Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Art and Prayer" –
My article from the CCAR Journal


I am honored to have been published in the Winter 2013 symposium issue of the CCAR Journal, a special edition focused on "Inspiration & Opportunity: The Arts and Jewish Life." Alongside many artists and thinkers whom I have admired and followed, I wrote about the experience of creating my "Paper Tefillah" papercut series. The journal includes an excerpt from my essay; the entire piece follows. The entire series of papercuts is included in this PDF catalog.

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There are five words inscribed in Hebrew above the ark in my synagogue’s chapel: “da lifnei mi ata omed” — “know before whom you stand.”

I was commissioned in 2011 by Temple Israel in Memphis to create a series of papercuts representing the key prayers of a contemporary American Reform Jewish worship service. I called the series “Paper Tefillah,” and it comprises 16 papercuts representing prayers from Barchu to Aleinu; the show opened in January, 2012, and has been acquired by the synagogue as part of its permanent collection.

I’ve been cutting paper for almost 20 years, and I’ve come to expect certain things from the experience: the singular focus that descends when the work flows smoothly (or perhaps the reverse), the sweat and the muscle strain from working intensely for long periods of time, the rhythmic bouncing in between sections as I try to stay loose and limber. But with this latest series, I found myself experiencing something new: the sensation of being engaged in prayer — of finding that the work of creating these prayers out of paper was in many ways, akin to a prayer experience itself. No surprise, it turns out, that the Hebrew for both “work” and “prayer” is the same: avodah.

My work always begins with a text. I’ve been engaged in what I call “Paper Midrash” for some time now — visual biblical commentary. I work in the medium of papercutting to participate in our Judaism’s dialogue with past and future generations about our laws, our traditions, our beliefs, and our question.

So when I start a new piece, I look to Torah, Nevi’im, and Kethuvim; I dip into Talmud and Pirkei Avot; I leaf through Sefer HaAggadah, in hopes that my grandfather’s great-uncle will have found something that speaks to me. And at some point in the development of nearly every piece, I sit down and study with my wife, a rabbi in the Reform movement; she is my muse and inspiration.

I explore the themes of God’s presence and the role of the miraculous in our lives. Much of my work includes elements of the natural world that are touched by the Divine: the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, the revelation at Sinai.

After study, it’s time to draw. I fill page after page in my sketchbooks trying to express the essence of the text I’m working on — trying to transfer my sense of the meaning of these stories into my art, in hopes of sharing these ideas with others. And after drawing, it’s time to cut.

I work with an X-acto knife and watercolor stock. There’s a story of the famous sculptor who was asked how he made such realistic sculptures; he says it’s easy — when he’s sculpting a horse he gets a big block of marble and cuts away everything that doesn’t look like a horse. A similar process entails on my cutting table. At times I feel that when I’m cutting, I’m freeing the images that were already in the paper — releasing them from their paper prison. At other times the work goes slower, and more laboriously. I can spend hours and hours on the same sheet of paper, trying to find the wave or the flame or the mountain that I know must be in there somewhere. And the structure of the cut is only part of the work; once that’s done, I move into the backgrounds — the color behind the papercut.

My papercuts often incorporate bits and pieces of cut-up comic books, drawing parallels between the predominantly Jewish-created mythologies of comic books and the stories of our tradition. Comic superheroes exist outside of the “natural” world, be they visitors from other planets or people whose powers stem from strange scientific accidents; they have weaknesses and flaws, and their struggles are often a metaphor for the human experience.

I’m just as likely to include snippets from books destined for ritual burial in the genizah, bits of secular poetry, pieces of maps and other printed ephemera. Oftentimes I’m looking for a particular element to help tell me story, but just as often the search for appropriate materials results in unexpected finds that enrich the work and extend my study and idea development into the cutting stage.

I expected that the “Paper Tefillah” series would be much the same. I planned to create about 16 papercuts, each representing a particular prayer in contemporary Jewish worship. I wanted to convey the feeling of engaging in prayer — to reproduce in paper the worship experience — as well as represent their meanings.

I even had a plan in place for the work: with about 12 months to create the works, I would first develop the list of prayers, and then attack them one at a time — and so proceed until completion.

