- Resident Artist (Guest)Testament Of Women
Stories of biblical women claim our individual and collective imagination and exert a powerful force in popular culture and fine art. Sarah and Hagar, Ruth and Naomi, Judith, Deborah and Miriam continue to provide archetypes, points of reference against which our own experiences can be understood as we invent anew the values we draw from these women's tales.
The original impetus for my book project, Testament of Women, was a desire to respond to Sarah Laughed, by my friend and colleague Vanessa Ochs.1 Her book of essays focuses on retelling biblical tales to glean inspiration from and for contemporary women's lives. It pushes back against traditions that perpetuate patriarchal assumptions in unarticulated and thus insidious ways. Vanessa is a contemporary, highly educated, progressive woman actively engaged with Jewish ritual. Her tales are crafted with awareness and acceptance of the changes wrought over the last generations in our cultural attitudes towards traditional institutions.
Vanessa and I share many of the same values, but our projects had different conceptions. I undertook to question the existing social order of patriarchy, while I see Vanessa's work as being engaged with extending and rethinking traditions. She is a scholar of Jewish rituals and their transformation through contemporary practices. I, as a feminist artist, focused on challenging the legacy of patriarchy. We had complementary values, but different goals.
On my initial reading of Vanessa's book, I was struck by my ignorance of the biblical tales, and that prompted me to study the original texts. My response took the form of an artist's book. For those unfamiliar with the genre, artists' books are original works of art in book format.2 This approach allows the artist/author full control over production and design choices, though it has the disadvantage that the book exists in only a few dozen copies, at least in the first edition. I made Testament of Women in a limited edition of forty copies, bound in poppy-colored silk, printed by letterpress in hand-set type, using linoleum [End Page 202] cuts to create the illustrations.3 The type was Goudy, an idiosyncratic American face from the early twentieth century whose heavy darkness and slightly spiky-quirky quality was selected to match the line work in the drawings. The layouts use conventions of poetry and prose, and the different font sizes set off the distinct registers within the text.
Using Vanessa's book as my point of departure, I copied her basic structure. Each of her chapters has several sections: a summary of the biblical account, a retelling of each figure's "own story," and description of new rituals based in the contemporary experience of women she knows. My studies were much shorter, a page or a two-page spread per figure. But I followed her pattern: using scriptural excerpts, retelling the tale, crafting a lesson to be learned, and making a portrait of an actual woman whose circumstances or character seem to extend that of the biblical original.
My conviction was that by combining real women whose dilemmas and difficulties I know well with the iconography of figures from the Hebrew Bible, I could create a set of profiles to infuse the archetypes with radical potency. Simply writing the stories of contemporary women's lives felt less powerful than claiming that they could be used to rethink the biblical figures. This was Vanessa's impulse, and it inspired me to follow her in creating deliberate alignments between these figures and women I knew. I drew portraits of real women as contemporary versions of the biblical characters, using specific individuals (changing enough details to avoid recognition) to represent demographic types.
I began with the text and image of Eve. I had long wanted to confront the age-old stigma attached to Eve's acquisition of knowledge by affirming erotic experience. Eve's legacy is not usually interpreted as a celebration of the pleasures of the flesh! Quite the contrary. But I find the idea of original sin preposterous, as well as pernicious in its negative characterization of all erotic knowledge—and Eve's in particular. Assigning blame to Eve...