Portrait of an Artist
By Dan Riis Grife
Some years ago I was working on a series of paintings rooted in the more recent history of urban life in New Mexico. I used calaveras (skulls) as a metaphor for times past as I drew on stories from friends and relatives about places and situations, the stuff of familial legend (see insert). At that time, I was also making bultos (statues). As I added my own voice to this traditional medium, I was inspired by the work of contemporary santeros such as Carlos Anzuelta from Puerto Rico and Gustavo Victor Goler in New Mexico. Santeros are artisans who make carvings depicting religious figures; the term is particular to the American Southwest, especially New Mexico.
I was introduced to the subject of the crypto-Jews when I worked on a production of the play “The Merchant of Santa Fe” by Ramon Flores, a sort of Shakespeare meets Colonial New Spain tale revolving around Don Saul, a crypto-Jew. In the context of these activities, I was invited to participate in the Spertus bi-annual art exhibit. The subject of the exhibit that year was mezuzot. I instantly knew that 1 would make a mezuzah in the style of the santero. My entry, the “Bulto Mezuzah,” (see insert) was a ritual object disguised as a doorpost. When the secret cabinet is opened it reveals a gallery of bultos. Rather than the figures being of Catholic Saints they are of the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Tanakh. Retablo (devotional painting) style repousse (technique in which metal is shaped by hammering backside) panels surrounding the figures illustrate tales from the scriptures using symbolic elements drawn from traditional religious art.
When I began research for the project I had never set foot in a synagogue, but when I visited the library of one of the local congregations I knew that I belonged. I asked the rabbi’s advice because I did not wish to cause any offense and he suggested I begin by reading Torah. 1 did and I was instantly hooked. 1 spent hours in the library and started to attend Torah study and services. I searched for English sources of Midrash and for translations of folk tales surrounding the Holy Books including Arabic folk tales drawn from the Iloly Koran. As I worked on the “Bulto Mezuzah,” weaving the Midrash in repousse and carving it in wood I began to realize that both the course of my work and my life had been irrevocably changed.
My interest in the subject of the crypto-Jews grew as well. I made several more mezuzot; each themed after one of the books from Torah or by specific stories from the scriptures. I hand-hammered a Ner Tamid (an eternal light which hangs above the ark in every synagogue) (see photo) from copper sheets and inscribed it with the weekly Torah portion (parsha), Tetsavveh 20-21. In my work “Legends of Tanakh,” each image is based on the parsha being studied the week the work began. Along each frame Hebrew passages describing the scene are inscribed with calligraphy in fire crown characters.
Iconic symbolism has long been used as a device to identify the characters in southwestern traditional painting. Symbolic elements are used to represent attributes or deeds of each character, thus serving as a pictorial narrative. 1 invite the viewer who discovers these elements to enquire further, by reading the story and finding the Midrash. I want the viewer to have an ongoing relationship with the work. Whenever I am asked about my art, I mean, what my art means to me and where my inspiration comes from, it forces me to struggle to put into words what I feel so intensely while I am in the process of making art. I know what I feel. I feel it. It is what comes forth when I give myself to the process.
Early in my journey of return I came across this saying: “It is said that in the course of each man’s life he should write a Torah.” It is an ancient Jewish aspiration to develop the skills and afford the time necessary to accomplish such a daunting mitzvah. Art is my language.
Midrash notes that at the moment that all of Israel was gathered at the foot of Sinai, while Moses stood before HaShem, at the very moment that HaShem spoke “I AM,” all birds the world over froze in flight, the rivers stood still and every living creature listened and heard the words as they reverberated over the face of creation. At that moment also, every prophet from every people who had ever lived and all of the prophets from future generations yet unborn were called before HaShem and they stood at Moses’ side before the Lord. It was then that HaShem said to Moses, “See now all of these prophets. They speak many tongues, so never be surprised to hear them call me by different names.” This Midrash inclines me to think that any language, calligraphy, representation, abstraction, poetry, prose, song, or any pronounceable or unpronounceable name that can be formed by the human mouth, are all accepted. No praise is rejected, in spite of dogma.
There are as many ways to interpret Torah as there are seeds in a pomegranate. One can write a Torah as does a sopher (scribe) with calligraphy and words, or one may write it, after study and reflection, with deeds bringing Torah into the world through actions. I feel that my art work is my attempt to fulfill the mitzvah using my language. Each of my works incorporates elements of the cultural influences. I strive to bring forth a genuine expression of those influences in my work as I draw on the reservoir of images and traditions that shape and educate my imagination. By using a
parsha or another sacred Jewish text as a springboard, the illustration becomes a vehicle to explore visual concepts and express complex philosophic and physical theory. The unity that I recognize between such disparate disciplines as quantum physics and Kabbalah, the concepts of creation and evolution, and the straightforward way they complement one another through Torah and the myriad writings surrounding it have bolstered my palate.
