Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

On The Pragmatism Of Prayer…

April 19, 2013

TheFlightOfAPrayer

In light of the national media babbling 24/7 about the fear and trembling amidst heightened security measures that have overtaken the Boston environs in the wake of the Marathon bombing, I thought about all the prayers that go out both to comfort ourselves, each other and perhaps in attempt to stanch the rising panic over the still at-large bombing suspect. In doing so, I offer these questions for your comments:
 
1. Can prayers be understood as pleas for protection from evil, or for those more philosophically inclined, can they be seen as praise for a G-d whose will in all things is inscrutable?
2. What about the concept of prayers as a way to understand that the balance of good and evil must, however costly to life and property, be maintained for some larger cosmic purpose?
3. Could these prayers relate in some obscure way to the intent of sacrifices in ancient times? In other words, did we perform sacrifices and offer prayers as a tribute to the greatness of G-d, to assuage our fear of His/Her potential anger or a little of both?
 
In Acharey Mot, this week’s Torah reading, although the above questions are given no definitive answers, we learn how the qualities of good and evil inform a duality in our concept of G-d that inspires the custom of absolving communal sin by sacrificing two goats.
 
The illustrations below are details from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). We can see one animal lying trussed and wearing an inscribed boxwood lot dedicating it to G-d. The other, marked as an offering to ‘Azazel’ will be the scapegoat sent into the wilderness.  The term ‘Azazel’ has various connotations. Medieval commentators have referred to it as a desert cliff in the Sinai from which a goat was thrown on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of Israel. But In his commentary on Leviticus 16:8, the Spanish Talmudist Moses Ben Nachman Gerondi (Nachmanides) described Azazel as a goat-like desert god or demon. The image of a demon has long been associated in mythology with evil, sexual misdeeds and the fearsome forces of nature. Merging the two ideas produced the portrayal of Azazel as a winged demon pictured in a barren desert setting. The string tying the lot to Azazel’s goat is partly colored scarlet to recall a custom in the Temple. A red cord was hung in the Temple porch for all to know that a goat had been sent to Azazel. The amount of time needed for the goat and its escort to reach the cliff was calculated and when the sacrifice was deemed complete, the cord allegedly turned white.
 
Perhaps this elaborate, dramatic ritual, was in itself an answer to my questions? If the Torah had not told us that we were made in “…Our Image”, how else would it be possible for us to understand that God may inspire both joy and
heartbreak?
Imaginarius-AchareyMot

The Faces Of Purim

February 23, 2013

NaamatEsther.RGBOften referred to as the ‘Jewish Hallowe’en’, the holiday of Purim (which is the old Accadian word for ‘lots’, as in ‘chance’) commemorates a grim story of religious persecution in the 7th century Persian Empire. Even so, it is observed as one of more frivolous holidays in the Jewish year, a day when identities are masked by the faces and costumes of players in the timeworn story of Esther, or Ishtar, who would be Queen of Persia.

Instead of rehashing it here, there are many sources online that provide commentary on this holiday and its origins. Here are a few: http://ohr.edu/holidays/purim/ http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12448-purim. In addition, you can follow this Wiki link at your leisure to the whole Megillah: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purim.

Considering the power of archetypes as drivers of both Biblical and secular literary works, I find it interesting that Esther’s story is not included in the books of the Torah. Although it incorporates a number of tropes found there such as hidden identities to counter religious persecution and villains whose evil activities have come to be regarded as morality lessons, it is referred to as ‘apocryphal’ primarily because it does not include G-d’s name or tenets of religious observance.

For these reasons, the Megillat Esther is a story that avoids the second commandment creative restrictions and has fired the imaginations and craft of many artists and writers through the centuries. So this alone is for me, as an illustrator, reason to celebrate.

As I prepare for my virtual visit to Shushan this year, here are some of the illustrations that were done some years ago for the Baltimore Jewish Times. As always, comments welcome.

Hag Purim!

