ‘conscious cognition’. He then goes on to quote poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell and the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, each of whom claimed that their greatest works resulted from collaborations with their ‘muses’ or in Coleridge’s case, with the use of opium (which he began using only for dental pain, later discovering their salutary effects on his ‘genius’). Dr. Eagleman views this collaborative process as a sort of ‘tool’ that allowed each of these great talents to access his own subconscious neural circuits and aid their creative endeavors.

While his comments made me wonder if we might one day learn to bridge that disconnect between our conscious and subconscious minds without the aid of drugs or mysticism, they also accurately described what I experience as I do my own work.

Though I don’t ‘hear’ any voices or ‘see’ any mystical entities, I sense an ethereal kind of quiet during which awareness of my surroundings seems to recede. As images and information present themselves and ideas begin to form, the feeling that something metaphysical is taking over to guide me in my efforts. Call it a synaptic alchemy, a ‘muse’, or whatever you like, what matters is the end result which is always a mix of surprise and mystery.

I’ll continue this thread of thought with some new insights in my next post, but for now, based on the comments above, I’d like to leave you with two questions:

1. Are you content to just create your work and let it be?

2. Would a scientific explanation of why you are moved to do so be a help or a hindrance to you?

Please feel free to contribute your own questions and ideas here so we can listen and learn from each other.

I wish you all a very creative and inspired New Year in 2016!

 

An Illumination Of Blessings: New Review!

December 16, 2015

A new Imaginarius post will appear in the next few days, but for now here are two bits of news:

First, this lovely gift of a new review arrived in my inbox today from The Jewish Book Council: http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/an-illumination-of-blessings?A=SearchResult&SearchID=24017253&ObjectID=8702674&ObjectType=35

CeremonyOfTheSenses.jpgFor those of you who are not familiar with it, An Illumination Of Blessings was published in 2014 as a Kickstarter-funded project.The illustration above is from the book  for the Havdalah ceremony blessings. You can learn more about it here: http://magiceyegallery.com/BookPage.aspx?id=1

In addition, I’ve been invited to be part of the Stray Book TV Pittsburgh Authors Episode on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015 to present my book, An Illumination Of Blessings (Imaginarius Editions, 2014)! An interview with Q&A and book signing will follow. If you are in town and would like to attend, please rsvp here:

http://www.sstraypublishing.com/stray-book-tv.html

 

 

A Thanksgiving Side Dish…

November 26, 2015

TheTurkey'sTaleThe aroma of fresh poultry wafted towards me as I entered the butcher shop on my annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to secure a choice turkey. Holding my nose against this odiferous chore, As I navigated through the crowd towards the service counter, I heard a shrill squawk as I slipped on something squishy buried beneath the sawdust-covered floor, colliding with a strange, dark figure.

Recovering her composure, the elderly patron scowled and pointed a bejeweled, wrinkled finger at me. I shrugged and apologized but barely suppressed a grin. With her beakish nose and trembling, wattled chins, she looked like a tough old turkey in human disguise. Outlandishly clad in a turban-wrapped fez, an iridescent feathered cape over an embroidered vest and paisley knickers, her dignified bearing was mysteriously intimidating. I expected she would berate me for my rude, if accidental move, but instead, looked me up and down with contempt and turned dramatically back towards the counter, muttering to herself with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent.

“How weird was that?” I mumbled sub-vocally, reaching for a double-digit service number. My wait would be longer than I thought since several ‘pilgrims’ were ahead of me, including the ‘turkey lady’. When I took my place in line, I found my artist’s eye drawn to her burgundy velvet fez with it’s gently swinging silk tassel. Idly, wondering whether turkeys might really be from Turkey, I remembered a fanciful notion described by some sixteenth century English naturalists. It seems they imagined a resemblance between the turkey’s red head adornments and the fez, a tasseled cap worn at the time by Turkish men as a national headdress! Stirring the sawdust around with my shoe, I began to recall other bits of turkey trivia.

