Why do we read?
We read for pleasure. We read to find an expression of our own experience. We read to better understand ourselves. We read to learn about far away lands and peoples, lives unfamiliar to ours, experiences wholly different. We read to feel less alone.
And, “we read because we’re a people of the book,” adds Lynne Avadenka, a visual artist and recent Covenant Foundation grantee. “The fact is, what keeps Jewish people together is a book that we read every week. And every week you can find something new in this book,” she asserts.
“Reading is a radical act,” Avadenka continues. “Think about it…letters are these squiggly things that our eyes and brains have figured out how decode. Our familiarity with words breaks down the wall that might otherwise keep people from getting up close to art.”
The kind of art that Avadenka is referring to here is book art—art that demands a viewer’s intimate attention to the printed word. While many of us have stood in front of a larger-than-life abstract painting and wondered how it was supposed to make us feel, Avadenka’s work provides a point of entry for the viewer. Her limited edition pieces are often inspired by a single word, image, or classic text, which is then explored through printmaking techniques to create affecting portraits of language and ideas.
“Sometimes I choose a text because I’ve noticed something poetic, or the text has become visual to me. This happens through reading,” Avadenka explains. With “Root Words: An Alphabetic Exploration,” an accordion book that Avadenka released in 2001, she was struck by how similar the Hebrew and Arabic languages are, both built on a foundation of three-letter words. Within those linguistic similarities, Avadenka learned, lays deeply embedded meaning.
“When I started paying attention, I realized that the word rachamim (compassion) is the same in each language and has the same root word—rehem, or “womb.” This discovery set me off on the project,” she explained. Avadenka invited calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya to collaborate with her, and together they created a book of art focusing on seven words packed with meaning for both Jewish and Arab cultures, and really, for all people: language, human being, trust, student, book, wisdom, sky.
The experience of creating “Root Words” then prompted Avadenka to explore other ways in which Judaism and Islam overlap. For “By a Thread,” she imagined a conversation between the biblical Queen Esther and Scheherazade, the Persian queen of legend who told stories for 1,001 nights to save her own life. “The overlaps were really remarkable in terms of the literary frame elements,” Avadenka says. “There’s a story within a story within a story. There’s the idea of two women who are each trapped, and who each use language to escape from that trap.” “By a Thread” may be viewed in a plethora of ways, depending on how the book is held and at which angle.
Seeing an issue from multiple sides is the kind of endeavor many artists intrinsically appreciate, but perhaps one that still proves difficult for many of us as well. Sometimes we need help; a gentle push to see what we hadn’t initially noticed, to read between the lines, so to speak.
And while Avadenka is hesitant to describe her own work as purposefully didactic, she accepts that artists have a role in creating a dialogue. “Artists are about asking the questions,” she says. “It’s a conversation. We don’t necessarily have the answers, but we pose the questions. You have to ask to know and learn.”
Avadenka’s latest questions brought her back to her cultural and religious roots—and to Israel—once again, when she traveled to Kibbutz Cabri in the western Galilee this past fall to work and study at the Gottesman Etching Center. At Cabri, with a grant from the Covenant Foundation, Avadenka began working on a project inspired by the life of Rachel Bluwstein, the seminal Zionist poet of pre-state Israel.
Many know of Rahel’s work and perhaps some even memorized the melodies set to her poetry and sang them at Jewish camps during childhood summers—Zemer Nugeh and Kinneret, to name just a couple. But with this project, Avadenka is hoping to shed new light on the poetess. “Sometimes we need to reexamine people who have been right in front of us,” she says. “My intention is to create another way in which to experience Rahel’s work: combinations of word and image, of text and visual response; to create art that can be “read” on multiple levels.”
With a focus on Rahel, Avadenka continues her artistic exploration of the lives of noteworthy Jewish women. In addition to the project on Esther and Scheherazade, she also produced a limited edition book dedicated to a Jewish female poet from 10th century Spain. Now, using archives, landscape, poetry and the literal map of Rahel’s life in Israel for inspiration, Avadenka’s focus on the poet will open up a new chapter of work in which she’ll consider the contributions that Jewish women have made to literature and culture during the days just preceding the founding of the State of Israel.
At a time when it seems impossible to parse the land from the politics, Avadenka’s attention to Rahel’s work will likely do just that. “Much of the poetry of her time was about conquering the land,” she explains. “But Rahel’s poetry wasn’t about conquering. It was about the beauty of the place and what she found there.”
Indeed, though much time has passed since Rahel immersed herself in the beauty of the Israeli landscape, it is still just as striking. “Usually my work is not affected by landscape,” Avadenka shares, “but once I arrived at Cabri, and took in the views of the Galilee, I just began pointing and shooting with my camera and getting all of these great compositions. And so I started looking at the landscape as an unfolding scroll; it was unrolling in front of me.” She explains that the project is motivated in no small part by the idea of mapping Rahel’s life, and making a visual comment on the setting in which Rahel lived.
And in addition to mapping Rahel’s life through her art, Avadenka’s project goals include designing an educational guide that will serve as a companion piece to her prints and will include historical information about Rahel, allowing for yet another entry point into Rahel’s art and her ideas. She is planning to create a two-sided accordion book; one side will present Rahel’s poetry while the other will present a timeline of her life. The book will also offer study questions, the kind that prompt thinking about how Rahel made the choices she did, to “be 19 years old, and leave everything you know to move toward something you strongly believe in,” Avadenka explains. “How did Rahel understand the ideas and concepts of homeland, home and land? How did she explore and express notions of identity, independence, femininity, and individuality? These are some of the fundamental questions that will guide this project,” she writes.
Avadenka’s exhibition is slated to be on display at the Yeshiva University Museum in January of 2016. As of right now, she’s planning to install a wall of artifacts that will help put Rahel’s life in context for visitors, along with an installation of the pieces she created while at Cabri. She might also add a bookcase or cabinet of curiosities to the exhibit, a mixed media piece that would allow visitors more opportunity to immerse deeply into the artistic detritus of Rahel’s life.
Avadenka’s art invites one to enter into it, to turn the pages of a book, to get up close to a large-scale installation, to pore over the curiosities in a cabinet. And Rahel’s poetry invites the reader to enter into “it” too, though in Rahel’s case, “it” definitively means the land of Israel, which can at once be both beautiful and painful.
In Zemer Nugeh Rahel writes,
“This earth is much and in it there are many paths
meeting narrowly, separating forever.
A man asks, but his legs too weak
He will not find what he has lost”
Rahel’s poetry reveals her deep love of the soil and sea of Eretz Yisrael but also, her melancholy and longing, her knowledge that nothing lasts and our days are few.
Today, we know these same struggles, wrestle with these same questions, and marvel over the same beauty of the land that Rahel marveled over a century ago. Perhaps though, by asking questions and seeking answers, by turning books into art and immersing ourselves in the landscape of our heritage, and indeed, by accessing the new Jewish texts of artists like Avadenka, we can mitigate some of the struggle and longing. And perhaps in this way, we might find some of what has been lost.
By Adina Kay-Gross for The Covenant Foundation