life under glass

Tkhine dish towels


Tkhine Dish Towels (2012) 16.5×34″. Screen print on linen.

This is a project from last fall, a set of 5 linen dish towels. The towels are screen printed with an 18th century tkhine, a vernacular form of prayer made by Jewish women.  As in many religions, some forms of Jewish women’s religious practice are vernacular, i.e. specific to a locality of practice rather than canonical learning or formal liturgy.  In this sense, the tkhine is akin to other types of belief practices women perform all over the world, activities rooted in the locations and realities of everyday life rather than the formal confines of a synagogue/mosque/church/temple from which women are often exempt or excluded.

This particular prayer is from a book called The Merit of Our Mothers: a bilingual anthology of Jewish women’s prayers, published by Hebrew Union College Press (1992).  The tkhine is described as an incantation against the ayin hore (evil eye), and is written in Yiddish using the Hebrew alphabet.

The prayer requires the woman offering blessing to wash her hands, and lay them on the head of the inflicted while reciting the prayer.  Here I have provided not only the prayer but a towel to dry the hands after washing.



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January 25, 2013 at 4:15 pm

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Halo (2012) 14.5×18″. Cut books mounted on wood.

This piece is an apt summation of my art work of the last couple of years– most of which is born out of deep attachment to and reverence for the book form (arguably the most ingenious, mobile, transferable, humanistic, and renewable technology ever devised).

When I started this piece I imagined a huge gilt portal large enough to walk through made from stacked books, like a miniature, modular, Modernist version of the Shwedagon Pagoda.  It quickly became apparent that finding and collecting the necessary number of books to create a monumental edifice would take months, or years, and that our garage would be clogged with crates of literary cast-offs. Sadly, I have neither a huge, airy studio to store materials nor a team of hip and eager studio assistants to help me collect them. Even so,  I can say that the experience of sawing through a wheelbarrow of books was both jarring and exhilarating (sort of). Thanks to B.  for setting up his table saw with the appropriate jigs to create these book slices.

Of course, I can’t help but mention that the past year has presented a fairly constant stream of opinions, exhortations, and predictions on the demise of the book and the changing nature of libraries. The controversies at the NY Public Library have been well documented in the Nation, the NY Times and elsewhere. Public, school, and academic libraries and library staff are under enormous pressures that are born out of economic, procedural, philosophical, and social changes in the knowledge and information landscape. My own life as librarian has been dramatically shaped by the current state of affairs.

The New York Times Book Review had two essays on the topic of books just last  week:  Leah Price’s Dead Again and It’s Alive! by Gillian Silverman which does a beautiful job of describing the allegorical nature of the argument that we are books and books are us.

Halo is a more modest proposal and akin to a household alter (sans deity).  It just  simply shines.

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August 20, 2012 at 10:18 am

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Kindling the Light

Maccabee’s Candles (2012), about 10x 6×6 inches. Wax, wick, and book pages.

When prisoners passed through the gates of Nazi concentration camps past the motto Arbeit macht Frei (“work makes one free”), they must have understood that, of all the vile indignities that had brought them to this horrific place, this particular hell would be merciless. In this motto the executioners spoke with the omnipotent voice of Creation implying that whatever was to come was a foregone conclusion. Here the reality of Hell is the absence of reason.

Maccabee’s Candles was created using pages of an English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) formed into candles. It is a gruesome piece that was not easy to make. Making the candles was similar to factory work albeit very short-term and, thankfully, the manufacture occurred in the quiet of my own choosing. Like many Jews, I hadn’t given Hitler’s text much attention. Knowing full well what came out of Nazi rhetoric as a whole, it seemed beside the point to read the actual text that fueled such insanity.

It should come as no surprise that Mein Kampf is, indeed, a Baroque and entirely neurotic piece of work, written in the exuberant and desperate style of a paranoid hypochondriac who, up to the publication in 1925/1926, had been victimized, not by Jews, but by his own ill-health, his doctor’s experimental treatments, his peers, and the social systems (military, educational, romantic) in which he so desperately sought approval. It’s all there: hemorrhoids, stomach cramps, blindness, creative failure, father-son animosity, sexual inadequacy, drug addiction, and episodes that point to ongoing mental illness. Knowing how it all ended made the book all the more exhausting to get through. Slogging through black mud that business.

So, I read this absurd text and then I destroyed it. Or at least a chunk of it–it is huge and would make many, many more candles. I used an X-acto knife. Then I wrapped strips of text around a wax and wick core to create 44 Hanukkah candles. I know: this sort of symbolic transference is a little heavy-handed. But after reading the actual language that fueled the fire that destroyed most of Yiddish civilization in Europe and annihilated many millions of human beings, I needed to link the atrocity called Nazism that resulted from this book with some small triumph. One such story is Hanukkah.

