Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

The Alphabet Angel

March 26, 2012

In The process of developing my Alchymy of Alphabets series at The Magic Eye Gallery (, 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…

A Little Thing That Knows One Big Thing

March 7, 2012

When I spotted this strange young guy emerging from an alley off of Randolph Street during a 2010 visit to Chicago, his spiny-gelled coiffure was enough to plant this image of a ‘HeadHog’ in my imagination which then became a sketch in my trusty Moleskine journal. In the two years following, it remained unfinished as I developed other projects that included my Codex Gastropoda drawings. Several of these appeared in a series of posts here that were dedicated to the ‘appreciation of small things’. That appreciation led me to rendering ‘HeadHog’ this week but also piqued my curiosity about the animal and its legends.

In tracing this line of questioning, I came upon some pieces of folklore that attribute various qualities to these creatures, including a notion that hedgehogs can outsmart foxes and predict the weather by the way they build their nests. Then there was a Brothers Grimm fairytale about a magical hybrid hedgehog-child called ‘Hans My Hedgehog’, which could easily have influenced my drawing had I been aware of  it.

However, a 1953 essay by Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), the British intellectual and historian of ideas eventually piqued my interest. Entitled ‘The Hedgehog & The Fox’, Berlin wrote a playful riff on a quote attributed to the 6th century BC Greek poet-philosopher Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.”  In it, he posits a cultural/intellectual divide between writers and thinkers by employing these two animals as metaphors of two types of human beings. He compares hedgehogs to those that embrace a single, all-encompassing construct of ideas of which they are the undisputed authority. For him, foxes are those individuals who choose a more wide-ranging aestheticism in pursuit of self-knowledge and by extension their understanding of universal existence through a cultural bias. Yet, I suspect that Berlin’s sly cleverness does both animals and those attributes a generous measure of injustice for in my opinion, these attributes are as inextricably intertwined as the concepts and manifestations of good and evil.

Though our natural tendency is to categorize our behavior and intellectual/creative processes to clarify our understanding of them, I think that  writing vs. thinking, art vs. science, science vs. religion or for that matter, illustration and fine arts (see Imaginarius post of 28 February 2012) are not discrete categories. They are only pieces in the greater puzzle that is us.

Today, I might be a fox speaking like a hedgehog. Tomorrow, who knows?

Reflections In The Mirror Of Heaven And Earth

September 1, 2011

As the Hebrew year turns towards its own renewal and the High Holiday cycle begins, we are given yet another opportunity to reflect on personal and public events that have transpired and on our reactions to them. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is approaching as our political system and economy continue to decay. Collective tides of anger become chaotic outbursts that loudly and messily continue to replace intelligent discourse and the media is a glutton at this smorgasbord. The environment, like the skin on our bodies tells its own tale of woe as it hosts one natural disaster after another. Our religious liturgies conveniently offer lengthy poetic formulae and intricate acrostics with which we can communally express our feelings, but I often wonder how mouthing these familiar verses composed so long ago relates to who I am now and how I have lived this year? Have my choices largely demonstrated mindfulness, indifference or willfulness? Have I tried to express myself creatively or have I automatically repeated clichéd pleasantries in response to casual encounters? Have I listened well and learned anything? Moreover, is God listening and to what extent are we being observed and judged? Will my name remain listed in that legendary Book of Life? These and other sober concerns lend gravitas to this time of year. Perhaps that is why Parashah Shoftim is read early in the month of Elul, for it gives us some historical, legal and spiritual perspective on who and why we are.

In the calendar, Elul precedes the month of Tishrei when judgment for our deeds of the previous year is rendered. Traditionally, we express our wishes to retain life in good health that we may continue to perform mitzvot or good deeds. Though many powerful ideas are presented in this parashah, I purposely chose the quotation pertaining to justice for this visual interpretation.

‘The Mirror Of Heaven & Earth‘, shown above reflects a commentary in the Talmud and a further interpretation by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) in the Tanya (the foundational work of Hasidic philosophy) regarding how a negative event can be rendered positive upon consideration. I like to think that as we are partners with God in Creation, so are we empowered to collectively change our world for the better. This drawing features a celestial looking-glass, the metaphor of a window to our world through which God may view the consequences of His/Her Creation and we may imagine glimpsing the duality of justice that exists in both dimensions. This may be the basis for repeating the words, “Justice, Justice”. Although the parashah emphasizes the appointment of authorities to administer the laws and specifies the consequences of disobedience, I am drawn to the philosophical interpretation that applies these laws to our physical bodies as microcosmic versions of Creation and Torah.

In ‘A Balance Of Powers‘, shown below, one of the key players in the process of judgment is the prophet, standing to the right of the Shekhinah, or feminine aspect of God.

He is included because his divinely inspired words are associated with world events, both present and future. He and the artifact shadowed behind him are modeled after the prophet Ezekiel and the mystical vision he experienced during the Babylonian Exile in 593 BCE.

