An Act of Brotherhood: The Pueblo Portfolio
Individual prints from the portfolio are also available.
A Pueblo Portfolio
Seven Judaic Images based on the Pottery of the Pueblo Indians
These prints of Judaic images are in the style of Pueblo pottery, and are based on the hand-painted pottery that I have been producing for several years. Each of the seven fine art prints transforms a Judaic theme, motif, or text into a graphic inspired by the hand-painted pottery of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Each 15”x 20” giclee print is printed on heavy acid-free paper, and the set comes in a folio with a surprise feature.
The human enchantment with the pomegranate goes back to the earliest periods in the Middle East. This elegant fruit’s perfect form has continually inspired artists in our region where it appears again and again in jewelry, sculpture and on religious objects. The beautiful coloring of this unique fruit is captivating. The abundance of seeds that spill forth from it when opened suggests a mysterious source of richness. The Torah counts the pomegranate among the seven plants with which the Land of Israel is especially blessed. The fringes of the garments of the high priest were hung with miniature golden pomegranates and bells. The only archeological object from the First Temple ever found is a single, lovely little pomegranate with an inscription in the ancient Hebrew script. Rabbinic literature, too, contains many references and allusions to this fruit. Perhaps the most famous one is the comparison of the Jewish people to the pomegranate. It states that just as the pomegranate is filled with 613 seeds, so the Jewish people is teeming with the 613 commandments. I have designed this pot image with two parallel rows of pomegranates, one facing upward and one facing downward
Wheat, rice, and corn were the foundations of the civilizations of the Middle East/Europe, Asia and the New World respectively. Of these three, it seems that the first to be cultivated was wheat. It is probably no exaggeration to state that the domestication of wheat here in the Middle East was the single most important factor in the transformation of human beings from hunting/gathering bands, to settled agricultural and eventually urban communities. Every aspect of culture was transformed by this revolution. In Judaism, wheat takes the first place among the plants of the Land of Israel. Bread, whether it be the showbread of the Temple service, the Matzah of Passover, or the Challah for Shabbat and holidays, has always played a very prominent place in Jewish law, custom and folklore. According to one rabbinic opinion, the Tree of Knowledge was none other than the wheat plant. The eating of bread is what determines a full meal and obligates one to recite the Grace afterward. The blessing over bread covers all the other foods at a meal. In this print, I have merged the image of wheat with the most important Jewish symbol of all, the Menorah. The seven-branched candelabrum of the tabernacle and of the Temple has become the primary symbol of Judaism throughout the ages. Here I have used the reiteration of this combined wheat and Menorah form to suggest the constant grace and abundance of God’s gifts of life to us—physical food, symbolized by the staff of life, and spiritual light hinted at by the Menorah. As we say each time we eat bread: He gives bread to all flesh, for His mercy is eternal.
Soon after I began painting on pottery in this style, I developed a Hebrew alphabet based on the way in which Pueblo artists divide and fill space. In this piece I have written out Psalm 117, which seemed especially appropriate for this work of merging Hebraic ideas with a particular very regional non-Jewish artistic style.
“Let every nation praise God! Let every people exalt Him! For His graciousness towards us has been abundant, And the truthfulness of His universal message is eternal.”
Written by a poet of a tiny people in a remote corner of the Middle East, it is remarkable how clear the vision of the universality of this message was. That our Psalms continue to be sung daily in a thousand different languages in every corner of the globe bears witness to the power of this message. It seemed appropriate to write out this psalm in the language in which it was written and right in the place in which it was written, but in the style of one of those nations, envisioned by the sweet singer of Israel three thousand years.
Another technique I developed for the pots was to create a style of lettering which employed little geometrical islands filled with Pueblo-style designs to form the negative spaces between Hebrew letters. In this print East meets West literally as the four Hebrew letters, Mem, Zayin, Resh, and Chet appear in the white spaces between these islands and spell out the Hebrew word Mizrach which means east. The Mizrach plaque is a traditional Jewish object that was placed on the eastern wall of the synagogue or home to indicate the direction of prayer towards Jerusalem. These plaques would often take the form of intricate calligraphic works employing micrography or papercuts, and became a virtuoso object of Jewish folk art. Often each of the four letters is associated with the first letters of the phrase: Mitzad Zeh Ruach Chaim, meaning, From this direction comes the spirit of life.