I felt confident in my emerging Judaism and I was confident in my identity as a descendent of crypto-Jews. I had no real evidence but, like so many others, my maternal line had settled in the Central Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico shortly after the return of the Spanish following the Pueblo Revolt. The Pino, Baca, and Vigil had farmed along the river near Socorro and had ranched the Plains of San Augustine. So far as I know, no one of my relatives ever considered having a Jewish heritage. We had no peculiar practices and there was never anything to indicate that we were anything other than what we presented. We were all Catholic. My father converted to Catholicism when he married my mother. I had been an altar boy. I knew though, that my family were anusim. I cannot prove anything but I feel it and I know it to be the case. It makes no matter. My understanding and embracing of this heritage has directed my work and my life. Despite obstacles, I have not looked back or questioned my decision to embrace Torah and Judaism. I am the richer for it.
In my work, I investigate the relationship of form and space. I use texture and broad fields of color to push and pull the perception of the positive and negative. In the stories of the scriptures are the metaphors to add another dimension to my endeavors. Positive and negative is represented through the subject matter as well as through formal technique and application. The texture achieved through thick application of paint and repousse is supplemented by Midrash from Talmudic sources and folk tales drawn from millennia of discourse that expresses cultures and experiences from around the world.
As I grew in my understanding of the rich tradition of literature woven by the Jewish experience I gained a new appreciation for the concept of the book as guardian and transmitter of identity and the reverence for the written word and for the deeply textured philosophic thought that manifests through that identity. I sought to emulate this tradition. I pondered how I could make the work portable and transferable. It was by the very virtue of portability that the culture and traditions of a people spread over the face of the earth could survive. I decided to carve woodcut copies of each of the paintings and to arrange the resulting prints into a folio (see insert). However, it seemed that the images alone were not in themselves sufficient to convey the spirit of the original paintings.
The paintings are heavily textured (see insert) and invite the viewer to touch them. The deeply embossed surface achieved in the printing process results in a similar effect, but absent would be the Hebrew text surrounding each image. Much of the nuanced symbolism evident in the original works could not be reproduced on the small scale required by the production of a folio. I decided to bind the prints together with the text and produce a limited edition book. On the opposing page of each illustration the verse that inspired the image is printed in both Hebrew and English with the Midrash typeset so as to further describe the story.
The second book from the Tanakh series is titled “Birds of the Sky,” a sub-series of paintings originally made as a visual narrative of a particular event. The book follows David on the day he confronts Goliath and the images arc presented as seen through David’s eyes. The illustrations, binding, and case of each book have been made entirely by my hand.
I consider the books to be the finished work. I regard the paintings as a series of sketches. What begins as study and prayer manifests in copper and acrylic on panel. I then carve by hand an exact copy of the original painting in reverse so that the resulting print is in the correct orientation. After inking the wood surface, I lay acid free paper over it and run the print through an intaglio press, thereby producing the image. I usually run an edition of some thirty or so prints. I choose the most consistent images from the edition to begin the next step in the process. It was necessary to hand-color the woodcut prints to produce at least ten images that are identical. Once all thirteen illustrations were produced I designed the text. I used a fire crown Hebrew font that I created to typeset all of the text from I Samuel. The Midrash that accompanies the scriptural text was synthesized from a multitude of sources and typeset in Modem Hebrew font to stand apart from the words of the Prophet. The edition was printed on archival acid free paper and bound with cotton thread. The cover boards are made of archival stock and covered with calf leather. The title is crafted in raised IIebrew letters, and a copper repousse plate is inlaid on the back cover. Copper corner guards finish the binding. Each book is nested in a cedar case and rubbed with Tung oil for a lustrous finish. The lid is decorated with the title carved in Hebrew. The interior is lined with luxurious cotton velvet; a silk satin ribbon is attached to gently lift the book from the case; brass hardware and wool felt detail the construction (see photo on next page).
When I first began to express these concepts in my work, I incorporated Hebrew and Midrash with the style and palate that I had so far developed. I mixed symbolic iconography and calligraphy with straightforward representation. I consider this period representative of my new-found Jewish identity, informing and transforming my work.
My most recent efforts are the most overtly crypto-Jewish so far. In one of my more recent series, I draw inspiration from an imagined community of crypto-Jewish pioneers constructed from a variety of sources concerning the Sephardic Diaspora in the Middle East and the New World, as well as histories of the New Mexican frontier.
In another series, I reintroduce calaveras as a metaphor for times past as the Book of Ester is staged in a Meso-American construct rich in Midrash and utilizing archaic scripts and stylistic devices. In both series, a further dimension exploring the fleeting nature of temporal existence and the concept of Tikkun is expressed in the application of the medium. It seems that now my emerging crypto¬self is informing my Judaism but, either way, it is the work that draws me on.
Dan Riis Grife lives and works from his studio in central Texas. He exhibits nationally and his books are collected by such institutions as Widener Library at Harvard University and the Library of Congress. His work may be viewed at www.dangrife.com The books are available through www.vampandtramp.com. He may be contacted at email@example.com