Interpreting Torah with art
Artists Nancy Current, left, and Robin Atlas at Zack Gallery. (photo by Linda Lando)
Visual Midrash: Plagues and Visions, which opened at Zack Gallery on April 7, features the work of Seattleites Robin Atlas and Nancy Current, the only West Coast artists creating in the genre of visual midrash. The show is the culmination of a four-year collaboration that started in 2012.
“We met through the Jewish Art Salon in New York,” said Current. “Even though we both live in Seattle, we didn’t know each other at that point.”
Atlas elaborated: “The president of the Jewish Art Salon sent us both an introductory email. She said we probably knew each other already, but we didn’t – and we lived only 10 minutes apart.”
“Robin was about to open a new show in L.A. and she brought her works to my studio,” said Current. “I was amazed. There was so much beauty and thought behind it all. That’s what visual midrash is all about. It requires two elements: the clarity of story and the visual beauty of the artist’s interpretation. I looked at Robin’s art and I said to myself, I’m going to work with her forever.”
They started working together, but their chosen genre – interpreting Torah through visual art – is not widely known. “We didn’t have a ready audience in the West,” Current explained, “not like in New York. We needed to build it, so we started teaching adult classes two years ago. The classes include the texts from the Torah, introduced by a Torah instructor, and a visual component, taught by an art instructor.”
“We would do slide shows, video presentations, and the students would have a chance to create their own art,” Atlas said. “Linda Lando, the Zack Gallery director, facilitated the first class we did in Vancouver earlier this year.”
For the current show, the artists explored the theme of the 10 plagues. “We were drawn to the story,” said Current.
Although each artist works with different media – Atlas with textiles and Current with glass and paper – their creative vision is similar. Their symbolic abstracts mesh extremely well, as if the images belong together, buzzing with the same esthetic sense and the same muted elegance, complementing each other to tell the same tale.
While the Vancouver Jewish community was introduced to Atlas when she exhibited at the Zack in mid-2014, Current is a new name for most local art appreciators.
“I always drew and painted as a child but I can’t say that I had the conscious idea to be an artist,” Current recalled. “I grew up in Seattle, in an old house with stained-glass windows. That undoubtedly affected my later fascination with glass. I learned to blow glass when I was about 24, but gave that up in favor of painting on stained-glass.”
She explained, “Glass is different from other mediums because light passes through it (transmitted light) instead of bouncing off [of it], like with paper or canvas (reflected light). Transmitted light, especially through colored glass, connects to a person’s emotional centre more directly than reflected light. It also has a spiritual aspect. Think of all those stained-glass windows in churches and synagogues. That is important to my Jewish work.”
Although she has worked in other visual genres, Jewish themes absorb her artistic passion now.
“Jewish art has gradually replaced my other work, life drawing and landscape, because it is much more meaningful,” she said. “Visual midrash is the most meaningful Jewish art of all. It requires a lot of study and thought, and those are things I highly value about living a Jewish life.”
Current pointed to two particular influences on her development as an artist.
“The first was studying at Pilchuck Glass School,” she said. “The school attracted many artists early in the history of the American studio glass movement. I studied there with the amazing British glass painter Patrick Reyntiens. He is 90 years old now and still a good friend.
“The second was finding the Jewish Art Salon (JAS) in New York. Becoming a fellow in the JAS has led me to friendships with several Jewish artists who have been doing visual midrash for years. They have helped a lot.”
Current doesn’t concentrate on making a living with her art. Her main concern is to share it with as many people as possible. “Of course, eventually I want to sell my work,” she said, “but not until I’ve had a chance to show it in several exhibitions. The purpose of doing my work is to cause people to think about their Jewish heritage.”
Current and Atlas’ show runs until May 8.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].