MOCRA Voices podcast features Archie Granot and Max Thurm

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, page 20. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.
Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, page 20. Collection of Sandra and Max Thurm. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

MOCRA’s showing of Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah in Spring 2012 proved to be a highly popular exhibition, one that elicited deep appreciation for Granot’s technical virtuosity and sense of design, as well as his skillful manner of reinterpreting a classic religious text for a contemporary audience.  One of our disappointments was that we could not arrange to bring Archie to MOCRA during the run of the exhibition.

Fortunately, in early May MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, and I had the opportunity to sit down with collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned The Papercut Haggadah) in the studios of WFUV (90.7 FM) at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. Archie joined us on the phone from his home in Jerusalem. For the next hour or so we enjoyed a wide ranging conversation covering topics such as how Archie was drawn to the art of papercutting, how the commission came about, the special considerations engaged in creating an artwork based on a sacred text, and continuity and innovation in the Jewish tradition. The rapport between Archie and Max was evident from the get-go, and their exchanges open a window on the fascinating process of collaboration between artist and patron.

We are pleased to make an edited version of this conversation available as the latest installment in the MOCRA Voices podcast. You can stream the podcast from our website, or subscribe to the podcast in the iTunes Store. Also be sure to check out the extensive Listening Guide, which delves further into the topics discussed and includes images of many of the pages from The Papercut Haggadah.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

A conversation with Archie Granot

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, Page 46.

Visitors to The Papercut Haggadah have tended to ask at some point during their visit some variation on a simple question: “How does he do that?!?”

As viewers let themselves be drawn deeper into artist Archie Granot’s compositions, they begin to marvel at the great intricacy with which the various layers of paper are assembled. Paper cut with painstaking precision is layered in ways that resemble latticework. Here layers are cut away to expose a color from several layers down, there Hebrew calligraphy is nestled in a geometric archipelago.

Recently we compiled the questions most frequently asked by visitors, along with others solicited from our Facebook and Twitter followers, and posed them to Archie Granot. Here is what he had to say:

Please tell us about your preparation for the pages of the Papercut Haggadah. How much advance planning do you do and how much does a piece evolve during its creation? Do you do any sketching as part of the process, or do you create templates of any sort?

I sketch the work before I begin. This sketch is only used in the initial stages as most of the cutting is done intuitively and freehand.

I plan my papercuts in advance and, when I complete my preliminary sketch, I can, in my mind’s eye, visualize the finished papercut. In reality, however, as I cut a work that may take me more than a month to complete, my mind is never at rest and intuitive changes may, and will, occur.

I often think that the finished paper cut is perhaps a cousin of the original sketch–work that is similar, yet different, to the original concept.

We’ve had numerous inquiries about how the works are cut and assembled. For instance:

  • Do you build the layers from the top down or the bottom up?
  • Do you stack several sheets of paper on top of each other and then cut through them, or is each layer cut individually?
  • How are the layers attached? What sort of adhesive do you use?

I build the layers top downwards or bottom upwards depending on the effect that I wish to achieve. The papers are not stacked before cutting. Rather, each layer is cut individually using a surgical scalpel and a cutting board. The layers are attached using a unique adhesive. [Granot declined to give details about his proprietary formula.]

What happened if you made a mistake?

This is not something that I really like to think about! Luckily this has happened only a few times in the more than 3 decades in which I have been cutting paper. However, if a mistake is made, I’m sometimes able to correct the mistake or even turn it into a design element. It is equally possible that nothing can be done and I need to start all over again.

Archie Granot
Archie Granot

How many different “fonts” of Hebrew do you use? What are the challenges and creative opportunities inherent in having to keep the letters attached to the paper, and creating negative space?

The Hebrew letters that I use are the results of years of experimentation. The use of negative space adds an additional dimension to the letters. The main challenge for me in cutting the Hebrew letters is the effort required to keep a calligraphic balance when my “scribal quill” is really a surgical scalpel.

Most of the pages in the Papercut Haggadah employ abstract, geometric designs, but a few pages incorporate recognizable objects or symbols. What led you to use references to actual objects (matzoh, feather, cup, pyramid) in some pages?

The design of every work is a coalition of different thoughts coalescing in different ways. In the Haggadah, the feather is shown abstractly; the cup shown in the page with the blessing over the wine was a given while the pyramid was really an abstract triangle that lends itself to the subject matter.

Did you create one piece from start to finish or do you have a number going at once?

Both when working on the Haggadah, or when creating work to be shown in my gallery in the center of Jerusalem, I tend to work on one papercut at the time.

Did you ever conceive of these as being bound in a book? Is there, or will there be a catalogue or individual reproductions available?

I do not think that the Papercut Haggadah will ever be bound as a book. Certainly, that was not my intention in preparing for this project.

It is my hope that that a facsimile will be published sometime in the future, when the techniques to capture the three-dimensional modality of my work are available.

