- The Illuminations of Ellen Frank
I’m in words, made of words, others’ words, what others, the place too, the air, the walls, the floor, the ceiling, all words, the whole world is here with me, I’m the air, the walls. . . .Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (New York, 1955), p. 386
Ellen Frank’s illuminated paintings reflect her passion for religious philosophy and scholarship, as well as a belief, bordering on the shamanic, in the potential for art to elevate the human spirit. Unusual in her diverse professional accomplishments, Frank has enjoyed multiple careers, first in academia as an educator and published scholar1 and then as a self-taught painter.
Two of Frank’s creative projects, Hanukkah Illuminated: A Book of Days and Cities of Peace, are especially appropriate for discussion in this issue of Nashim. Both series of stunning works are enriched by the use of traditional illuminated manuscript forms as a way of integrating cultural history. Shared motifs and methods include border patterns, calligraphic text blocks, the use of 22-karat gold and other precious metal-leafs, and the use of egg tempera.
The radical, even visionary aspects of Frank’s artistic approach emerge from her unabashed enthusiasm and diligent efforts on behalf of what she calls “art as an instrument for global understanding.” The essential philosophical and spiritual premise for this endeavor is that “understanding is a prerequisite to peace.” This knowledge came to Frank in 2005, when she was present at conversations with His Eminence Tai Situpa Rinpoche, co-founder, with the Dalai Lama, of the active peace organization, a group of Nobel laureates who came together in India to attempt to understand “what enables peace to occur.”2
Hanukkah Illuminated: A Book of Days is executed in the tradition of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, an art that flourished from the tenth through the eighteenth centuries. The English and Hebrew calligraphy, illuminated with 22-karat gold, includes micrography (diminutive letters) and carmina figurata (text shaped as image). The text, by Hebrew scholar Everett Fox, remains [End Page 215] faithful to Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic and Ladino sources, encouraging further connections by referring, for example, to extrabiblical figures like Hannah and her seven sons (executed one after the other for refusing to worship idols), and to the apocryphal Book of Judith. Frank structures the chapters for each of the holiday’s eight days to include a surprise page, a “gift” to the reader.3 Frank’s intention in creating this work is to elevate Hanukkah from a “minor and commercial holiday to one of serious spiritual importance.” (For images from this series see pp. 218–219.)
Frank learned from Tai Situpa Rinpoche about what he calls “non-oppositional thinking,” and this concept, according to Frank, pervades Cities of Peace. The series is motivated by the author’s quest to effect change by way of “directing action through hopeful energy by celebrating the best of the human spirit, transforming anguish into beauty.” It honors the history and culture of cities that have been beset by conflict, trauma or war. To date, these include Jerusalem, Baghdad, Kabul, Beijing, Hiroshima, New York, Monrovia and Lhasa. (See pp. 220–221 and the images on pp. 222–223.)
In addition to illuminated manuscripts, the works in this series evoke the artistic traditions of icons, tapestries, embroidery, architectural mosaics, woodcarvings and metalwork. Using mica, bronze powders and other precious metal leafs in multiple layers, the images of geographical locations are infused with contemporary energy even as they reference ancient pasts. By incorporating meticulously researched artistic details of each country, Frank creates memorials to past eras and destroyed locations. At the same time, the works become “border crossings,” which, she suggests, enable “compassion and heightened consciousness among peoples” whose countries are depicted.
Both of the projects discussed here are produced in the context of (and owned by) the Ellen Frank Illumination Arts Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation that Frank founded with the express goal of “revitalizing passion for and public awareness of the art of illumination, in part through education and training of interns/studio assistants.”4
The procedures for carrying out these elaborate endeavors are modeled upon the Renaissance...