Actually, turkeys pre-date humanity by about 10 million years, having roamed throughout Africa and most of the Americas. However, history records that an exotic bird with a featherless head and white-speckled feathers on its rounded body was imported from the Guinea coast of Africa into Europe during the Turkish invasion early in the sixteenth century. This creature was later classified as a guinea fowl. Along with other strange products, such as coffee, a chewy confection called ‘loukoum’ and beautifully patterned textiles and carpets, the English dubbed anything that had never before been seen in the west as ‘Turkish’, including the ‘Turkie-bird’.

The line to the service counter finally started to move and the ‘turkey-lady’ waddled up to claim her order. Before depositing her payment on the counter, she opened her package to inspect its contents and immediately began to haggle with the butcher’s assistant. Flustered, he stared at her, then ran off to fetch his boss. The portly, ruddy-faced butcher emerged from the back room, wiping his bloody hands on his apron and glowered at his bizarre customer. “What do you mean, haggling with my prices?!” he roared. “My turkeys are the finest in town and worth every penny I ask! Furthermore,” he continued craftily, “my turkeys are so delicious, your guests will praise you to the heavens, swearing that you got twice the bird you bargained for!” Appearing to consider this, the ‘turkey lady’ suddenly assumed a mask of complete charm and proceeded to defend her point of view. “My dear Mr. Hogg,” she murmured, “I can see that you are very busy today, but if you would be so kind as to hear my little Turkish tale, then perhaps you will understand.” Intrigued, I joined the other customers as they moved closer to listen.

“Once, long ago in Turkey,” she intoned, “a ‘hodja’, or learned man went to the bazaar in his village. Strolling the aisles, he chanced upon a handsome curved scimitar that bore a price tag of three thousand ‘kurush’ . The hodja carefully inspected the scimitar but could not see why it should be so expensive. So he approached a table of patrons at a nearby coffee stand to see if they might offer an opinion. “That is a very special scimitar!” they exclaimed. “ We have heard that if you use it to attack your enemy, why, it grows five times its original length!”

Considering this, the hodja returned to his home, fetched the tongs from his fireplace and carried them back to the bazaar. Gathering a crowd, which included the coffee drinkers, he sang out, “Who will give me three thousand kurush for these fine fire tongs?” Curious, the coffee drinkers approached the hodja and asked to inspect the tongs. “These are rather ordinary tongs,” they frowned collectively. “Whatever has possessed you to ask three thousand kurush for them?”

“Well,” answered the hodja with an ingenuous smile, “when my wife is angry with me and she threatens me with these tongs, why, they seem to stretch to ten times their present length!”

The butcher stood there, a reluctant grin spreading across his broad chin. Shifting his weight from foot to foot in embarrassment, he agreed to accept her modest payment, but on one condition. “And what would that be?” she simpered. The butcher looked at his customers who were obviously fascinated by the ‘turkey lady’. “The condition is that you will return next year with another story.” “OK, she nodded. Then, with a triumphant smirk on her heavily lipsticked mouth. “I will, but only if you will give everyone here a fair price, too!”

Watching the other customers whispering among themselves, I thought, “Wow, that was impressive; could that hodja have been her ancestor?” Without waiting for an answer from Mr. Hogg, the old bird winked at me and secured her feather cape. Then, she gathered up her parcel and swept out of the shop, yellow sawdust rising in her trail.

The Turkey’s Tale was first published in 1993 as the Thanksgiving folktale feature in the Focus Magazine of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It is one of my Visual Fiction stories published in the T-R between 1993-97.

A Wedding On Hallowe’en?

October 29, 2015

VF-TheBridesFinger-Illustration

Although Jewish tradition has no direct cultural association with Hallowe’en, there are plenty of spooky and sometimes funny tales to make your hair stand on end and foster a wee suspicion about the existence of demons. Like this one, called The Bride’s Finger. I adapted it from a sixteenth century Palestinian folktale* for my Visual Fiction series of stories, published between 1993-1997 in Focus Magazine, which was then a Sunday supplement in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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The bright orange moon illuminated three young men as they walked in the forest surrounding the city of Safed in ancient Israel. Raphael, the oldest, was being teased by his friends, for this was the eve of his wedding. Raphael considered himself a fortunate fellow because Shira, the woman to whom he was promised, was the clever, beautiful daughter of the city’s wealthiest merchant.