Seen in this light, the candles beg the question: will we burn them?

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March 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm

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Metamorphosis (Brick Pattern) (2011) 23×25″, book pages and string.

Here are two pieces using the text of Franz Kafka’s story, The Metamorphosis.  I started with a bilingual German/English edition (Schocken Books, 1968) so that I wouldn’t loose text on the verso of each page. Then I cut the text in to blocks and arranged them in geometric patterns.   These two examples use traditional parquet floor patterns as the basis for a depiction of Gregor Samsa’s nightmare.  Overlaid on the text-as-floor is another pattern made of white string.  It is really hard to see the string pattern in these photos (while the bottom piece is too yellow, you can see the thread more clearly).

The secondary pattern references the desperate, frantic, and mindless movements Gregor makes in his new reality as a bug in a scale that reflects his size and point of view scurrying across the floor or clinging to the crown molding, as his identity and will-to-be slowly collapses in the face of a macabre struggle. Fear and trembling meet sweet lemon floor wax.

Metamorphosis (Double Herringbone Pattern) (2011) 17X19″, book pages, gouache, and string.

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January 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm

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Golem (2011) 46×31”, graphite and ink on book pages.

These two panels are joined together in a diptych based on the Jewish story of the Golem.  The Golem is a kind of magical creature–a superhuman thug really– molded from clay and animated into life by a rabbi with a supreme command of Jewish law and theology. While there are multiple variations, the most famous story is that of Rabbi Loew–the Maharal–of the medieval Prague ghetto. It is a story born out of the Jews ongoing despair in the face of assaults and pogroms throughout history; from ancient Egypt into Europe during from the Middle Ages, and into … well, the 20th century. The idea is that the Golem can be put to use to protect the Jews and this happens with various levels of success and consequence.

I love this story because the Golem is brought to life with language: an inscription–sometimes on the forehead or on the chest–of the word truth written with the letters aleph-mem-tav.  When necessary,  the Golem can be de-animated by erasing the first letter, the aleph, with the letters mem-tav, or death,  remaining.  The poetic gist is that language is the foundation of all creation and has the power to give life or take it away.  (I cannot help but notice a parallel with the parental directive: use your words! Or, in the deconstructive context: utter.)

On one hand the Golem symbolizes the Jews’ humanity and will to be, but it also reflects the destructive forces inherent in taking the work of creation into one’s own hands. Golem is a protoMonster (per Frankenstein) and the tale is an existential story of sorts.  How can we be agents of our own making (our own survival) if we claim to have true faith in a greater order? But also consider: the Jewish god has no form and is without a body and so the Golem is both a divine life and an abomination.  This is a question fundamental to a Jewish framing of faith and how faith takes agency in the world, for better or worse.

Today’s post is uploaded with a wink.

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November 11, 2011 at 11:10 am

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The Poetry Cure (Remix)

The Poetry Cure (Celebration), 2011. Altered book.

This piece is a hand-held folly. I’d already butchered pages from this book for an earlier piece (The Poetry Cure, 2008) and had just the excellent cover and most of the text remaining. I am still exploring ways of altering books in such a way as to maintain the cover and shape of the original book object. I like the idea of pieces that fit compactly on a shelf and are admired only “on command.”

Celebration (2011) is constructed like a party ball: the circular shape is cut from the pages and then glued together alternating the dabs of glue so that the pages pull apart when opened: a disco ball for a poet.

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October 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm

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The Red Line

The Red Line (2011) 10x6x6″, book mounted on board.

Simply folding the pages of this Bible resulted in an elegant, geometric form. The red line itself manifests from the visible leftover edge of the pages which are tinted red and bound in black leather. This Bible is a King James version published in 1896. It is what is called the Self-Pronouncing Edition which, sadly, does not mean that it reads itself.  Rather, this edition uses a pronunciation scheme for every proper noun, e.g. any mention of God is qualified by (gäd), and Jesus (ˈjēzəs) etc. It is astonishing that every iteration of a proper name includes pronunciation diacritics. You’d think that by the end of the first chapter, the reader would have a handle on how to say g-o-d.  No, this version is intended for the stubborn or dull-witted reader who needs constant–almost needling–guidance over the course of 1000 pages.

The title page is especially floral, and reads:

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments Translated out of the Original Tongues: and with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised, by His Majesty’s Special Command. Appointed to be read in Churches. Oxford University Press American Branch, 1898. Cum Privilegio.

A few beautifully detailed and colored maps of the Holy Land were reproduced at the end, after Revelations. I cut out the maps before making this piece so I could use them in another project.  Amen.

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May 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm

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