The Kohen Gadol or High Priest standing to the prophet’s right holds a small model of a Levitical city of refuge. These properties were given to the tribe of Levi instead of farmland so that their designated roles as Torah scholars and teachers to the Israelites could be performed without domestic distractions. The Shekhinah is shown with a set of scales that represent the qualities of justice and mercy. The fire in the left pan surrounds the Hebrew letter ‘tzadee’ that begins the word ‘tzedek’ for justice. In the right pan rests the Hebrew letter ‘resh‘ for ‘rachamim’ or mercy with a dove holding a lily. The dove, although it is the familiar symbol of peace also addresses the quietude needed for objective decisions.  The lily was chosen for its association with purity and for its six petals shaped in the form of a six-pointed star. In Hebrew the flower is called ‘shoshan‘, from the root word ‘shesh’ or the number six. And on the sixth day of Creation, we came to be; for better or for worse, but somehow gifted with hope that always shows us the potential of ‘better’.

These images are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher: or from Amazon, where you will find several reviews.

The Snail Queen’s Soliloquy

March 17, 2011

Many writers and philosophers have made brilliant and erudite attempts to comprehend and court the ‘soul’ of imagination, but it remains a capricious creature, cultivated solely on its own terms. When, in rare moments, we are attended by one of its minions, it is a privilege to be treasured and shared. So, with barely more than what was given to me, this sixth drawing from my Codex Gastropoda series comes courtesy of The Snail Queen who crashed my dream with her little quatrains:

I am of the water that flows through me
Weaving my hair like the silk of the sea.
Memories color my undulant waves
Tales of seafarers, pirates and knaves

But these are only artifacts of Time,
Barely a ripple in this vast sublime.
With purple-black ink I’ve filled my fine quill,
Hungry for visions to appear at will.

In your dreams I travel through phantom worlds
Mining images that briefly unfurl
Savoring some that speak to the ages
Leaving others for you to grace your pages…

Codex Gastropoda #4:The Time Snails

December 26, 2010

The onset of a new year often inspires sentiments revolving around endings and beginnings. These might be memories accumulated over the year past and/or resolutions slated to inform the coming year. Both are part of our big picture, but share an underlying urgency to affect change in our lives and in the lives of those with whom we interact. Inevitably we all wish for more time to bring these new realities into being. The irony is that the process of time in the known universe remains a universal mystery even as we create methods for containing and measuring it. In that sense, time as a human construct theoretically offers us more power to use it than we often wish to acknowledge. Though the construct of ‘leap years’ are a familiar phenomenon, ‘leap seconds’ and the need to insert them into our time systems are relatively obscure. Since 1972, the ‘temporal authorities’ of The International Earth Rotation Services of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, at Paris, France, have slipped an extra ‘leap second’ into the calendar, making their decision to do so either on June 30 or December 31 of the target year.  This was done to maintain the accuracy of atomic clocks that are affected by the irregular spin of the Earth, which seems to be slowing down. December 31 of 2010 is being considered for the next insertion. If this is not done conscientiously, they claim, then after several centuries, the time discrepancy would amount to one whole hour or more. With all the time we spend online and in pursuit of less than world-changing activities, many of us probably wouldn’t notice.  Anyway, most clocks are not designed to accommodate leap seconds and because we are so synced to automated systems, there is the potential to mess with our minds that defies logic. Remembering the pre-email days of frantic deadlines for illustration assignments, it would’ve been handy to offer the following scenario to a client: “Well, I’d love to have this drawing ready for you tomorrow, but according to temporal authorities, if I don’t have another day to work on it, time as we know it will bend out of recognition, worlds will collide and the universe will pretty much descend into utter chaos as a result. Will Wednesday be okay?”

On that thought, I’ve resolved to reset my clocks on December 31 and gather my grand plans for 2011. Here’s wishing you all the time you need for yours in the New Year, too…

Codex Gastropoda #2: The Snail’s Song

October 21, 2010

This next image from my Codex Gastropoda series is called Voluta Musica. In 1758, a small snail shell commonly known as the music volute was given its Latinized name by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist. Found primarily in the Caribbean and West Indies, the markings on its shell closely resemble musical manuscript notation. In May of 2009, it was my good fortune to visit the early home of Carl Linnaeus and his family in Falun, Sweden. Though it has become a museum, the home and its furnishings have retained the elegant precision befitting a person of Linnaeus’ scientific discipline. In that sense, the Codex Gastropoda series is my tribute to his attention to detail that earned him the title ‘Father of Taxonomy’. There is an additional layer of intent to this drawing. Have you ever placed a seashell to your ear and listened to the faintly musical sounds of the ocean? Whether you believe those sounds are echoes of the blood flow in your ears or of the ambient noise in your environment matter less in my opinion than the poetic interpretation of our imaginations. And like the beautiful markings on the shells of Voluta Musica, the music we love is engraved on our memories…

Verba Volant, Sed Musica Sicut Mare Aeternus (Words Fly Away, But Music Is As Eternal As The Sea.)

Codex Gastropoda: New Drawings In Appreciation Of Little Things

October 17, 2010

Though the phrase, “God is in the details” has been attributed to several great minds from Michelangelo to Gustave Flaubért and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, it is of unknown origin. Yet who said it first is irrelevant since its wisdom is a call for us to pay attention to ideas and images which may escape our first glance. How can anyone claim to be bored if a continuous conscious effort is made to be an astute observer of all we call life? At the very least, even without some degree of spiritual orientation, wouldn’t we be inspired to ask questions? It is this line of inquiry that led to this first in a series of drawings called Codex Gastropoda. Two more will follow later this week.

Questions anyone? What small things have you noticed lately?