I've been busy this week working on a commission for a mizrah. This is a symbolic artwork that hangs on the east wall of a Jewish home, and it denotes the direction in which to pray (towards Jerusalem). Since I am pretty much a heathen, I approach this kind of work very carefully - I want to be respectful and correct in my interpretation of the meaning of the piece, yet it also has to be true to myself. I do a lot of research and check things out with the client as I go.
For this piece, I originally thought I might do it in fabric. However, my research showed that although mizrahs can be made in any medium, very often they have been done in a Jewish craft tradition of cut paper. This instantly appealed to me, since the steps of folding and cutting are very similar to a textile applique. The symmetry that results is, of course, my thing (see Robes of Power on my website). And all those years of graphic design have made me pretty handy with an X-Acto knife. This week, after several months of designing and letting it sit, I was ready to cut.
Unfortunately, I won't be moving into my studio until December 1, so I have to work on the dining room table. I don't have the tidiest work habits - note teacup in dangerous proximity to the paper. I am using katagami washi - a Japanese paper made for paste resist stencils. It is handmade from mulberry fibre, soaked in persimmon juice to make it tough, and then smoked to cure it. It is the most incredibly rich brown colour and smells fantastic.
I chose the tree of life as my central motif. I have used this image in my work before - it both ancient and a common symbol in many cosmologies. Since I am into Matisse these days, I drew a seven branched tree in his oak leaf style. The seven branches relate it to the menorah, which is sometimes depicted as a tree of life. More importantly, it symbolizes light (both literally and spiritually), and since East is where the sun rises, and the direction of Jerusalem, this seemed very fitting. The Hebrew text at the top states "From this direction, the spirit of life."
Animals are frequently part of a traditional mizrah. They are also symbolic. In spiritual life, Jewish people are told to "Be as bold as the leopard and as swift as the eagle, fleet as the deer and courageous as the lion to do the will of thy Father in Heaven." The arabesques that link the creatures come from Matisse as well, but are also reminiscent of Japanese and Arabic decorative patterns. To me, the swirls and spirals are energy, light, air and movement, both inward and outward.
I backed the cut paper with a gold paper, similar to how I saw antique katagami displayed in a Tokyo museum devoted to the art.
I ordered the frame yesterday - a simple distressed gold finish. The wall the piece is to hang on is painted deep burgundy. I hope the mizrah will embody the elements of harmony, wholeness and radiance - of beauty, and of deep meaning.