Soon, they reached the edge of a river and sat down to rest. Their spirits were so high that at first, no one noticed the strange object protruding from the earth at their feet. Then, Tobias, the youngest man, grew quiet and leaned over to examine it, assuming  that it was some sort of root. Pointing at the object, he nudged his friends, “Raphi, Gideon; doesn’t this thing look like a finger?” he whispered. 

Still laughing, Raphael and Gideon teased their friend. “Sure, Tobi, it’s telling you to watch your step!” Tobias shrugged, then smiled slyly at Raphael. “Just like your clever bride will make you watch your step? Not to be outdone, Raphael announced smugly, ” I will put a ring on that ‘finger’ just to show it who’s the master around here!” He took off his ring and slipped it ceremoniously onto the protruding object. 

“Now, Raphi, say your vows!” the others urged him, snickering loudly. With mock solemnity, the bridegroom-to-be pronounced the Hebrew words which were required to seal a marriage. This he did three times, according to Jewish law. But as the last word slipped past his lips, he felt an odd chill slither down his spine…

Suddenly, the ‘finger’ began to emit an eerie, greenish glow, twitching and wriggling convulsively. The three young men jumped back, gasping in amazement, as the earth shuddered beneath them. Frozen in shock, they gazed horrified at the black chasm which opened at their feet. The greenish glow surrounding the ‘finger’ expanded at once, revealing a woman’s form wrapped in a ragged shroud, rising up out of the abyss! Her arms opened as if to embrace a lover.

“MY BRIDEGROOM!” she shrieked in a terrible voice staring straight at Raphael with lifeless eyes. Recovering their wits, the three friends screamed hysterically and ran for their lives, pursued relentlessly by her unearthly wailing. When they managed to reach their homes, they bolted every door and window, shuddering with relief at their narrow escape. 

In the morning, still trembling with fear, the young men met at Raphael’s house to discuss the consequences of their irreverent behavior. Deeply ashamed, they vowed to keep their horrible adventure a secret. Then, they parted soberly for Raphael’s ‘real’ wedding.

That evening, a delicious aroma of exotic foods accompanied the sounds of merriment and music flowing from the palatial home of the bride’s family. Many distinguished guests had gathered to witness this wedding that would unite the two wealthiest and most influential families in Safed.

Suddenly, as the rabbi cleared his throat to begin the ceremony, a spine-tingling shriek issued from the  marbled entrance. Screams of panic followed as the crowd rushed madly for the doors, leaving only the rabbi, the bride and groom and their immediate families gaping in horror at the apparition, who was clad only in her vermin-infested shroud.

The rabbi was the first to regain his composure. Shrewdly, he appraised the corpse, taking in her filthy, waist-length hair and curving, claw-like toenails. Then, he pointed accusingly at her. “Why have you left your grave and come to befoul our joyous celebration?” he thundered.

With a moan that was terrifying and desperate at once, the corpse pointed at Raphael and Shira, his bride-to-be, who cowered behind the rabbi. “I have come to claim what is mine!” she announced shrilly. “Why do you allow him to marry another when he is betrothed to ME?” She raised her hand to display the finger on which Raphael had foolishly placed his ring.

Wide-eyed in amazement, the rabbi turned to Raphael. “Is this true?” he demanded. Panic-stricken, the groom revealed the tale of the previous evening. With a worried expression, the rabbi pulled at his beard and asked the groom if he had pledged the sacred vow three times before two witnesses. Raphael nodded fearfully.

“Well, my son,” said the rabbi, shaking his head. “I am afraid that a rabbinical court must be gathered to resolve this, for according to our laws, a promise is a promise, and it looks as though ‘she’ is your wife!” Raphael’s eyes rolled up out of sight as he slid to the floor in a faint. Shira clutched her veil, sobbing uncontrollably. Their families stood by helplessly, begging the rabbi to release their children from the awful curse.