An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence

April 19, 2012


A favorite trope of philosophers and religious scholars from ancient times to ours has been the concept of free choice. Does it exist as a vague tenet of traditional religious entitlement so we may feel free to question our ‘destiny’? Or is it merely a glib, convenient dodge for questionable behavior? Either way, acting upon it is never without consequences for the present or the future, both of which we like to think we can influence even if that influence may be illusory in itself. One of the stronger arguments for the consequence of interpreting the concept of free choice is found in Parashat Shemini, this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

In the illustration above, called Choice & Consequence, a scale is suspended from a mystical winged yad (Torah pointer). One pan holds the sephirah of Chesed (lovingkindness) that has been damaged and unbalanced by the sephirah Gevurah, (strength and power) in the other pan. The status of these qualities lies beneath the many vivid examples of victory and tragedy in the Torah narrative. One of most heartbreaking events was the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, High Priest of Israel. The young men were also godsons of Moses, Aaron’s brother. The Talmud and Kabbalah offer multiple interpretations of this incident. The most familiar is the brother’s unauthorized offering of incense or ‘strange fire though not requested to do so. According to Louis Ginzburg’s Legends of the Bible 1, they were killed upon their offering by two filaments of fire that flashed from the Ark in the Tabernacle. These split into four flames, pierced the nostrils of the young men and incinerated their souls. The bodies are shown intact for the legend also claims that after the event, no external injuries were visible. My imagination rode this story back to an earlier example of an unacceptable sacrifice; that of Adam’s son Cain, his rejected harvest offering and subsequent murder of his brother Abel. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering makes this tale equally tragic despite God’s vague attempt to justify his action to an angry and vengeful Cain. Though the later sacrificial system was designed to short-circuit the expression of these emotions, the loss of these young lives remains a scar on our history. One of the stranger postscripts to Cain’s murder of his brother is that God chose not to destroy Cain for his misdeed. Instead, he was condemned to live with his crime for an extraordinarily long lifetime while bearing an enigmatic stigma. Rashi, the medieval French Torah commentator asserts that this ‘mark of Cain’ was a horn that protruded from his forehead eventually causing his death by a hunter who mistook him for an animal. Another interpretation in the Zohar(Book of Splendor) associates this mark with the Hebrew letter ‘vav‘ because the name Cain or ‘qayin‘ in Hebrew, means ‘hook’.2 Was this ‘vav‘ or ‘hook’ meant to connect Cain to God during his journey towards spiritual redemption? Since both of these assertions intrigued me, I decided to combine them in one image showing Cain’s horn emerging from the ancient Hebrew letter ‘vav‘. The design of his horn was suggested by the ‘horns’ of the mizbeach or sacrificial altar.

I often marvel at how everything is connected in strange and subtle ways. Though created as a stand-alone post, last week’s drawing, ‘Innovasion'(detail shown above) whimsically explored the theme of unusual eating utensils. Coincidentally, the other important theme in Parashat Shemini, happens to be the laws of kashrut (kosher eating practices)regarding animals; laws that clarify which animals may and may not be eaten with any utensils. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the illustration for this section of Parashat Shemini, called Sanction & Censure was my final choice for the book. Yet, I thought it might be interesting to show an alternative option I considered at the time.

By way of explanation, the diverse array of creatures categorized in Parashah Shemini as kosher and unkosher provided an intense artistic challenge. As I began to draw these creatures, I was as delighted as a child to be depicting representatives of the vast array of life forms inhabiting our planet. Digging further into the laws of kashrut, however, these restrictions seemed way too complex to be arbitrary. I wondered about their true meaning for us beyond straightforward obedience. Though I personally understand and observe the basic tenets of kashrus, my imagination is simultaneously attracted to the esoteric. So, upon closer examination, if the animals I have drawn seem to have unique personalities, they do. Their ‘personalities’ were suggested by the Hasidic idea that each creature deemed ‘kosher’ contains ‘sparks of holiness’ and that when properly blessed and eaten, those ‘sparks’ are released, inviting the Divine Presence into our material world. Accordingly the creatures appearing fully colored underscore this idea. Those appearing in neutral grey tones within the black chessboard grid are considered inappropriate to be eaten and for the performance of commandments (mitzvot). Surrounding the ‘chessboard’ are emblems representing four of the spiritual worlds (atzilus,beriyah,yetzirah,asiyah) and elements associated with them (air, water, earth, fire). I thought these should remind us that free choice may not exist merely to reassure our need for independent thinking, but rather we should understand it as a way to reaffirm our connection to creation and to each other.