Other contemporary takes on haggadot and Jewish papercut art

I often find that, as I become deeply immersed in an exhibition at MOCRA, I become highly attuned to news and cultural items that relate to the exhibition. (More prosaically, it’s like the experience of buying a new car and suddenly seeing that model everywhere, on the road, in parking lots. The cars have been there all along, of course; it’s a matter of opening one’s eyes to see them.)  Here on the fourth day of this year’s Passover, I thought I would share a few of the Papercut Haggadah-related  items I’ve come across.

We recently added a new link to the “Art, Religion, & Spirituality” page on the MOCRA website. “Jewish Art Now” states that its mission is “to build an appreciation for contemporary art in Jewish communities and build respect for Jewish art in the contemporary art world. ” The organization’s website showcases Jewish artists from around the world, along with news, reviews, upcoming events and resources for artists and art appreciators. The organization also has a presence in social media and print.

As I was browsing the site recently, my eye was caught by an exhibition titled The Paper Tefillah. The work is by artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik and is being shown at a reform synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee. The catalogue is available online here, and here is the artist talking about his work.

Paper Tefillah from Temple Israel on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, at Jewish Art Salon I came across an interview with artist and author Mark Podwal on PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly website. He discusses his recently published haggadah Sharing the Journey. In the interview he connects his approach to expressing the text in his paintings, as well as how his work relates to historic haggadot such as the Prague Haggadah (1526) and the Venice Haggadah (1609). The website also has several pertinent related links about the haggadah, the Passover seder, and more.

Watch Passover Haggadah on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Sitting here in front of me on my desk is a copy of the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. I heard about this via an interview with these two authors on NPR’s Weekend edition and was intrigued by their project. I’m looking forward to delving into this new haggadah, but just paging through it, it’s clear that the text has been translated not just by Englander, but by book designer Oded Ezer, an Israeli graphic designer and typographer. Myriad variations and transformations of Hebrew letters flow across the pages, congregating in one spot here or tracing graceful arabesques across a spread there. In other instances they splinter like fractals or disintegrate and dissolve. These letters are purposeful, alive. Ezer talks about his approach to this volume in an interview with Ellen Shapiro of Print magazine. He  says,

Here is what I really want people to know: If I touch the letters I think and I hope that people will be touched by them. I’m a secular Jew and I know this story almost by heart because I’ve heard it every year since I was born, 39 years ago. If we designers are involved with what we do, it’s likely that our audiences will get involved with it too. For years I have been claiming that the real question about typography is not ‘how does it look?’ but ‘how does it behave?’

The interview includes Ezer’s commentary on specific pages in the New American Haggadah.

All of these works are quite distinct from Archie Granot’s approach to the visual interpretation of traditional prayers and texts as embodied in The Papercut Haggadah, but they are all examples of the vitality and variety of contemporary Jewish art and belief.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

Also showing at MOCRA . . .

Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah is beautifully installed in MOCRA’s central nave gallery through May 20, 2012. The pages are each unique in design and content, but taking the 55 pages as a sort of musical score, one can discover theme and variation, leitmotif and transformation.

Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah at MOCRA.
Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, at MOCRA 2/26/12 - 5/20/12.
Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah at MOCRA.
Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, at MOCRA 2/26/12 - 5/20/12. Foreground, from left: Pages 39 and 38.
Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, Page 35 (detail).
Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, at MOCRA 2/26/12 - 5/20/12. Page 35 (detail).

In addition to Granot’s work, we are also displaying a number of works in our side chapel galleries. Drawn from our collection and works on extended loan, these works are by a wide range of artists, including Romare Bearden, Lore Bert, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Jon Cournoyer, Robert Farber, Donald Grant, Steve Heilmer, Dean Kessman, Bernard Maisner, Chris McCaw, DoDo Jin Ming, Daniel Ramirez, James Rosen, Susan Schwalb, Thomas Skomski, Shahzia Sikander, Kazuaki Tanahashi, and Michael Tracy.

Dean Kessman and Bernard Maisner, on display at MOCRA.
Left: Dean Kessman, Rorschach Bible, 1996; Right: Bernard Maisner, "The Trojan Horse ..." (Henry Miller), 1982. On display at MOCRA, 2012.

For the most part, the works were selected to resonate visually and thematically with The Papercut Haggadah, as with the two works pictured above.

Dean Kessman’s cibachrome Rorschach Bible explores questions about perceived and actual reality, and the ways in which scientific and religious understanding interact to determine fact and fiction, or more importantly, truth. The juxtaposed positive and negative images of pages from Leviticus invite us to consider our responsibility in interpretation—of the artwork, of the Bible, of religious propositions—and the relationship between the individual seeker and authority and received tradition. Learn more about Kessman here.

Bernard Maisner is one of today’s finest illuminators of manuscripts. His thematic concerns include “questions of infinity, endlessness, beginnings, endings, emotion, intellect. Unity, opposites, and paradoxes fascinate me.” His visual influences come from many sources (Flemish panel painting, Sienese art, Persian and Indian miniatures, medieval manuscripts, Chinese and Japanese art, and Hebrew micrography) and he draws on texts both classical and contemporary, sacred and secular. Like Granot, he employs venerable media and techniques in novel ways that extend the possibilities of both, as seen with Maisner’s small accordion book “The Trojan Horse …” (Henry Miller). Maisner was featured in a 1999 MOCRA-organized national touring retrospective exhibition titled Entrance to the Scriptorium.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

Establishing context for The Papercut Haggadah

I came into preparations for The Papercut Haggadah with a passing familiarity with Passover and the elements of the Seder, but no idea of the richness of the tradition of the Haggadah or its development both as a body of texts and rituals, and as a written or printed artifact.