For days afterward, Safed buzzed with excitement over the ‘marriage of the living and the dead’. No one had ever heard of such a phenomena! Meanwhile, the rabbi searched feverishly for legal precedents to this case, but soon concluded that one would have to be set. He then sent for three renowned rabbis, requesting their presence at the rabbinical court that would convene three days later.

The people of Safed crowded the hall of the court. When all were seated, the Safed rabbi summoned the dead ‘bride’ to appear. Placing her under oath, he instructed her to recount the events in the forest and to swear that Raphael had indeed ‘married’ her.

Rachel Bat Shimon (for that was her name), clasped her translucent hands sincerely and did as she was told. The court then asked her if she would give up her claim on Raphael. A range of emotions appeared to cross her lifeless face and then coalesce into defiance. “While I lived,” she said tightly, “I had no opportunity to marry and was denied my happiness on earth! Therefore,” her voice rose to a shriek, “this marriage must be recognized and consummated! Unless,” she hinted craftily, “this court would prove that there is no justice in life or in death!”

The hall became very still, as the rabbis mulled over this statement. After a few moments, they decided to ignore her statement and continue the proceedings because the arcane interpretations her statement provoked would confuse the issue at hand. So they called on the parents of the bride and groom, placed them under oath and requested them to verify that their children had long been pledged to each other. Almost in unison, the fathers spoke, stating that their pledge was formed even before the birth of their children!

When all the witnesses had spoken, the rabbis retreated to a private chamber to make their decision. Raphael shivered in fear, casting sideways glances at his ghastly ‘wife’. She fluttered her eyelashes and bared snaggled yellow teeth in a horrific attempt to smile at him. Soon the rabbis filed back into the court. The Safed rabbi was the first to speak.

“According to our Laws, it is indeed true that Raphael made a valid vow of marriage in the presence of Gideon and Tobias, his two witnesses.” He paused for a moment and the large hall grew thick with terror. “However,” he continued, “we cannot deny that this wedding vow would invalidate his former betrothal, since the Law states that one vow may not contradict a prior one. Also, we have considered the bridegroom’s statement that his ‘vows’ were not intentional. And finally, as there is no precedent for a union between the living and the dead, these vows are not acceptable; for the ‘bride’ is obviously dead. Therefore, we declare this ‘marriage’ annulled!” At these words, Raphael grew weak with relief as applause erupted among the living.

But Rachel Bat Shimon, knowing she was defeated, released a shriek as bloodcurdling as it was pitiful. She then fell onto the floor and embraced death once again. Those present truly felt her loss and indeed, the rabbi ordered that Rachel be buried again properly, so that this tragedy would not recur.

At last, the rabbi of Safed gathered the bride, the groom and their families together to perform the true wedding. The distinguished guests, recovered from their shock and returned to witness the joyful ceremony. One one guest was missing: Death.

*The historical source of this tale is Shivhei ha-Ari (Hebrew), compiled by Shlomo Meinsterl (Jerusalem, 1905). My source was Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of The Supernatural, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 1988)

Note: For those who have followed my illustrated posts here, you might notice a marked difference in the drawing style of The Bride’s Finger and in Moving The Immoveable Feast published a few months ago. These were executed in sumi ink on scraperboard (scratchboard) and hand-colored with watercolor. No digital enhancements, whatsoever. Other drawings in the Visual Fiction series were done in a variety of art styles that in retrospect allowed me to understand the trajectory of my artistic development. As an illustrator, it’s sometimes instructive to look back not only to see where I’ve been, but where my Muse might decide to take me next!

A Celebration Of The Number Eight

October 2, 2015

R.Gamliel-JugglingWithFire-SimchatBeitHaShoeivah

Two of my many eclectic interests dovetailed nicely this week; the High Holiday festival of Sukkot of which much has been written* and the art of juggling; specifically as practiced in the ancient but less familiar custom of Simchat Beit HaShoeva (Water Drawing Celebration).

