Visionary Art: A Traveler in the Torah
BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH: AN ILLUMINATED TORAH COMMENTARY
by Ilene Winn-Lederer
Pomegranate Communications, 2009
One doesn’t so much read Between Heaven and Earth as wander through it, gazing at the sights. It beckons you into an enchanted realm spanning 120 pages of now familiar, now phantasmagorical, full-color drawings. Or call them collages, for they are more like eclectic, visual midrashim than illustrations of the Torah’s 54 weekly portions. And like any collection of midrashim, this book is as much about the vision, values, and concerns of its creator as it is an exploration of the text.
At root, Between Heaven and Earth is an adventure. I found myself approaching each new page as if it were in one of Walter Wick’s I Spy books. First, I would gaze at the whole, the gestalt, and get a sense of what was there, what the page wants to suggest, and where I was in relation to it. Then the hunt would begin to discover the pieces that make up the whole. While Wick gives you a hint of some of the things that are hidden in plain sight in his elaborate compositions, with Ilene Winn-Lederer, you are on your own.
Well, not really. In the back of the book you can find something like “answers.” That is, it is there that Winn-Lederer translates her images for us. But it feels like cheating if you flip to the back too soon. You need to spend time with each illustration first, and let it open up to you, and you to it, before peeking behind the artist’s curtain to see how it was crafted and what the author intends it to mean.
There are some common tropes running throughout the book: masks representing God’s presence; expressive hands open, raised, suppliant, or defiant, with fingers closed and fingers spread apart; sizes of things all out of proportion; and bodies transparent, merging, and morphing so that boundaries are transcended, identities both expanded and confused.
Winn-Lederer hand-letters in both English and Hebrew the text from the Torah portion that captured her attention and anchors the images so that the letters are as much a part of the artform, as much a part of the midrash, as the drawing.
Her work is reminiscent of Ben Shahn and Leonard Baskin, whom she acknowledges (among others) as welcome influences. And while the drawings are captivating, what I loved most about this book is what is perhaps most unintentional. As much as Winn-Lederer is a seasoned artist, she is a novice student of Torah. She appears to be largely self-taught in matters of Hebrew, Torah, midrash, and kabbalah. Her biography speaks only of her training in art, not in Judaics. And this coupling of uneven rungs of experience and competence gives this book its power.
Visionary art, as defined by the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, is “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” Judaism is blessed these days with what we might call Jewish visionary artists, that is, individuals schooled in the ways of art but self-taught in the ways of Jewish learning, midrash, and expression. It is here — in this medium of mixed sophistication — that this book excels.
Winn-Lederer spent five years researching the history, images, and commentaries (both classic and modern) of the narratives of the Torah. She did a credible job uncovering much of the basics and some of the more arcane traditions. Still, her status as a learning novitiate is evident in some of the ways the various images seem not thoroughly blended together on the page, and in some technical mistakes that creep in: an imprecision in distinguishing between visually similar Hebrew letters, and in one case (page 47) spelling a key word incorrectly.
But these are part of the charm, and the message, of the book. For Winn-Lederer is wonderfully emblematic of today’s passionate, engaged, self-guided Jews who wander through the wilderness of our texts accompanied by an armload of biblical Baedekers and midrashic Michelins, crafting their own journeys through, and interpretations of, our tradition. This book reminds us (for those who might need reminding) that the mediation of our past into messages for the present is happening as much outside the academy, congregation, and federation as inside. For those who live in, create, and are captivated by such mediation, this book is a celebration. It teaches us that together with the voices of classically trained rabbis, scholars, educators, and other learned Jews, the vision of this group of visionary Jews will shape the culture of tomorrow’s Judaism.