A few weeks ago I had the chance to sit down and talk with Joel Shapiro, the artist behind the images in Mishkan HaNefesh. We met in his bright, airy studio in Long Island City to talk about his work.
Hara: Joel, can you tell me a little bit about why you were interested in being part of Mishkan HaNefesh? From the outset of the project you expressed excitement at the prospect of your involvement.
Joel: How could I say no? I loved the challenge of coming up with meaningful imagery to match such deep content. Visual art can be tricky – the goal is not simply to illustrate, but, in this case, to create images which correspond to profound and historically significant prayers and material. My role here is that of mediator – attempting to capture the meaning I see in the material, and translate it into form.
Hara: Could you talk about your process? How did you prepare yourself to craft a visual response to the content of Mishkan HaNefesh?
Joel: I tried to read the prayers carefully in order to understand the meaning and value of each word and image throughout the text. I wanted to connect the prayers’ implications to abstract form through woodcut — the medium we decided on together when you first approached me.
Hara: And why woodcuts? Why did you choose that format?
Joel: Woodcut is a very unusual process, one that involves creating a kind of visual typeface from scratch. I felt that I needed a kind of looseness to do this. So I began to draw on paper and then cut the paper out. Sometimes I wasn’t even drawing; I would just use the scissors and find a form that connected to the content or feeling of the prayer. Basically, I was cutting paper to find the form, a technique I have used in the past. (I don’t think I was influenced too much by the Matisse exhibition that was happening at the Museum of Modern Art at the same time, but you can’t cut paper and not talk about Matisse!) Then I would take the paper, scan it, and try to transfer the image to the wood block. In the beginning, I didn’t know exactly how I would transfer the paper image to the block, but ended up taking a low-tech Xerox of the image and then using acetone to transfer the image from the Xerox to the wood. From there, I would cut the form into the wood to be printed. Once I had an initial print, I would then reduce and eliminate any excess. The challenge here is to decide how much wood you want to remove – do you want the image to function independently of any kind of frame or background?
I’m really excited by how the woodcuts came out. Even though in some cases it feels antithetical to the feel of the metal type used in the rest of the book [to set the text throughout the book], the materials are comfortable together.
Hara: One of the things we, the editors, love about the use of wood as part of the materials, and part of the reason we were excited about your choice to create the art as wood block prints, is that wood has so much rich metaphoric weight in our Jewish traditions – Eitz Chayim, the Torah is the tree of life, the tree in the Garden of Eden, and so on.
Joel: I thought of that too. I was also moved by the connection between wood and the natural world. The typeface, however, does not share that same connection to nature, creating a kind of balance or conversation within the text.
Woodcut also allows you to use the grain in interesting ways.
Hara: Could you talk more about the choice of wood?
Joel: I mostly used cherry, walnut and mahogany. Cherry is very precise and prints softly, while walnut has a more pronounced and often wavy grain. Sometimes I wanted one sort of wood that gave the cut a complexity and texture. I would pick a piece of wood based on what the grain would mean in relation to the print.
Precision was critical to this project. The dimensions of the page made for a very narrow space in which to work. I was afraid because woodcarving is very dangerous; if you make a mistake it is relatively fatal to the image and you may have to start from scratch.
Hara: Could you talk about the choice of the blue color, in part because at the beginning of the planning process, we were talking about different colors, and we hadn’t settled on blue ourselves yet in terms of the overall design and typesetting of the book.
Joel: Were you talking about red at one point?
Hara: Yes, we were talking about red, maroon, or a purple.
Joel: Blue is so lively and it so prevalent in nature. It is the color of water and the sky, and functions as a contrast to black. I really like red, but red always has some negative connotations for me. And red and black, in a Jewish book, is problematic historically.
Hara: And that particular shade of blue is such a unique shade.
Joel: Blue has a sort of life reference. I did a prior print where we used multiple colors and I did not like it as much, I really like the use of one color – the blue – along with the black and white. The blue that I used is full of energy. It’s basically ultramarine.
Hara: Yes. It’s very close to the color Klein blue, right?
Joel: Oh yes, everyone says it’s Klein blue, which is ultramarine with a reddish tint. Yves Klein was an important, radical artist who used a lot of pure pigment. And he seems to have co-opted blue as a color, so I hear it all the time; I’m used to it. I think you’d find that specific blue in lots of paintings. Ultramarine is a synthetic pigment that was developed as a replacement for lapis lazuli, which is a real pigment from the natural world.
Hara: We had given you phrases for each of the services upon which to base or anchor the art. Was there one piece that was particularly challenging for you in terms of how to respond artistically?
Joel: All of the phrases presented challenges. In order to properly understand these conceptual themes, you really have to be a Talmudic scholar (which I’m far from). Consequently, though I tried to broadly understand the intent of the phrases, it was not easy.
I did the first image for Rosh HaShanah based on a connection to the shofar, and you thought it was too scary. And then not only was it scary, but I’d also have to spend a year carving it… There were just so many lines, it was an intimidating task! And so then I came up with another image that we all liked better, but it seemed to be maybe too anatomical.
Hara: With the human heart in it?
Joel: Yes, the heart was a little too sacred.
Hara: I loved the heart imagery. It’s still in there, but now it’s much more subtle.