Sukkot began in the mostly agrarian society of ancient Israel as a seasonal harvest celebration when a portion of fresh produce was offered as tribute to the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the first and second Temples, this holiday became characterized by a ‘sukkah’ or three-walled temporary ‘house’ and a ‘bouquet’ representing the four species associated with the holiday as mentioned in the Torah.**  These ‘arba’a minim’ are: an etrog or citron fruit, one sprig each of myrtle and willow and a palm frond or ‘lulav’. These are held together and blessed in a special way upon entering the sukkah’. In addition to offering prayers, meals are shared with family and friends during the eight days of the holiday. In time, the Sukkot holiday acquired deeper significance as a beautiful spiritual recognition of life’s finite nature and of the importance of living joyfully despite hardships both natural and man-made. SukkahRGBAnd here is where my interest in juggling, particularly as it relates to Jewish history, comes in.

Though I do not have the requisite skills, I’d become interested in the art of juggling and its colorful traditions many years ago when one of my sons demonstrated a special talent for it and turned professional at age nine, maintaining his career and associated travels until beginning college. But I first learned about jugglers in Jewish history upon reading a fascinating article by Raphael Harris in a 1995 edition of Juggler’s World***, one of the magazines my son received as a member of the International Jugglers Association.

In it, Mr. Harris, who was a professional juggler in Israel at the time, describes the ancient custom of Simchat Beit HaShoeva which occurs during the Sukkot holiday when waters are drawn from a spring near Jerusalem for use in the Temple service. It seems that juggling at joyous occasions was inspired by the prophet Isaiah (“with joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.” –12:3) and practiced by several distinguished sages and scholars such as Shmuel bar Abba (180-275 CE), Levi bar Sissa (150-220 CE), Abaye (280-339 CE) and Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel (10BCE-70CE), the titular head of the Sanhedrin or High Court who was the earlier juggler mentioned.

Rabbi Ben Gamliel was known for his ability to juggle eight lighted torches. He would toss them in the air in a pattern to ensure that they never touched each other. In addition, he would then prostrate himself on the ground, raise himself into a headstand and manage to kiss the ground before standing up again, an unheard of feat until then. Juggling eight of anything, let alone flaming torches is a masterful feat but I became curious as to the significance of that number and eventually came upon a 2002 article by Calgary Rabbi Eliezer Segal.

Writing in  the Jewish Free Press, Rabbi Segal relates that juggling eight objects, symbolically represents various aspects of Jewish learning and observance during the eight days of Sukkot such as the eight disciplines of Torah study: Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Aggadah, received traditions, scholarly debate and the secret doctrines surround the Creation story (Genesis Rabba) and Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkabah (mystical Chariot). He also notes that, “one Rabbi Henokh Zundel observed that the juggling of torches served as a demonstration of how the scholar had mastered (grasped in his hands) all eight disciplines. Tossing them into the air represents the spiritual and intellectual elevation that comes through study. The fact that the torches never got confused symbolized the sages’ ability to apply the distinct mode of learning that is appropriate to each area, without mixing them up into an indistinguishable mess.”

All of this led me to portray Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel and his eight torches for the illustration above as part of a new series of drawings in tribute to the art of juggling that I’ve been developing during the past few months. In addition to the ‘The Art of Juggling Dangerously’ (published here on August 10th, 2015) which also addresses fire torch juggling but from a different perspective, I’ll post some of the others here at Imaginarius as they are completed.

Meanwhile, I wish all who observe and/or appreciate the Sukkot holiday much joy in its remaining few days ahead !

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot

**Leviticus 23:40

*** http://www.jewishmag.com/7mag/juggler/juggler.htm

Two Days Remaining To Fund This Unique Sweatshirt Design!