One of the benefits of being a university museum is having access to varied and valuable resources on campus. Here at Saint Louis University, one of our great treasures is the SLU Libraries Department of Special Collections, and in particular the Vatican Film Library, a research collection for the study of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and the texts they contain. It is formed around a core collection of more than 37,000 microfilmed manuscripts from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ranging in date from the fourth century AD through the seventeenth century and covering a broad spectrum of subjects. In addition to the microfilm, the collection includes many actual manuscripts as well as reproductions and reference materials.

We turned to the friendly and helpful staff of the Special Collections division to see if they had any historical examples of Haggadot that we could look at for reference. The response was exceptional. Not only were we able to see samples of pages from illuminated and printed Haggadot, we were able to make arrangements to borrow a number of volumes to include in the exhibition, so that all of our visitors could see these historical antecedents as well. We selected items that relate to aspects of Archie Granot’s project, such as the textual passages illuminated, or similar design elements.

Reproductions of historical Haggadot on display at MOCRA.
Reproductions of historical Haggadot on display at MOCRA. Pages from Archie Granot's "Papercut Haggdah" are visible in the background.

For instance, we had noticed in Granot’s papercuts that certain Hebrew letters were frequently elongated or otherwise distorted. It soon became evident that this was not an arbitrary artistic choice, but a practice rooted in centuries of handwritten Torah scrolls, allowing scribes to create perfectly justified columns of text.

The most notable object we have on loan is a magnificent facsimile of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript called the Rothschild Miscellany.

Rothschild Miscellany facsimile
A facsimile of the Rothschild Miscellany on display at MOCRA. Courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections.

The original volume was commissioned by Moses ben Yekuthiel Hakohen during a period when Italian Jews experienced exceptional scholarly and artistic activity as well as social mobility. The most elegantly and lavishly executed Hebrew manuscript of that era, it is comprised of more than 37 religious and secular works. Among the religious books are Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, and a yearly prayer book including the Passover Haggadah, while the secular books include philosophical, moralistic, and scientific treatises. The text throughout the manuscript is accompanied by marginal notes and commentaries. Of 948 pages, 816 are decorated in vibrant colors, gold and silver.

This painstakingly produced facsimile is open to the beginning section of the Haggadah. It is common in historical Haggadot to find depictions of the actions or rituals prescribed in the text. The illustrations on the righthand page depict preparations preceding Passover, including brushing up crumbs of leaven with a feather, burning the leftover leaven, and baking matzah. Granot references this practice in one of the pages of The Papercut Haggadah.

We are grateful to the staff of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections for their kind assistance and enriching the experience of our visitors.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

A preview of The Papercut Haggadah

Today’s edition (2/23/2012) of the St. Louis Jewish Light includes an article previewing MOCRA’s new exhibition, Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah. The article includes comments from artist Archie Granot, and collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned the work), along with a few framing remarks from yours truly. Read the article here.

Archie Granot
Archie Granot

Granot (pictured) was commissioned to present the story and rituals of the Passover Seder in the traditional medium of papercutting. The resulting 55 pages employ intricate geometric and abstract shapes and calligraphic text to create an exquisite and unique version of the Haggadah.

Granot expresses his hope that viewers will be inspired by a labor of love that reflects much thought and introspection. “The creation of a Haggadah for Passover is the ultimate dream for any artist creating Jewish art,” he said. “I have been lucky in that I have achieved this dream.”

We’re putting the finishing touches on the installation, and look forward to welcoming visitors to immerse themselves in Granot’s realization of the Haggadah. Learn more about The Papercut Haggadah on MOCRA’s website.

— David Brinker

Why Are You Showing . . . ?

I was asked recently why MOCRA is showing Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah for our next exhibition.  That’s not an uncommon question for us to field, and it can sometimes be tricky identifying just what constitutes art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions. However, that’s not the case this time around.

The Papercut Haggadah is a fine example of work by a contemporary visual artist who is in dialogue with the great faith traditions but who also brings contemporary concerns and modes of expression to bear on those traditions. In this case, Granot is exploring the sacred text and ritual of the Haggadah through a traditional medium often associated with folk art — papercutting. But he expands the conventional book format of the Haggadah into individual pages highlighting particular passages from the text, and in contrast to the illustrational art often found in Haggadot, he employs his own vocabulary of geometric forms and subtle references to Israel and Judaica. In so doing, he shows the vitality both of the Jewish tradition and of contemporary artistic expressions of faith.

This exhibition also helps further our aim of being a center for interfaith understanding and dialogue. The Jewish community plays an important role in the social fabric of St. Louis, and we hope that The Papercut Haggadah will provide an opportunity for members of the local Jewish community to explore their own tradition, and at the same time open a window into the celebration of Passover for people of other faith traditions.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director