Though Susan Schwalb says she has never thought of herself as a religious person, she identifies with her Jewishness, even if her artwork doesn’t carry specific Jewish themes.
But some of her work emerges from personal experience. Creation #6 (left) covers a theme that has fascinated artists for hundreds of years. Clear references to the tablets of Moses are central to the artwork. As her inspiration, she points to the illuminated medieval manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was composed in Barcelona and carried into exile by a Jewish family in 1492 until it reached its final home in the Bosnian capital.
On her website, she describes the Creation series: “In general, I have stayed close to the symbolic imagery of this manuscript. Unlike familiar Christian portrayals of the creation, the image of God is not represented. But sun, moon, and earth are clearly rendered by circular forms; I interpret the arc that encloses the picture as a symbol of the universe. The drawing within the large circle, though abstract, was intended to suggest something of land, sea, and sky.”
A series of works on paper and wood entitled Judean Desert is tied directly to her Jewish identity. First was a visit to Israel, when she drove extensively through the desert, in and out of sandstorms. A second influence was a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the training ground for rabbis of the Conservative denomination. While examining illuminated manuscripts, she says she realized that the spacing guidelines were done in silverpoint. These grids counterpointed with memories of the desert to become the basis for the series, including Sacred Land #3 (below).
Schwalb has continued to work with silverpoint, an ancient technique of drawing with silver on a prepared surface, which was commonly practiced during the Renaissance. She has been using the technique since 1974 and it has been undergoing something of a revival today. Her Strata #227,1998, 9x9in, silver/aluminum/copperpoint on clay coated paper, was just used as the cover for The Luminous Trace, a just-published book on the history of metalpoint drawing by Thea Burns.
In an interview, Schwalb said she sees herself as an “experimenting person.” “Things change my work,” she says. “Things that I experience as a person. Things I read, see in a museum. Something strikes me, a color, an image, and it creeps into my work. I don’t always know where it comes from. Each work leads to another. Sometimes it involves a series and I make one from another.”
Schwalb grew up in New York City and had two residencies in Israel in 1994 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, and the Tel Aviv Artists’ Studios. “I am a spiritual person,” she says, “and I do believe in God but I am not terribly “observant”, although I do celebrate all the Jewish holidays and go to Sabbath services on an irregular basis.”
However she practices her religion, her artwork stands for itself. She cannot point out specifically what is “Jewish” in her work, but doesn’t hold back that her Jewishness is part of who she is. “I don’t start out any work with Jewish subject matter,” she says. “I identify myself as a Jewish person, as a woman, as an artist, as a feminist.”
Schwalb’s work is included in collections in museums around the world. Her Creation #6 was included in the JAE’s The Art of the High Holidays DVD. For more information on Susan Schwalb, visit her website, www.susanschwalb.com.