September 21, 2015

RealConnoisseursRealConnoisseursCollectIllustration

For much of my life until the beginning of my professional career, I had identified as a (‘fine’) artist, but invariably received rejection comments for my work (particularly from exhibition jurors and gallerists) like, ‘Your work is good but it’s too illustrative.’ What!? Illustrative of what? Did these ‘experts’ imply that my work was unacceptable because it told a story, provoked ideas, questions or emotions? Isn’t that what good art should do?

Nevertheless, I knew I had something unique to offer. Inspired by a long list of historic and contemporary illustration luminaries from Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and William Blake to Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Moebius and Andy Warhol whose surviving original work is ironically now considered highly collectible, I defiantly re-branded myself as an illustrator. Joining ranks with illustration’s many brilliant practitioners, I embarked on a career full of risks and rewards that also offered priceless social and cultural experiences. By embracing the changing technology along the way, I learned how my work could grow in scope and impact and have rarely looked back.

Accordingly, to celebrate the ‘fine art’ of illustration as a collectible commodity and a good investment, the image shown today is my new design for reproduction on a sweatshirt. From the Threadless site, here is a bit of its background:

This design, built from my original alphabet, Garrulous Gothic (©2015 Ilene Winn-Lederer) was inspired by the notion that brilliant illustration can be as fine an art-form as any of the ‘fine art’ that draws wealthy collectors to glitzy events like Art Basel, Art Miami, etc. It’s high time for a new Golden Age of Illustration!

I’ve posted it on a site called Threadless.com based in Chicago which has operated since 2000 with an interesting business model  that is somewhat similar to other online crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter. Once a design is accepted by Threadless, an artist has ten days to promote it. If enough votes and funding commitments for a design have been posted, my ‘Illustration’ sweatshirt will be produced and  sent to anyone who has ‘backed’ it. Threadless doesn’t charge your card unless a design is fully funded.

So if you are an illustrator, friend of one or an art collector looking for an edge, you need one of these! Check it out here:

https://www.threadless.com/designs/real-connoisseurs-collect-illustration-2

Fantasy & The Jewish Future…

September 10, 2015

RHCard4

For the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday season, given the divisive state of this generations’ spiritual seekers, my friend Rabbi Ruth eloquently expresses important and instructive points to consider not only for the holiday but for always. Hag Sameach!

Coffee Shop Rabbi

A reader asked me recently, “Which mitzvot do Reform Jews observe?”

My answer (this was on Twitter, so I had to be brief), “Like all Jews, some observe many mitzvot and some do not.”

I’ve noticed that we have interesting fantasies about our fellow Jews. Reform Jews fantasize that all Orthodox Jews (“the Orthodox”) observe all 613 mitzvot meticulously. Some do, to the best of their ability, which is to say that they do so imperfectly but with the intention of keeping them all: kosher home, kosher lifestyle, kosher family, a seamless way of life. Others identify as Orthodox, but in practice they live a much less observant life. I have met Jews who identified as Orthodox but who were not observant at all: they eat pepperoni pizza except when they think a rabbi is looking.

Correspondingly, there are Orthodox Jews who have fantasies about Reform Jews: we eat cheeseburgers with abandon, intermarry like crazy, and spend Shabbat…

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The Art Of Juggling Dangerously

August 10, 2015

TheArtOfJugglingDangerously3

GarrulousGothicO

nly in the face of certain death or its aftermath, do most of us grasp the precariousness of our own limited lifespans. From personal experience, I’ve learned that with such time-based events, each ensuing moment, each decision that I make and each external event (whether caused by or imposed on us) becomes especially profound, altering my overview of the reality that I understand.

Socio-political changes in the larger world along with those in our microcosmic communities sometimes make me wonder about those universal binaries, chaos and order. Is there a sort of balance, or a script if you will, by which they act on those changes?

To be sure, mathematicians, physicists, theologians and practitioners of the more esoteric arts have invented their own systems to answer this question, yet another one arises: do these dualities factor in our drive to create religious constructs and clever technological inventions, teasing our vanity by provoking us to assert control over elements and events that are currently far beyond our purview? Or are we attempting to offset our terror of the familiar suddenly turning chaotic? Maybe we just need to convince ourselves that our existence truly matters– to each other, to the amorphous fate of the world or perhaps to our favorite anthropomorphic deity.