As they say: “man plans, and God laughs” — I couldn’t even come up with the list. How to choose the “right” prayers? Which were in the must-include category, and which could I eliminate right off the bat? Should I do 18 instead, because of the obvious positive connotations of that number? Or be more modest in my plans and shoot for 13, another auspicious choice? I knew I’d include the Shema — so that was one definitely on the list. But what would I do with the Amidah? Was that one papercut, or 19? Did I leave it out entirely and try to do that as another series at some later time? It was too much — I became caught up in the list-making, and the art-making was starting to fade into the distance.

So I stopped, and slowed down. I cleared my head, and abandoned the list. I took one prayer — MaAriv Aravim — and I opened up a siddur and read. In Hebrew, and in English. And I drew. And I reread the prayer, and drew some more.

MaAriv Aravim is the prayer that praises God for bringing on the evening, for ordering the stars and the planets, for the cycle of the seasons and the immutable processes of the universe. We praise God for keeping the heavenly bodies spinning in their orbits. And so I kept rereading it, and I kept drawing.

This first papercut in the series took me two months of drawing to figure out. Two months to get it the way I wanted it, and then to consider what I would cut up to put behind it. It is composed of orbits, with stars and planets traveling around a hamsa at the center of the piece. The hamsa is an ancient symbol of heavenly protection, and this one features a mystical eye backed with words from the prayer itself. The hamsa can be seen as a representation of the hand of God, rolling light into darkness and darkness into light. The finished cut incorporates space- and darkness-related comics, to convey a sense of the evening. One of the main comic book heroes used in the background is Cloak, who harnesses the power of darkness to fight evil alongside his partner Dagger. The piece also features some comic captions which are recontextualized to explore God’s role and presence in the universe, notably the words, “This is everything. This is me,” against a field of stars.

And with that piece finished, I found my way into the series. One at a time, I would choose a prayer and start to study and draw. The list came together slowly as the months progressed, getting longer and shorter at various times, and only really getting finished as the last pieces came together on my cutting table. Sometimes I would start a prayer and get stuck, and would move on to another before going back. I might have three or four at various stages in my sketchbook, with one or two on the table and surrounding areas in my studio.

Throughout the process I kept coming back to what I had already completed to see how the series was progressing as a whole. Each individual piece had to be right, but they also had to work together, and that meant avoiding the use of similar themes in different pieces, something I’d never had to worry about before. And eventually, I had the series finished, and ready to ship to Memphis for its debut.

I could stop and breathe.

The series was everything I’d imagined it could be. I had completed the prayer service, and found that it worked on both levels: as a series of 16 works, but also as 16 individual papercuts.

Barchu marks the beginning of the formal prayer service, the moment when we stop being just a group of individuals and become a community praying together, and so it made sense to focus on this prayer as the first of “Paper Tefillah.” In this papercut the many scattered conversations and individual prayers are represented in multi-colored speech bubbles. Our voices come together in prayer and take the form of two larger speech bubbles in the center of the piece, the call and response of the Barchu — and the varied images and colors give way to the words of the prayer as our voices become one. The comics used to back this papercut come predominantly from “team-up” titles (such as “Marvel Team-Up” and DC’s “The Brave and the Bold”), in which heroes band together and find that their combined power is more than the sum of their individual strengths.

On through Yotzeir, Ahavah Rabah and Ahavat Olam. The cornerstone of our faith, Shema and V’ahavta.

For Geulah, I focused on the subject of redemption. This papercut has as its primary imagery three upraised fists, breaking their chains. In this prayer we speak about God as our Rescuer and our Redeemer. Redemption is more than no longer being slaves; it is being truly free people, owning our destiny and moving forward. I represented this freedom with outstretched hands, backed with numerous cut-up comic panels featuring people of many races and backgrounds — because none of us can be truly free until we are all free. The background is composed of cut-up and re-stitched pieces from DC’s “Blackest Night” series, in which heroes are killed and brought back in an existence that mimics life but isn’t; they are controlled by an evil force that uses them against one another. Freedom is more than action; it is owning ourselves and our intentions and being free to serve God and ourselves.

