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  • “A Bubble of Happiness and Visionary Beauty”: The Mystical Feminist Art of Barbara Mendes
  • Judith Margolis (bio)

A recurring touchstone of Barbara Mendes’s art is the no-holds-barred inclusion of EVERYTHING. In hyper-detailed colorful paintings and black-and-white comicstrip drawings, Barbara delivers visionary spiritual narratives intertwined with a mix of irreverent, “big-mouthed” (her description), forthright, in your face, telling-it-like-it-is stories. Unexpected and moving is the relentless desire for communication with the Divine—an inclination that is personal, authentic, sincere and, it turns out, stupendously entertaining.

Mendes, who lived the “Earth Mother” counterculture life in Southern Oregon, uses sequenced drawings to depict life lessons drawn from Bible stories, scenes from her Ashkenazi relatives’ lives and her own rural 1970s West Coast hippie life. Her ability to elucidate the commonalities in these experiences brings a juicy authenticity to her images.1 Barbara tells her story by way of a pungent crossover of fine art painting and outrageously intricate Comix-style drawings, laced with feminist woman-centered consciousness, goddesses and psychedelic imagery. Her personal narrative, woven throughout, reveals how crucial choices made under the combined influence of peyote and yeshiva learning have informed her life and her art.

After attending art school in Manhattan, Mendes, born and raised in the New York metropolitan area in a secular family with proud Russian and Sefardi Jewish roots, set off on a life journey that would include San Francisco, southern Oregon and Los Angeles—coinciding in astonishing ways with my own diasporic journey, which began in the Bronx, New York and suburban New Jersey. What was the likelihood that we would both go from being rural counterculture farmers to becoming Torah-observant Jews? When she was living in the tiny town of Kerby, Oregon, I was living just a few miles away, on a commune in Takilma. Yet we only met in Los Angeles in 2009, when I was artist-in-residence at The 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica and co-curating Women of the Book, an International Women’s Torah Midrash project. My friends Abby Yasgur and Joey Lipner had collaborated [End Page 149] in writing Max Said Yes, about the iconic music festival of Woodstock, and Barbara’s illustrations for it attracted my attention. I recruited her for Women of the Book, resulting in the inclusion of her colorful, psychedelic painting for the Torah portion of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1–20:27) in that body of work.

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Figure 2.

Barbara Mendes, cover illustration for Abby Yasgur and Joseph Lipner, Max Said Yes (Los Angeles: Change the Universe Press, 2009).

In her mural laying out the ten Torah portions (parashot) in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), Mendes the utopian visionary demonstrates her enthusiastic and passionate attention to detail, as she describes in pictures how to be holy and how to [End Page 150] be like God. Her drawings convey her complete immersion in the specifics of these stories. She told me in conversation:

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Figure 3.

Barbara Mendes, illustration in Abby Yasgur and Joseph Lipner, Max Said Yes.

The Queen of Cosmos’s shawl is the moon and stars. In retelling the story, I suggest moral improvement by showing the people not only giving money to the poor, but giving a whole meal. The mural shows what should be, going beyond “not putting a stumbling block before the blind” to helping the disabled. I won’t name names, but in depicting evil, I based the details on real people with real flaws. [End Page 151]

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Figure 4.

Barbara Mendes, Vayikra mural. 2009. Oil on canvas. 72" × 192". Collection of the artist.

[End Page 153]

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Figure 5.

Barbara Mendes, Vayikra mural, detail.

Now “lapsed from observance,” as she puts it, Mendes remains deeply engaged in Jewish life, learning and culture. At the same time, her deeply feminist consciousness just won’t let her alone: [End Page 154]

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Figure 6.

Barbara Mendes, Vayikra mural, detail.

I see the Queen of Cosmos everywhere...


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pp. 149-164
Launched on MUSE
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