Bits Of Whimsy: Innovasion

April 13, 2012

One evening, in the mood for some lo mein and oolong tea, I headed for my favorite neighborhood Chinese bistro. When the waiter had taken my order, he handed me a set of flatware, but asked if I preferred to use chopsticks. I chose the latter out of habit. But as I returned the fork, I had a strange notion about this ubiquitous tool. If a fork normally has four tines, why is it not called a ‘fourk’? Silly, I suppose; nevertheless, I soon began to wonder about the design and taxonomy of gastronomic utensils in general. For that matter, why are two or three-pronged implements not called ‘tworks’ or ‘thorks’? Following this fork in my thought trail, I recalled Edward Lear’s famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat in which the lovers ate their mince and quince with a runcible spoon, a very practical utensil that combined a fork and a spoon. Now it’s called a ‘spork’. Well, I couldn’t stop there. As I mused on the look and possible names of other hybrid utensils, my eye noticed a brown marmolated stink bug staring down at me from atop my computer monitor. Eeuww. And the image you see above began to materialize. For sure, this drawing has other levels that you can enjoy interpreting, but you can get back to me on that…

The Alphabet Angel

March 26, 2012


In The process of developing my Alchymy of Alphabets series at The Magic Eye Gallery (www.magiceyegallery.com), I came across an old journal entry from 3 December 2001: “Had a brief exchange with an elderly woman at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill. She had just come from her afternoon yoga class. As we admired the array of hand-drawn classic scripts and illuminated quotations that comprised a local calligrapher’s guild exhibit, she remarked: “Do you think these are just a collection of pretty letters or some sort of secret message?” “Uh, good question; don’t know, maybe…” I shrugged to humor her, because you never know when someone might be a bit off. Then, beneath her mischievous green eyes she offered a twinkly smile . “Well, I believe that letters in themselves symbolize worlds of meaning that are only secret until you learn how to look at them.” She abruptly turned and sauntered away, leaving me to quickly sketch her in my journal and ponder a mystery that more than ten years later I am still decoding…

Tea With William…

March 21, 2012


As an artist, writer and avid reader, I’ve often thought that Réne Descartes’ well-known aphorism: “The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of past centuries.” deserves a postscript. Besides substituting ‘minds’ for ‘men’, the phrase should be extended to include art and perhaps music because our minds are insatiable for all forms of creative expression; hungry to engage in conversation with all creators through their work.

While not all creators are articulate; nevertheless it’s up to us to discover what visual or musical language they are speaking in their attempts to reach us. That said, sometimes, just encountering beauty in music or art needs no translation. This pretty much encapsulates my admiration for the English Arts & Crafts period designer William Morris, whose work has been a great inspiration to my own. Such that I imagined us sharing high tea at Broadway Tower, his summer retreat in the Cotswolds…

The Odds Of March

March 19, 2012

ate one night, near the end of February, the rooster-less weather vane spun madly atop the Inn Of The Four Winds. Perhaps it was anticipating the outcome of the wager within…

Beneath the iridescent glow of a crystal chandelier, March’s fate lay in the cards. Would the month begin with the icy breath of a roaring storm or with the gentle bleat of a spring breeze? Excitement ran high among those with stakes in this annual game, for the cards were to be held by those famous adversaries, the Lion and the Lamb. The game required a curious playing deck consisting of three hundred and sixty-five cards (with a wild card thrown in for leap years). Its four suits distinguished the deck, each representing one of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. On the cards within each suit, specific weather conditions such as thunderstorms or clear, blue skies were depicted. But these magical cards were more than just pretty pictures. As they were selected in the game, each image exuded its unique sounds, sensations and smells!