Joel: Then the second version wasn’t robust enough, and I thought that the blowing of the shofar was such a unique aspect of the holiday – I wanted to convey that. Having listened and listened to it over and over, I initially tried to do something with the actual sequence of blasts – to incorporate that idea in some way with the image. But I wanted to have the sense of its far reach. I thought the sacred heart was just too tender and fragile. So I thought the revised version was much more robust. It still has the subtle heart image in it but better conveys the sense of the shofar blasts.
However, they were all tough to do; there wasn’t one that wasn’t tougher than the others.
Hara: Another image that you redid a few times was the piece for Eilah Ezkarah, the one that’s like a tear or a cry of pain.
Joel: That was a relatively easy piece to conceive of, and then I changed and altered it.
Approaching these prints, I didn’t have a visual preconception of what to do, and I didn’t have an agenda. I would read the prayer and then fall into a more suspended place, and draw it, cut it, and refine it. Cutting, which is a very good way to work, has an immediacy to it – there was not a lot of downtime during the process.
That specific image was hard to create, and then I switched it around. It was like a tear of sorrow and misery, and not just misery but also a kind of brutality. I think that the way you cut the wood is significant in terms of each form. It affects what you actually do. I kept this in mind when I created the other one image, which depicts the little gate: the black and blue one [the frontispiece in the Rosh HaShanah volume].
Hara: That’s the opening image for Rosh HaShanah.
Joel: Yes, I think that’s really good. And that was about trying to find a gate or an expanse and flipping the wood around. The change in the wood grain reflects this, it’s what it would be like to literally open the window or door. I tried not to be too fussy about it and to stay away from illustration.
Hara: Do you have a favorite?
Joel: I really don’t, I like them all. I was also surprised by how refreshing they were to me. I like the two frontispieces. I love the one for Rosh HaShanah. But I couldn’t redo that again; once you find out what you’re doing, it’s impossible to replicate.
Hara: So I’m going to ask you to help explain one thing because I’m getting a lot of questions about the edging, people are asking: why does the artist do that? What is that there in the margins? I understand the power of it visually, I love it, and I understand how it’s done. But I think that the question is more about what is the visual meaning of keeping it there as opposed to having a clean edge or no edge. Why make that choice?
Joel: I think the edge functions as a window and as a frame. With a frame, you could have a clean edge, but here I was able to establish the edge. I chose a block of wood, and then I decided what size I wanted the image to be. I then proceeded to maintain the size of the image while adding some edges that I wanted to keep rough. The frontispiece for Rosh HaShanah purposefully has no edge, I wanted to differentiate it from the page. I wasn’t interested in making an icon or a single iconic image; I wanted the piece to give some sense of where the image came from. To accomplish this, I let some residual wood into the white area, because I felt that that this added meaning to it by making the image less grand and giving it a certain humility. This is not the icon of Rosh HaShanah by any means. Perhaps humility is not even the correct word to describe this.
Hara: I like the idea of humility, but isn’t it also about anti-perfectionism?
Joel: Yes. The process and the whole project were really important and meaningful to me. It wasn’t about coming up with an absolute image; there’s nothing absolute. The image leaves you with the sense that it could have been different. It could have been something else; it’s made by hand. Somebody’s thought about the whole thing. And I think the edge helps — it amplifies the meaning. This is a relatively small page, and I had a certain boundary established in the beginning of the project that I rebelled against. I’m not sure if that had much to do with the printer, and it took me some time to work beyond that. Does that help?
Hara: Yes, that helps a lot.
Joel: The edge really frames the image, allowing for greater concentration in its viewing.. Seeing just the image in the center of the page is too much. You really need the edges on these images in order to emphasize their content. As a result of seeing its source in the edging, you know that it comes from a block of wood, and this reinforces a certain type of reading. Did you have this response?
Hara: Yes, that’s good. Do you have any overall reflections now that the process is behind you?
Joel: I was anxious because I hadn’t seen the prints in the finished book until now. It’s one thing to do a print and then another to see the print. And, by then, it’s in someone else’s hands. I did see the layout, and I was impressed. But I still didn’t know about the overall quality and what they looked like in the book. A book is an object; it’s really thrilling to see it. I think it’s exciting though…I feel that I barely tapped the subject; there’s so much more to do. My work on this project has expanded my own understanding of these concepts.
Hara: You talked earlier about your grandchildren seeing it.
Joel: Yes, I can’t wait for them to see it.
Hara: There’s a sense of legacy.
Joel: Yes, it’s deeply meaningful. I was raised in a very secular family. We had Passover and Passover Seders, but it was not a religious family to say the least.
Hara: Did you grow up in Manhattan?
Joel: No, I grew up in Queens, Sunnyside, a mile and a half from here. And my family moved further out.
Hara: We’re very grateful to Jo Carole Lauder for connecting us with you.
Joel: I’m grateful that she did. She’s smart and certainly knows what’s challenging. She has a big vision; I thought it was great; I’m happy to have done it.
Joel Shapiro (born 1941, New York City) is an artist of international prominence. He has executed more than thirty commissions and publicly sited sculptures in major Asian, European and North American cities and has been the subject of more than 160 solo exhibitions and retrospectives internationally. He is represented by the Pace Gallery. His CV is available here.