Over the years, a thread running throughout my work has been an interest in the revival of abandoned, overlooked, or neglected, Jewish objects, texts, or art forms. I am fascinated by the interplay between old forms and their translation, reinterpretation and transformation into contemporary pieces. The breathing of new life into old forms has been a lifelong artistic obsession. A similar process has been at work in the art of Pueblo pottery. Though the creation and decoration of functional pottery has been an uninterrupted process for hundreds of years, it is clear that at a certain point a conscious decision to look back at old forms and designs was made.
The ubiquitous little pottery shards easily found throughout the Southwest provided intriguing hints of the designs used by the ancestors. Once archeologists began unearthing the ceramic treasures of the ancient Indian civilizations, all could see the actual pots used many generations before. The finds at Mimbres were especially important in this regard. I can only imagine how powerful the deep identification with their ancestors must have been for the pueblo peoples as these stunning images were discovered. Their influence has pervaded the work of Pueblo pottery ever since. Some of these ancient designs, like the repeated feather design, have now become almost emblematic.
In the sixties, I met Maria Martinez, perhaps the most famous Pueblo potter. In her stunningly elegant black-on-black pottery she transformed the Mimbres feather pattern into an icon of Indian art. In this work, I have adapted this pattern to our ram’s horn, the Shofar, whose shattering, primal, age-old voice announces our moments of greatest joy and calls us annually to self-examination and repentance
The commandment to create the seven-branched candelabrum for the tabernacle in the desert appears in the Torah. According to a rabbinic tradition, despite the precise, detailed instructions spelled out in Exodus, Moses could not figure out exactly what was intended until a visual representation was shown to him. Many of us who deal with both images and words understand his predicament perfectly. Words can never fully convey the impact of an image; and no image can capture the precision of verbal thinking. Our culture clearly weighs in heavily in favor of words. This makes us take special heed of those few image like that of the Menorah whose power comes from its visual impact.
The fact that no one knows the precise description and arrangement of the various elements of the Menorah has given rise to thousands of years of endless speculation and contemplation. The prophet Zechariah saw its image as a striking Divine message. Philosophers have seen it as a model for conceptual categories or cosmic patterns. Mystics have seen it as a rich source for meditation. Indeed, of all the Jewish images, that of the Menorah has been the most ubiquitous. From the Exodus to today, it has been intimately connected with our people.
For me, its three most prominent features perfectly capture much of the essence of Judaism. Its most immediate characteristic is its perfect balance. I believe that the perfection of Judaism derives to a very large extent from its harmonious balance in virtually all aspects of life. All the forces, factors, and aspects of the universe and of life are acknowledged, accepted, embraced, and then balanced in perfect harmony. What better image could there be of this than the Menorah’s arms reaching outward to embrace all and to bring them into that strong, perfectly centered middle column? This is the horizontal aspect of the Menorah. Vertically too, the Menorah seems to be a very apt image of Judaism. Like Judaism it is firmly rooted in the earth and delights in all the details of the earthiness of life — food, agriculture, sex, work, society, commerce, politics. Judaism, however, takes all these earthy elements and sanctifies them by raising them upward like the branches of the Menorah.
Both functionally and etymologically the Menorah is essentially about light. It is a source of physical light and a symbol of divine light. Atop each branch is a pure, shining light suggesting that the Godly light that fills the universe is somehow accessible to us if we seek it.
“Seek the Lord and His strength; Yearn for His presence constantly.”
The acts of seeking and yearning both imply a constant, never-ending, lifelong process. The Midrash Tanchumah quotes this verse and states: Sometimes He appears; sometimes He does not. Sometimes He hears; sometimes He does not. Sometimes He answers; sometimes He does not. Sometimes He is close; sometimes He is not. The circular form in which I have made this piece reflects this fundamental truth of the religious life. The verse reads over and over again just as the acts of seeking and yearning never end.
Each Hebrew personal name has a biblical verse associated with it. This is a verse that incorporates the name itself or begins and ends with the same letters as the name. Many people add this personal verse at the end of their recitation of each Amidah—the central prayer of every service. Psalm 105:4 is my personal verse. Like the name David, it begins and ends with the letter Dalet.