A dealer was appointed to divide this enormous deck into twelve stacks of cards, corresponding to the months of the year. From those stacks, he then dealt each player twelve cards. The remaining cards were tossed into a barrel and shuffled so they could be reassembled into one large stack at the center of the ornately carved table.
The rules of the game decreed that neither the Lion nor the Lamb were to see each other’s hand, but were to select cards in turn from the center stack, rejecting unwanted cards back into the barrel for next year’s game. Then, by means of dealing, trading and bluffing (if necessary), each player must build a complete hand of thirty-one cards (corresponding to March’s thirty-one days) whose suits and weather conditions matched their own meteorological vision.

If the Lion expected to win, his hand must consist of thirty-one cards depicting only fierce weather conditions; while the Lamb would need to collect thirty-one cards displaying only fair weather symbols for her victory. The first player to collect a complete hand would win the honor of deciding whether March came in like a Lion and went out like a Lamb, or vice versa! Although the weather was enigmatically commanded by the powers that be, ancient wisdom held that this annual match exerted its own mysterious influence…

The large hall of the Inn was crowded with spectators and speculators proclaiming their wagers and noisily debating the fate of March. Among these were the weather vanes’ Rooster, the Groundhog, the Dove and the Monkey. By virtue of their special interests in the resolution of the match, the four were permitted to surround the principal players.
The Rooster, having abandoned his weathervane for this event, anxiously hoped for an early spring in March. He was a proud fellow, but he was exhausted after a long winter of announcing early sunrises and taming temperamental winds. An early spring would allow him to do his tasks a wee bit later in the morning. And so he crowed enthusiastically for the Lamb.

The Dove cooed for the Lamb, too. As the messenger whose task was to let other birds know when the ice and snow would end, Dove’s sentiments were also personal; she dearly missed all of her friends who flew south for the winter.
The Groundhog, charged with predicting the fate of winter for humans, had grumpily crept out of his burrow for this game, grunting in favor of the Lion. He wished to enjoy his winter nap for just a little longer.

And the Monkey, gifted with a special knowledge of the language of plants and trees, was entrusted with bearing the tidings of spring to jungles and forests everywhere. In recognition of her intelligence, she was appointed to act as dealer. This obliged her to remain neutral, though she secretly hoped for an early spring. There was nothing she liked better than swinging lazily on a thick vine and munching an early crop of mangoes.

When the table was prepared and everyone had settled down, the Lion and the Lamb entered the room, greeted their audience, and took their seats. While the Monkey dealt their cards, the players exchanged menacing glances and crooked smiles, each determined to emerge victorious from the match.

As the game proceeded, the Lion could barely suppress his little rumbles of delight; for the majority of his cards depicted his signature storm symbols: lightning, thunder, snowy blizzards and hurricanes. Smugly, he glanced around the room and then at his opponent; a clear gesture that he held the winning cards. On the other hand, the Lamb, with her gentle features drooping, seemed to be down on her luck this year. Shivering from her handful of wet, cold, windy storm cards, she desperately wanted to declare an early spring, and hoped that some of her beautiful sunshine and flower symbols would turn up soon.

Suddenly, as if the powers that be had heard her wish, the stack of cards at the center of the table began to yield one springtime card after another! Growing more excited with each turn, the Lamb could nearly taste her victory as her fans cheered her on. The Lion began to growl in frustration, his whiskers wrinkling at the scent of the spring grass and crocus cards, which kept cropping up. Peeved by the waning encouragement of his supporters, the big cat was not a good loser. But he did have a flair for drama.

Narrowing his big green eyes, he stood up as if about to stretch, letting loose a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a roaring yawn. The startled Lamb gasped and dropped her cards, then bleated accusingly at her opponent for cheating. The Monkey, who had just reached out to straighten the center stack of cards, trembled, scattering the remainder of them all over the table and floor! To make matters worse, the crowd had begun to panic. What would become of the month of March?

