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How to Draw Like an Observant Jew

Jacqueline NichollsFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

In my talk I encourage you to really look at the world through different eyes. Be an observant Jew and see how it impacts what you see.

Jacqueline is a visual artist and Jewish educator. She co-ordinates the Art Studio and other Arts & Culture events at JW3, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline’s art has been exhibited in solo shows and significant contemporary Jewish Art group shows in the UK, USA and Israel. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought.

My name is Jacqueline Nicholls, I am an artist, a Jewish educator and I am an observant Jew and when I say Observant I’m not talking about what goes into my mouth? Do I eat kosher? What hechsher? Do I keep Shabbat? That’s between me and God. When I say observant I mean to observe as in to see, to look. I am drawn to the visual, pun intended. My engagement to the world is mainly through the eye I am a visual artist and I like to make things with a strong visual presence and I understand ideas by picturing them and so it makes sense that so should be in the world of Torah. And I am going to speak about this interdependent relationship, between the hand, the eye and the head, the drawing the seeing, the thinking and how they are all part of my engagement with the world. Now this point of this sort of talk I should probably show you a photo of a childhood, family photo of me as a sweet little girl drawing very seriously away or perhaps an old childhood drawing.  But I probably wasn’t that very sweet as a little girl and those childhood drawings I don’t know where they are today, landfill probably, and that’s ok it doesn’t matter because drawing is not about the drawing that is made but rather it’s the world that you’re drawn into. When God created the world God did not listen to the first day and heard that it was good. God did not touch the second day and it felt good. Neither did God smell or taste the rest of creation but rather God looked and saw what God’s creativity and decided that it was good. Looking, seeing leads to an active evaluation because after all observant Jews are judgmental. Drawing is a way of slowing down the seeing. When you draw something it challenges you, do you really understand the world out there? Do you really understand the relationship that’s going on? Do you really know the patterns? What are your assumptions? What are you just taking for granted?  If you can draw it, it means that you can understand it and that is drawing as what is perceived. In the Parshat Re’eh the Children of Israel are standing by two mountains and the border about to enter the land. God through Moses instructs the people, Re’eh to see and then make a choice of how to behave, choose life, choose death, blessing or curse, the two mountains are echoing this choice. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that this scene is not just about what is in front of them but they are to remember that everything they have known and experienced about God. Seeing is not just about what is happening in the present but is to be mindful and to bring those memories of the past and to make a decision. Taking this idea one step further is something in the writings of art critic John Berger, who describes, what does it mean to carefully look? That which can be done with a pencil in hand and with drawing, drawing is not a split second photo but rather you put one mark down on a piece of paper and it will lead you in another piece of time to another mark and another mark and so your drawing is a trace of your decisions in time. If I look at my drawings and what comes from my hands, I can see my thinking. Drawing is not just about observing the view, what is out there. It is sometimes actually about what is going on in here, sometimes something bothers me, I don’t understand and so I need to draw it, to externalise it, to look at it and say, “yes, it’s like that”. I’m going to untangle it and see what it is and those ideas emerge and nonlinear connections can be made. This is how I form my opinion, this is how I form my viewpoint. That’s seeing and drawing as a way of thinking. But there is another side to the visual, a side that is not always understood or fully appreciated in Jewish life and as an artist who engages a lot with traditional Jewish texts I’m often confronted with an accusation that we Jews are actually a people of the ear. We are not the eye, the ear, the word, not the eye, the image, we descend from Abraham, the iconoclast. Well apart from the fact that our brains have a complex way of processing sensations in a multi-sensory perception and that that’s how we experience the world and that it’s truly impossible to isolate one’s sense and apart from the fact that the command not to make graven images is really about prohibiting idolatry, worshipping one God and has nothing to do with the plastic arts. Apart from the fact that a lack of the visual art tradition has more to do with social, political realities about who was in the guild who got to be a member in the guild and who patrons were and also what sorts of art forms are relegated as high art and what was just relegated as handicraft. Apart from all of that it simply isn’t’ true. We Jews have a very rich visual heritage in how we behave as Jews, we just don’t call it an art culture. For instance, a traditional page of Talmud or any Torah text has developed a very particular layout instantly recognisable to those who are familiar with learning and therefore, it can be used within an artwork to make subtle illusions to a traditional text. I do not know how a Tallit came to have stripes on it, black, blue or inter the weave of the fabric, it just does. But that is the form a Jewish prayer garment has evolved and so when I put black stripes on a white garment I am making a connection with the world of prayer. As an artist I can play with these forms, manipulate them in these objects of Jewish life and use them as vocabulary and they are hints, codes to those who know, they’re illusions. But sometimes it is important to be very deliberate and provocative. Making a strong image that holds the gaze of the viewer, they should look and see something that is difficult to think about but impossible to look away and there are some very problematic parts of our traditional Jewish life and texts that are very difficult to think about. One critic of my paper cut series that explores Rabbinic misogyny did concede that they are beautifully made and they were compelling for him to look at but he disagreed with them. He was uncomfortable by what they were making him think about and what they were portraying and he didn’t like that. My job was done. The Biblical prophets knew the power of the spectacle, when to be subtle and when to be dramatic. They were performance artists, they used word strong imagery and theatre, be it bringing fire down from heaven, wearing sack cloth or cutting up a female murder victim and sending her dismembered limbs around the tribes in order to give a message about society’s morality. Visual spectacle is not be worshipped but it’s there to change people’s minds and thinking. Our traditional Jewish texts are full of visual metaphors and as someone drawn to the visual these clues in the language jump out at me, they affect my thinking and I make connections. These two drawings are from my Daf Yomi drawing project where I am drawing a page of Talmud a day. In Brachot it discusses that we are surrounded by demons identified by bird footprints that can be found in the dust surrounding one’s bed. The following page describes God’s anger, that God is restrained by God’s tefillin, and it lasts for the duration of the time it takes for a cockerel to stand on one leg, the birds footprint again. The same visual language that is used for a demon and God’s anger and thus a connection can be made. And at the moment I am drawing the Talmud, following this Daf Yomi cycle, I want to understand what is in this book, this behemoth of Jewish learning. The Talmud, which women have not traditionally been a vocal part of the conversation, although we are talked about and not always in the most complimentary of ways. There is much to think about and in order for me to think I need to have a pencil, a brush, a pen or even a scalpel in my hand, I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for. This is the first drawing of this project, the opening of Brachot asked when is it time to say the evening Shemah? When does the night begin? And so I drew the act of saying the Shemah? I don’t know if you have ever tried to draw yourself saying the Shema and looking in the mirror but you tend to have your eye open when you do so. And so I was looking at myself with my eye open and then I realised that’s what this project is about. I am not going to close my eyes when I think about my relationship to God, I am not going to close my eyes when I engage with the text but rather I am to learn it with my eyes fully open. Open to the text, open to the world, open mind to new perceptions and to confronting my own internal prejudices. Take it all in, evaluate, question assumptions and to think and to add the visual to the conversation. That voice that comes when the eye, the hand and the head are all connected. Observant Jews really ought to notice everything and accept nothing blindly. I am Jacqueline Nicholls and I urge you all to be more observant. Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License