Whether or not these thoughts and questions make any sense to you, they influenced this new drawing, The Art of Juggling Dangerously. Here is my jester, balancing upon an ephemeral tightrope. Seated astride his wheeled steed, he is juggling the fiery mace balls of our dark history, a history written by the servants of kings and conquerors. By doing so, is he metaphorically attempting to allay the fears and doubts that periodically assail us all? What about the social, political or supernatural forces that may have placed him there? Are these forces the agents of chaos, order or an amalgam of both? When you find yourself confronting a difficult decision or poised in a precarious situation, how do you respond? Finally, in our quest for adventure, for knowledge, if not understanding, we may often risk our own lives in defiance of death while ignoring the effect of our risks on others. Is this foolishness or a certain innocence that characterizes our fragile human bravado?

Since I can’t pretend to any special wisdom here let alone sound logic, I leave these questions for your speculative pleasure and comments. I would only venture to say that this jester may be an aspect of me or anyone dabbling in creative endeavors as we play with ideas that are both philosophical and provocative while suspended over an ocean of uncertainty…

Moving The Immoveable Feast

July 8, 2015

In recent weeks, I’ve become rather addicted to an online magazine called Mental Floss. Much of what is posted is silly, National Enquirer grade stuff, but with a little patience, some real gems come to the surface. One of these was a 2014 piece about a strange tree, an artificially cultivated hybrid (multibrid?) of forty different fruits (what??). Anyway, the tree is a sort of installation art project conceived by a Syracuse university professor named Sam Van Aken. The story can be read here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/60243/tree-flowers-40-different-fruits

Upon reading this article, I was immediately reminded of a story that I had written in 1994 called ‘Moving The Immoveable Feast’. It was one of series of twenty+ illustrated short stories that were published monthly (between 1993-97) by The Pittsburgh Tribune Review newspaper under the collective title, Visual Fiction. I adapted this one from an old Mayan folktale that told of a similar, though mythical tree. I am planning to publish a more fully illustrated anthology of these little tales but until then, I will post some of them here from time to time. Your comments and suggestions for this volume are welcome!
MovingTheImmoveableFeast

Scratchboard-Long before there were people everywhere, a tree that should have been impossible stood at the very center of the world, where the ruins of ancient earth pyramids now stand. The Old Ones called it “The Everything Tree” because every kind of fruit and vegetable drooped heavily from its twisted branches. Coconuts, peaches, mangoes, bananas and oranges were among its myriad fruit and its vegetables included every variety of bean, squash, pepper, eggplant, tomato, pickle and leafy green thing. The exception was corn whose tall stalks surrounded the massive tree’s trunk stretching as far as the eye could see.

Each day, from sunrise to sunset, animals gathered at The Everything Tree to sample its bounty. But for hundreds of centuries, people who eventually appeared had no clue to its existence. Until the day a man, who understood the language of animals found it. The man, who had been enjoying an afternoon nap, was awakened by the excited bleating of two of his goats as they discussed the tree’s wonders. Intrigued, he decided to follow them and see this miracle for himself.

After traveling many days over mountains and rivers, he stepped into the shadow of an enormous tree that appeared to loom just ahead, but was still many miles distant. At last he made his way through the aisles of animals that surrounded it. Starved and exhausted from his long journey, the man ate his fill and quenched his thirst with a juice he made by squeezing many fruits together into an empty coconut shell. As he rested, he marveled at the miracle he had found.

“Wouldn’t life be wonderful,” he thought, “if a tree like this grew near my home! We could enjoy its shade on hot, sunny days and we would always have enough to eat!” Plucking one more juicy plum, he set off for his village and decided to return to the tree with his friends and neighbors. Maybe together they could find a way to bring this wonderful tree closer to home.