After a few moments, the Lamb’s natural grace and charm returned, and she giggled as she regarded the mess on the table and floor. “Oh, well,” she shrugged philosophically, ” I was getting tired of this old game anyway!” The Lion, somewhat abashed by the Lamb’s swift recovery, felt a slow smile creeping across his chops. “So am I,” he agreed, nodding his shaggy head. “Besides,” he added slyly, ” I’ve heard there is a cheap flight to Paradise this weekend. Would you like to join me?” Fluffing the curly wool behind her delicate pink ear, the Lamb glanced flirtatiously at the Lion, and happily accepted his offer.

The crowd of spectators and speculators had finally regained their wits and were so busy arranging their wagers for next year’s game, that they never noticed the Lion and the Lamb waltzing out of the Inn’s doors locked in an embrace.

The powers that be rolled their collective eyes indulgently as they helped a very sleepy Rooster back to his weathervane perch atop The Inn Of The Four Winds.

This year, for a change, March would have to take care of itself.

Bits Of Whimsy: New Drawings

February 20, 2012

Recent posts have been pretty heavy stuff, Biblical, insufferable moralizing, blah, blah. So for comic relief here are a couple of new images; no text but the titles: The Evil Magic Of Caffeine (top) and The Cluckfosters Step Out (bottom). Want to write a bit of collaborative flash fiction? Maybe these will inspire you…



Un-Literal Letters: The Instruments Of Imagination

February 5, 2012

Scroll Alefbet©2012 Ilene Winn-Lederer

Acanthus Alefbet©2012 Ilene Winn-Lederer

In December of 1968, as an illustrator/designer at Pictorum, Inc., a Chicago design firm, I received a Christmas gift from my employer, a devout Catholic, that would prove to be a map to my artistic future. Jewish Art From The Bible To Chagall by Ludwig Gutfeld (Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1963) is a modest compendium of art, artifacts, architecture and sculpture created to express themes in the history and practices of Judaism.

It awakened my nascent curiosity about my ethnic and religious heritage, suggesting questions I did not know how to ask. As an art student, I had been intimidated by a demanding instructor whose own formidable skills in the lettering arts exposed the limits of my skills in that area. I became discouraged from considering a career in that area, yet, despite being unable to read Hebrew, I was particularly drawn to the examples of medieval manuscripts in this book with their hint of unlimited possibilities in these letterforms.

It was not until the early 70’s, when I became aware of the iconoclastic lettering works of the artists Ben Shahn and Leonard Baskin that I developed the courage to experiment on my own. In later years, with further exploration into their history and levels of meaning, my fascination with Hebrew letterforms grew, becoming incorporated into my illustrations and eventually manifesting into the series of  alphabets, two of which are shown in this post. Within my Magic Eye Gallery site (http://magiceyegallery.com/) under the pull-down menu, you can see the others in the Alchymy of Alphabets gallery. They are available as gicleé prints, sized to order.

According to the Sefer Yetsirah, a core Jewish mystical text, God created the world through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and ten numbers or sefirot. I would humbly suggest that perhaps we can understand this process on our own micro level, honoring these letters as keys to unlock our imagination…

Of Meme & Metaphor

October 19, 2011

Since the Magic Eye Gallery went live recently, I’ve been thinking about this site as a virtual/visual metaphor of who I am, an offering that may generate more questions than it answers. This morning, as I worked through the exercises that are part of my recovery from rotator cuff surgery last week, I inexplicably flashed on the image of a crossword puzzle with its labyrinthine clues and negative pathways. For puzzle fans it’s a mind flirt, an irresistible literal challenge to be solved, but where my work in concerned, perhaps it’s something less literal and more memetic…


A crossword puzzle is like a map of metaphoric memes calling forth the thoughts, experiences and behaviors that we share and which to some extent characterize our lives. We are given clues to help us discover who we are, who we might have been and who or what we may yet become, but the mysteries that are in the dark spaces between the grids will never be revealed. What if we imagine that God is concealed there in each of us…?