Mi Chamocha’s parted Red Sea, Hashkiveinu’s sheltering sukkah of peace, and V’shamru, with its presentation of the iconic elements of Shabbat worship.

When I studied Avot with my wife, we talked about the idea that by invoking the names of our ancestors in this prayer, we reintroduce ourselves to God. We reference the patriarchs and matriarchs, and I represent them in this papercut with a tent. It is Abraham and Sarah’s tent, where strangers could always find hospitality. It is the tents of all Israel, referenced in the Hebrew at top: “ma tovu ohalecha” — “How good are your tents.” Within those letters are stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel — each of whom revealed their concern for others through their words and actions. The tent is a patchwork of colors and textures to reflect the early nomadic lives of our people, and features comics that represent our best qualities, including the Fantastic Four, in a reference to the four patriarchs.

A few more parts of the Amidah made it into the series: Gevurot, Kedusha, and Shalom.

The final prayer in the series is Aleinu, which is built from those words over the ark: “da lifnei mi ata omed” — “know before whom you stand.” During this prayer we stand before the open ark, and we speak of our people’s special destiny. We speak of a time when all the people of the earth will stand together and know the one true God. The papercut is backed with images of place — desert sand, representing our place at the foot of Mount Sinai when we took upon ourselves the responsibility of being God’s chosen people — and images of God’s presence in our lives — a representation of God’s voice as seven voices/lightning, of the luachot habrit, and of the pillar of fire which guarded our people by night. The background also features cut-up comics from numerous “first issues” in which writers and artists attempt to grapple with being in the presence of those greater than themselves, including Jack Kirby’s “Eternals,” Douglas Rushkoff’s “Testament,” DC’s “Legends” miniseries, Joshua Fialkov’s very recent “Last of the Greats,” and one of Kirby’s most famous characters, “The Watcher” — a being who lives on the dark side of the moon and watches over the people of earth.

Along the way from commission to completion, I discovered something. The process was in many ways similar to what I’d been doing, but there was something else going on as well. I always start studying text when working, but there was something different about studying prayers and creating my own interpretations of them. Making the prayers became, for me,  an act of prayer itself. And that thoughtful engagement — the intention of studying and interpreting and expressing these prayers — was integral to the process. The physical act of creation became an essential aspect of the work — for me as the artist but also, I think, inherent in the finished papercuts. That is, I believe the final pieces are informed by the process that went into making them, and that process was, in its own way, prayer.

In 1952, art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting” to describe the growing movement in which the process of creating art was part and parcel of the finished work. He referred to the canvas as “an arena in which to act” and shifted his focus from the art object to the creation process itself.

In my arena, the acts of art creation and prayer merged into — at times — a singular experience. If art is an arena, for me it became as well a place of worship.

The narrow focus which kept the outside world at bay. The deep engagement with the words of these prayers and their meanings. The rhythm of the pencil and the knife on paper, adding and subtracting. Bowing down to get closer to the work, stepping back for a broader perspective. The sense that this was something very personal, and simultaneously universal. The feeling of being alone, and also of being part of something much larger than myself.

I believe the work reveals the process. Papercutting and collage are very physical acts, and reveal much of the work that goes into them. The edges of paper, the overlapping layers, the ripples and varying density through the work... these are evidence of the artist at work, and the artist in prayer.

Does the work communicate this process to the viewer? I spoke with people at the opening of the exhibition who shared with me what they saw and felt in the work. They found much of what I put into them, of course: bits and pieces of the prayers, familiar characters from comic books, references to the imagery or these prayers or stories from Tanakh that I wove into them in an effort to convey the meaning I found in the prayers.

And as people do, they saw much in the work that came from themselves rather than my intention. Shimmering fabric in the parted waters of the Red Sea, words and images formed from negative space, and mysterious visions surrounding the Holy of Holies in the Shema.

And, more to the point, I heard from some that they experienced the feeling of being in a prayer service — moving from one work to the next, from beginning to end, engaging with each of the prayers in order. I heard from some that engaging with the papercuts was a similar experience to engaging with the prayers themselves — that the exploration of meaning and intent was akin to their engagement in prayer. I could have received no better compliment.

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