THREE YEARS AGO I was flown to upstate New York. The reason for this was that I got my dream job. I used to be a Messianic Rabbi. I did this for 13 years. I was not a good Rabbi. I did learn a lot though. And all that time – those 13 years, plus another seven before that – I was obsessed with the Bible. All my artwork stemmed from it. And I hoped and prayed and connived and manipulated and pleaded and worked harder than I should have to get any job illustrating the Bible, or at least, parts of it. All I wanted was to be able to meld together MY view of the Bible and MY art.
IT NEVER HAPPENED of course, because wanting something too much can be personally dangerous and damaging. In my case, I felt for decades like I was banging my head against the wall. I just couldn’t get anyone interested in my view of Scripture. But I continued to stubbornly work on it anyway
FAST FORWARD TO 2005, when we lost the congregation, all our friends, our community, my job, and any security that we had, and this with a wife, four children, a mortgage and two cars. That was a bad year. But we made it. I hustled like I never had before, and God took care of us. And then, I got my job teaching Middle School Art.
DURING THAT BAD year I received a call from Daniah Greenberg from Syracuse, New York. She yapped like Tigger, a happy, motivation machine. I was in a deep depression at the time, and I was cynical, angry, self-loathing and foul-mouthed. She said that she had seen my original print of The Word Became Flesh (which can only be found on this website in the Purple pages under “Notecards”). The prints of this piece sold out many years ago. She had seen it some 15 years previous, and since then her vision was to have a Bible illustrated in my style.
GOD IS STRANGE. I spent decades wanting to illustrate the Bible; Mrs. Greenberg spent decades dreaming of a Bible illustrated by me. It came while I was at my lowest: broke, tired, disappointed, disgruntled and I even spent a few days suicidal. The Dreamweaver wove together two disparate dreams.
AND SO THE CONTRACT was worked out, and I was hired to Illustrate the Bible. My family awaited the first check not knowing if it would actually pan out. I had doggedly continued drawing, working on my illustration eye. But I had no feedback from illustrators, from professional artists; no critique from anyone who was better than myself so that I could improve my work.
MRS. GREENBERG NOT ONLY hired me to do the illustrations, but she worked it out so that I would be able to photograph dozens of people that I could use for the illustrations (with release forms included). And then, amazingly, she worked it out so that I was able to be tutored for one week by a painter and Professor of Fine Art in Syracuse University. His name is Jerome Witkin. He used to be called, “America’s premier narrative figurative painter”, information that Mrs. Greenberg did not share with me. So, I went on the internet to see if he was any good. I was astounded at the complexity and emotional impact of his work, and how absolutely uncompromising he was in his vision.
I HAD BEGUN TWO or three illustrations before I arrived in New York. One of them was Daniel in the Lion’s den, and another was Moses, a sort of composite piece that was created in MY STYLE; that’s what they were after, right?
AND THEN, after all the oo’ing and ahh’ing from everyone involved in the project, and my feeling that the pieces were done, perfected and just what they should be, came my meeting with Jerome. I awaited his feedback breathlessly. Even though everyone said they were amazing, I actually wanted him to tear my work apart. I had heard ooing and ahhing for 20 years, but couldn’t get a job illustrating the Bible and Bible related projects, so I reasoned that I must be doing something wrong. But what it was I couldn’t tell.
BEFORE LOOKING AT my illustrations, Jerome looked at the drawings in my sketchbook. He said that most of them were “blonde drawings”. This was the very beginning of him opening my eyes to what was missing from my art, and the changing of my life and opening of my eyes. Blonde drawings lack a clear light source. It was all about light. The effects of light on the subjects, the way the light lays on the forms, the light that effects everything in the illustration in the same way, from the same direction, with the same intensity. Jerome spent the entire day with me talking about light, checking out books from the Syracuse Library for me, making drawings of the basics of art and light and working from life and the artists of the past that worked these things out to perfection. He wrote notes in my sketchbook about the Le Nain brothers and Georges De la Tour and the models he made to paint from, and how to create a panorama box to make models so that I wouldn’t have to guess about the effects of light on the subjects, and that very “figure ground” being the essential thing to work out in a piece, and the absolute necessity of drawing and painting from life. He even invited me to his own studio and taught me there as well. In appreciation, I have painted this narrative called “Witkin’s Passion”, which draws together many of the lessons that he taught me.
I SET TO WORK. I worked hard. I gutted my illustrations, and reworked them completely. I built a lighted model box for the Daniel in the Lion’s den piece and began building pictures from the internet that had the right light effects to use in illustrations. I had always done this, but I had used books: an eye here, a hand there, a garment or a foot or a hat. But that was the problem: all of the photographs had a different light source. I worked all day long, and then, until about 2:00 in the morning for the rest of the week, drawing, researching through the mound of books Jerome got for me, making models and photographing, searching for photos, drawing, redrawing and then redrawing again. I do not have any photographic evidence of what the Daniel piece looked like before reworking it, but here is the redone piece; the first illustration (done at the age of 47) by what I think I can finally say is a professional illustrator.
I LOOK AT THIS piece now, three years later, and can remember that for some reason it was psychologically painful to stretch out the shadows of the figures at the cave’s mouth all the way to the cave floor. And, I would now also make changes from the effects of light and shadow. But, comparing this piece to the Moses piece above is like night and day. In the Moses piece, the crowd at the top left has virtually no light source! The light coming from below that lights up Moses’ face in the bottom left is inconsistent, unfinished, and the anatomy and shadowplay is wrong. The figure in the bottom right likewise, has no visible light source: it is blonde, and the anatomy is stilted and powerless.
I HOPE I HAVE communicated these things clearly; they are illusive and ephemeral. But they are amazing changes that the amazing triad of God, Daniah Greenberg, and Jerome Witkin brought to my life and my art. It was all GRACE. I did not deserve any of what was given; even though I worked and waited and tried and did what I believed to be the right thing for decades. It doesn’t matter. It was all GRACE (khen in Hebrew, meaning undeserved favor.)
THE MESSIANIC FAMILY BIBLE has wrapped up the New Testament. All the art has been finished, delivered, edited and printed, and the Bible can be seen at http://www.mjcbp.org/.
I RECEIVED MY FIRST good critique in more than twenty years from Jerome Witkin. He (nicely, patiently, cautiously) tore my work apart. He was afraid that I was going to be offended; lean on my talent and get defensive. I did the opposite. I cried with joy for finally getting for my work what I have been looking for for more than 2 long decades. After our week of tutoring, Jerome said about me, “you’re the best Graduate student I’ve ever had.” I don’t know if it was just hyperbole on his part, but I sure loved having my hard work and teachable attitude appreciated.
GOD IS STRANGE. But Grace is strange. It throws a monkey-wrench into our work-reward system of thinking. I have no doubt about this. My family, my self-esteem, my wife’s health, my business market and my Art itself all hung in the balance. It was all dropping away like a leper’s skin sloughing off right in front of my eyes. And it was then – right then at my lowest – that (I believe) God caused Daniah Greenberg to call me. And it was then that (I believe) God brought my dream job right into my lap. So, basically, this blog was written to thank God for His amazing, and strange ways, and to encourage you to thank God for His GRACE whether you believe it’s there or not. It is. And He deserves thanks for it.