Posts Tagged ‘angel’

Thinking Outside The Lines…

October 7, 2016

AlphaAngel-Sketch2.jpgAlphabetAngelRGB2.jpg

A few months ago, I began following posts (and occasionally commenting) at a Facebook forum called ‘Forgotten Art Supplies’. I became intrigued because while much of my work now relies on digital tooIs, I had used many of the required traditional tools mentioned there for drawing and preparing my illustrations for reproduction during my career as an illustrator and designer.

Last week, however, I was about to respond to a post by Donald Simpson, a well-known cartoonist but decided that his plaintive concern was worth a more substantive response.

This is what he said: “What I find disturbing is the trend toward coloring books and coloring stations — they are everywhere in the college campus {where} I teach, but no drawing classes! Sad.”

Based on my own history and observations, I have to agree with Mr. Simpson to a point; but this scenario may not be as dark as it seems.

As a young child, my parents noticed my passion and ability to draw and casually encouraged me to continue doing so. However, when birthdays and other occasions rolled around, coloring books and boxes of Crayolas were always among the gifts I received. I never had trouble coloring within the lines, but soon became bored with confining my abilities to them; until I reached the age of seven and began to receive coloring books that provided thin paper between each spread. These allowed me to trace the images and perhaps add my own arbitrary enhancements. I sometimes tore out these sheets and traced illustrations from my favorite picture books like the classic Grimm tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, beautifully illustrated in 1954 by Sheilah Beckett:

12dancingprincesses

ilene-tracing-12dancingprincesses2

This experience enhanced my enjoyment of the masterful works of others and though such features were an improvement in coloring books, I eventually lost interest when I realized my preference was for inventing and coloring images that I had created, an understanding that led me to become an illustrator.

Given the many comments I’ve heard over the years from those who bemoan a lack of artistic skills (‘I can’t even draw a straight line…’), I am not surprised that the need for adult coloring books has been recognized. A dazzling array of these have become ubiquitous in gift shops, the few remaining bookstores, even supermarkets and big box stores, not to mention everywhere online. Says a lot about the power of marketing, social media and profitability for publishers and creators. Here’s more on that from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-adults-are-buying-coloring-books-for-themselves

Nevertheless, I don’t have a problem with coloring books per se or the profits they generate. Some of them are beautifully drawn and intricate such as those featuring Buddhist mandalas, optical illusions,  plants and animals or one with a Pittsburgh theme done by my friend and former CMU student, illustrator Rick Antolic. While they provide a therapeutic outlet and/or a much needed esthetic experience for many, they may also heighten appreciation for the talent and skills needed to create them.

Cover artImage result for adult coloring booksImage result for adult coloring booksPittsburgh: A Coloring Book

But like Mr. Simpson, I feel that the proliferation of adult coloring books underscores the need for more basic drawing skills to be offered in schools from K through college.

Though the ‘arts’ receive a modicum of funding from federal and private sources, those monies are more often directed at acquiring audio visual materials, computers and assorted electronic devices to be used for creative purposes. Tablets, 3-D printers and areas set aside for making things are a hot trend in schools right now. All of the above are fine. Still, passively watching videos often just fills classroom time unless follow-up interactive discussions or related project assignments that encourage personal exploration and experimentation are included. On that note, learning to master digital devices and the apps that empower them requires much more than navigating a mouse or keyboard.

Without learning to develop and challenge manual drawing skills to enhance their understanding and appreciation of the work  of masters through history, it is my opinion that students are inhibited from acquiring the inspiration necessary to express concepts, let alone create viable content so that art can continue to fulfill its purpose; to shed light on the time in which it is made and introduce new ideas for cultural understanding and growth.

Yet, how often do we hear of classes solely devoted to teaching young students classical academic drawing, painting, or sculptural skills? At the university level, catalogues from these institutions may typically offer art classes, even BA/MFA degrees, but many would-be artists can easily be discouraged by the implied emphasis on more hard core studies in math, science and technology that strongly suggest following careers in these fields rather than in the liberal arts. Having taught illustration in a university environment, I learned how difficult it would be to overcome this prejudice, yet happily a handful of my profoundly talented students prevailed and became quite successful illustrators.

In retrospect and with some irony, I understand that perhaps coloring books were created to teach and aid the development of manual skills in children but they do so with the risk of making their users dependent upon the visual structures and cues of others rather than encouraging them to mine their own imaginations.