When the man arrived at his village, the people gathered to hear of his adventures. They were fascinated at the notion of a never-ending feast and could hardly wait to witness this magical wonder. They began at once to prepare for the long, difficult journey. Anticipation made the miles pass quickly and they stood at last in the shadow of the Everything Tree.

As they approached it, several of the villagers fell to their knees at the sight, awestruck at the evidence and glory of their Earth Goddess. Then, amidst prayers of thanksgiving, they timidly began to reach for the tree’s fruits and vegetables, smacking their lips at the delicious new taste sensations. When their hunger had been satisfied, the villagers’ voices began to hum with proposed plans to transport this wonderful Tree back to their own lands. Soon, it was agreed that the tree should be cut down and its seeds carried back to be planted.

Led by a group of strong young men, the people brandished their sharp, stone axes and boldly chopped at the immense trunk. The day passed and darkness spread her curtain over the land. Exhausted from their journey and from chopping at the Tree, everyone soon fell asleep under the stars. When they awoke in the morning however, they could find no trace at all of the previous day’s work. “That’s odd,” the men murmured, glancing at each other in bewilderment. “Maybe we are looking at the wrong place,” someone suggested brightly. So they set to work again, chopping away at the Tree until sunset.

After managing to cut a few inches into the trunk, the men buried their axes in the groove to mark the spot and again retired for the night. But the next morning, the men nearly tripped over their axes that lay scattered on the ground. The tree had healed itself once more.

Frightened by this new miracle, the villagers held a council meeting to decide their next move. The strong young men advocated redoubling their efforts, while others quaked in terror. “We are risking the wrath of the Goddess,” they chorused. Then, one of the village Elders, the man who had first discovered the tree, spoke up. “Let us cut a few more inches into the trunk,” he proposed. “Then, I shall stay awake this night so that I may observe the Tree’s magic. Perhaps the Goddess herself might appear and reveal the solution to our needs.” Deeming this an equitable suggestion, the people did as he asked and then went to sleep while the Elder stationed himself among some cornstalks.

The hours passed and a soft breeze stirred the old man’s beard. Soon, he heard a faint musical sound emanating from the Tree. Curious, he began to creep through the cornstalks around her perimeter looking for the source of the music. Suddenly the Elder felt, rather than heard the Earth Goddess’ voice gently directing him to sleep and pay attention at the same time. Confused, the man struggled to keep his eyes open, but succumbed at last to the world of dreams.

Asleep, yet awake at the same time, the man became aware of a deep violet light that slowly suffused the Tree. Fascinated, he watched as the light summoned every living creature of the land and sky including elephants, armadillos, cockatiels, macaws, jaguars, serpents and monkeys. When all had arrived, they organized and set to work, eyes glowing yellow and orange in the darkness. Collecting bits of bark and root from the base of the Tree that the men had chopped away, the animals worked all night. Patiently, they replaced each tiny piece in the trunk and before the sun rose, the Everything Tree was just as it should be.

Shortly before he awoke, the old man again felt the Earth Goddess speak. “You and your people may not cut down My Tree,” She commanded, “ for it is my soul. But you may sample all that grows upon me, planting the seeds of your harvest throughout the world for all generations. Go now. For when you have filled your basket and returned to your village, I must cause you to forget where you have been.”

In the morning, the Elder related his experience to his friends and neighbors. “It was truly a miracle! The Goddess herself spoke to me!” he whispered in a hushed voice, prostrating himself briefly on the ground towards the Tree. The villagers were filled with joy, for the solution to their needs was so simple after all. Triumphantly they gathered some of every variety of fruits and vegetables from the Tree’s twisted branches, then returned to their homes. For generations afterward, their descendants carried the seeds of that first harvest to the four corners of the earth.

Although the Earth Goddess had decreed that no one would ever remember where the Tree stood, it is entirely possible that we were left with the suggestion that the Tree existed only in our imagination. Nevertheless, the colorful fruit and vegetables enjoyed around the world remain as tribute to that magical immoveable feast, The Everything Tree.

Text & Illustration ©1994 Ilene Winn-Lederer