All of the above said, I believe that by underestimating the importance of our desire and ability to make art, our society has discouraged development of a gift through which we can define and express our humanity.

Tangentially, I would imagine this idea as the raison d’être that motivates the prolific art of grafitti and the public intolerance of it.

What has happened in the course of time is that other forms of communication have largely conquered our need to express ourselves visually. The line that once flowed freely from our young hands to form images has been, according to French artist & filmmaker Jean Cocteau, ‘untied and re-tied in a different fashion’ to enable multilingual universal communication with words.

And therein lies the subtle promise of the current assortment of coloring books for their users. For those who may have forgotten how to reverse that process and unlock their flexible line, they can inspire us once again to tell meaningful stories without words.

With Divine Spirit: The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth

March 23, 2012


Since 2012, corresponding to the Hebrew year 5773 is a leap year, several of the fifty-four Torah portions are read together so that the differences in these calendar systems may be reconciled. This week, we pair reading of the final two chapters of the Book of Exodus, VaYakhel and P’kudey. Commentary for the images in this post are from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

With Divine Spirit
, above, again shows us the master artisan Bezalel working to complete his design and construction of the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan). Here,he is holding one of the results of his ability to permute the letters of the alefbet. The object is the Choshen, the breastplate to be worn by Aaron, the High Priest for the services in the Tabernacle. It is described in one of the sections of a work called ‘Choshen Ha-Mishpat‘ (Breastplate of Judgment) and with some reservations is attributed to the 13th century rabbi and scholar Bahya Ben Asher. The Choshen‘s threads are of crimson red, purple and blue, the three signature colors of all fabrics used in construction of the Tabernacle and priestly garments. Woven into it are twelve stones set into gold frames, each engraved with one of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are arranged in the birth order of Jacob’s twelve sons and in four rows of three stones. Each row is in honor of the Four Mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
The Choshen and two carbuncle ‘shoham’ stones, also engraved with the tribal names, are attached to the shoulders of the Ephod portion of the High Priest’s garment. These appear in the illustration of Aaron for the Parashah T’Tzavveh. The twelve stones, listed on page 144 in the AfterImages section of the book, are:

Tribe of Reuven: Odem/Ruby
Tribe of Simeon: Pit’dah/Prase, or Chalcedony
Tribe of Levi: Bareket/Carbuncle
Tribe of Judah: Nofekh/Emerald
Tribe of Issachar: Sapir/Sapphire
Tribe of Zebulun: Yahalom/Beryl
Tribe of Dan: Leshem/Topaz
Tribe of Naphtali: Sh’vo/Turquoise
Tribe of Gad: Ahlamah/Crystal
Tribe of Asher: Tarshish/Chrysolite
Tribe of Joseph*: Shoham/Onyx
Tribe of Benjamin: Yashfeh/Jasper

*Tribe of Joseph incorporates the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh

According to Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Bible, Bezalel had the assistance of a special creature to construct these items. It was the tiny Shamir, (shown above Bezalel’s right arm) a worm-like creature that appeared in the evening of the sixth day of Creation. The Shamir was endowed with the unique ability to cut through impermeable materials like gemstones. Beneath the Shamir worm are two objects called the “Urim v’ Tmimim.” The appearance and function of these objects have generated much conjecture. Generally known as ‘oracle stones’ they were placed in the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate. Their alleged prophetic powers allowed him to focus on a specific problem or situation. He would then either obtain a vision or perceive combinations of letters with which he could determine the solution.

Behind Bezalel stands Oholiab, son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan, the co-worker assigned to him by God. The scales on his worktable symbolize his tribe and his honest artisanal skills. Oholiab is preparing the gold plate (reading “Holy To The Lord”) that will be attached by a blue cord to the High Priest’s helmet (on the table to his left). Finally, the ‘Parokhet’ or inner curtain for the front of the Ark of the Covenant is shown in the background. According to Parashah T’rumah, “You shall make a curtain of blue, crimson and purple yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of K’ruvim worked into it.” Though I have included the specified colors in the image, I have also taken artistic license with the background of the curtain by adding the apotropaic eye in the center.

In The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth, above, under the canopy of Heaven, the Shekhinah, God’s feminine aspect, lifts her hands to bless the people in this symbolic ‘marriage’ between God and Israel. The ‘Bridegroom’ in this union is the Ark of the Covenant. Shekhinah wears the Crown of Paradise with golden pomegranate trees. Her sephirah of Malkhut or earthly monarchy is prominent at the base of the crown. A tiny chuppah adorns the large ceremonial wedding ring held aloft by the K’ruvim on the Ark. Her ‘feet’ resemble the cloven hooves of a calf from the bizarre four-faced ‘Chariot’ creatures in the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision. The full description of this vision appears in the haftorah reading for the Festival of Shavuot.

Below, The Guardian Of The House of Israelimage concludes the Book of Exodus.

It depicts the completed Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert surrounded by the tents of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The color of each tent reflects its corresponding gemstone in the High Priest’s Choshen (Breastplate). Although the text of this Parashah initially seemed to require two illustrations, I imagined an enormous angel bearing both symbols of God’s Holy protection. He wears a head covering that resembles a medieval liripipe. Suspended from its ‘tail’ is an alchemical glyph representing two elements of Creation: air and fire. Finally, I have shown the Pillar of Fire in the form of a Ner Tamid or ‘Eternal Light. The burning bush within recalls the Covenant at Sinai while its chains incorporate the heads of korbanot (Temple offerings). The Ner Tamid has occupied a place of honor over the Ark in synagogues worldwide illuminating our memories of the original Tabernacle that guarded and inspired our ancestors three thousand years ago.

For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://bit.ly/g2D9Lm

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Passover: Thought For Food?

April 12, 2011

As an illustrator, the ramifications of the Old Testament’s Second Commandment invariably gives me pause for thought; particularly in this week leading up to the Passover holiday. While I enjoy revisiting traditional illustrated Haggadot like the pedestrian Maxwell House edition and its lux cousin, the Syzk Haggadah with it’s lush, detailed imagery, I am also interested in seeing the versions present at various family sedarim that include feminist and gender-free haggadot, the Moss Haggadah, Leonard Baskin’s illustrated Haggadah as well as various  reproductions of antique Haggadot.

Of course, new interpretations crop up each year and while each of these have their merit, I have yet to see one that dares to depart in a satisfying way from the traditional format and text in both the narrative and accompanying visuals. It is a challenge that I would like to tackle provided I am offered the opportunity to do so by a foundation or private collector who is willing to refrain from oppressive art direction. I can only offer one guarantee; that it will be beautiful, thought-provoking and like no other. Meanwhile, here is some imagery to think about…

(above) Between Heaven & Earth (2001) from the exhibition:Encountering The Second Commandment/Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

In this visual interpretation of the second commandment, two angels appear in the upper and lower waters of creation separated only by a narrow, fiery horizon. the angel of the upper waters reaches towards the commandment written in Hebrew, representing its heavenly origin. The angel within the lower waters of earth containing the English translation of the commandment is a distinct reflection of the one above, in the sense that we were created in god’s image. While reaching for its’ feather, fallen in the transition or translation to the mundane world below, it grasps the upper angel’s hand, attempting to retain the tenets of holiness. I created this image as a metaphor to explain the struggle of artists through the ages who have attempted to balance their need for self-expression with their needs for community and religious observance. (The title of this work would also become part of the title of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

Cover Illustration: Passover issue for The Baltimore Jewish Times (2001)


The interior illustrations for this issue were b/w line & halftone like these:

Cover illustration & calligraphy for The Haggadah: Translated & Transliterated (Judaica Press, 2002) The interior illustrations were B/W halftone details pulled from the cover illustration.

Of Plagues & Promises: Detail from illustration for Parashat Bo from Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). Although Parashat Acharey Mot will be read this year on the Sabbath before Passover, the imagery for Parashat Bo will be more readily associated with the story of the exodus in the Haggadah.


Of all the plagues brought on Egypt by God, the 10th and last, Death of the Firstborn, is the most horrific. In this illustration I have presented the Angel of Death, which the Talmud places in the category of destructive angels called Malach Ha-Movet. Why the Angel of Death, when in Exodus, God makes it clear that He, and not an Angel will implement the 10th plague? Are we to understand that all angels are aspects of our Creator? And were all the events in Exodus designed to help us understand the evil inclination as an inextricable element of our natures? In the Babylonian Talmud it states that, “If God created the evil inclination, He also created the Torah as its antidote.” Perhaps that is all the answer we need…?
Wishing you a thoughtful Pesach…