Illustrating our life’s stories

Illustrating Our Life Stories

October 5, 2020

When my mother-in-law, Peninnah Schram, asked me to illustrate my husband's and my love story,

Five images came to my mind right away.

Without hesitation.

The other day my parents handed me a large envelope filled with memorabilia from my childhood – drawings, report cards and miscellaneous schoolwork that had somehow “made the cut” for saving.  

I flipped through booklets and looseleaf papers, and laughed and sighed as I read my early stories and impressions of life aloud to my mom and my 8-year-old son.

I came across this page, which I wrote when I was 11 years old.

I stated with surety and self-knowledge:

“I love to write. My life is art and creativity.”

Reading this as an adult I feel grounded in the knowledge that my present self is an extension of my child self. It confirms that I’m on my true path. I am becoming who I always was.

In that same folder I found the cover of one of my ballet recital programs, and it dawned on me that the illustration on the cover had most likely planted a seed in my imagination and influenced my future art.

A handful of years after that ballet performance, in a high school art class, I chose to express the form of a dancer through micrography (*from Greek, literally “small-writing”, also called microcalligraphy*).

The letters of the text compose the lines of the subject. Each part of the dancer’s costume and body are formed by words written in a particular style for that part.

The words “Dance” and “tutu” alternate to form the pleated texture of the tulle fabric of the dancer’s tutu.

The block letters that form the words “leg”, “eye”, and “arm” contrast with the delicate curly-cue script that forms the words “hand”, “fingers and “feathers.”

Check out these historic examples of micrography in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s virtual exhibit.

And over a dozen years later when my mother-in-law, Peninnah Schram, asked me to illustrate my husband’s and my love story for the book she was writing – “Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage” (co-author Sandy Eisenberg Sasso), I chose the art form of micrography again.

I’ve admired many micrographic works over the years- two that stand out are a portrait of Rambam composed by the text of his Physician’s Prayer, and Menachem Boas’ illustration of the events at Mt. Sinai with the complete text of the book of D’varim (Deuteronomy).

(Left) “Ten Commandments” by Menachem Boas

It wasn’t until I flipped through my memorabilia and saw the ballet program cover that I realized there was a thread linking the ballet recital program, to the dancer I created in high school to the style I landed on for illustrating our love story. It felt like discovering an artifact of my creative journey. 

Thank you Ema and Aba for saving these artifacts for me. I’m aiming to do the same for my children!

When Peninnah first asked me to illustrate our love story the 5 scenes I wanted to portray came to me immediately.

They were the highlights of our story’s beginning. And they are the images that filled my mind whenever we were asked to tell our story of meeting and falling in love. I shared my vision with my husband and it was precisely these 5 scenes that resonated for him as well.

The hard work was to get the images from my mind’s eye onto paper. And to choose a style, a medium, a mood. 

I didn’t land on micrography right away.

I considered a realistic painting, an abstract storyline… but they didn’t feel like they expressed what I wanted to express.

And what did I want to express?

I wanted to express the spiritual connection that my husband and I felt. The connection between the particular day of Sukkot that each scene of our meeting occurred on, and the text of the prayers that we said on those days.

The text filled our neshamas (souls) during those days and in order to truly tell our story it needed to fill the artwork as well.

I tried images, designs, concepts other than those 5 “scenes” but returned again and again to the original 5.

At one point I remember feeling that I had to make this artwork the definitive telling of our love story. The magnitude of that task was daunting. But my friend Julie reassured me that what I was setting out to do was to tell one version of our story.

She gave me permission- or reminded me that I have permission- to tell our story in as many ways as I feel compelled to tell it, in as many different media, styles, color schemes, at as many different times of my life as I wish. She reminded me that the version I chose to set on paper for Peninnah and Sandy’s book was only one version. 

Feeling a weight lifted I was able to create with an open heart.

I decided to try my hand at representing our love story in micrography and it flowed organically. It was tedious, but I enjoyed the challenge, and my heart soared. At some point early on in the sketches I realized that it worked.

As so I sketched and sketched until I got every last detail just as I wanted.

I drew the outlines of the “scenes” and filled the subjects with the words of the Sukkot prayers, as they had filled our neshamas (souls) when we first met. Together, image and text created the narrative of our story.

So, micrography was the tool that I landed on for expressing our story.

It is an art form I feel I will return to again and again, to explore it from every dimension. And there are so many dimensions that exist between the image and the text. It’s like a good memory that I want to get more and more out of.

And here is our love story, as told in “Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage”.

When my husband and I met it was love at first - or second - sight.

We met at B’nai Jeshurun in NYC on Sukkot 19 years ago. The second day of Sukkot. All five scenes in our illustrated love story took place during Sukkot and Simchat Torah, and so you see me shaking the lulav, my husband drumming during Hoshana Rabah shacharit (morning prayer service), the parading of the Torah scrolls, us reading the beginning of the Torah together, and us beginning as a couple.

The liturgy of the hakafot¹ fills our bodies and the objects that were important in our meeting: and so you see me shaking the lulav

My husband drumming during Hoshana Rabah shacharit (morning prayer service)

The parading of the Torah scrolls

Us reading the beginning of the Torah together

And us beginning as a couple.

You can purchase the book at Barnes and Nobles, here

¹ Hakafot are the circles we make around the synagogue with the Torah throughout Sukkot, climaxing on Simchat Torah.

What are the formative “scenes” that play through your mind's eye?
What are the deeply impressed images you return to again and again to relive the experience, to recover as much detail as you can?

Take a few moments to recall all of your senses in that moment and ask yourself -

Where were you and what were you doing, saying, listening to?

Who were you with?

Were you indoors or outside? 
What was the quality of the light, the air?

What were the flavors, aromas, scents, textures, ambient sounds?

Take a look at the 5th section of “Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage” for guidance on how to write your love story.

I considered many texts for the “graphy” part of “micrography”. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), other passages from Tanakh (the Bible), and an E.E. Cummings poem from the Jewish Museum exhibit we went to on our first date, among others. 

The text of the Hoshanot prayers we say while we circle the synagogue (or this year for many, we circle our backyards, synagogue parking lots, fields, …or maybe the living room) on Sukkot and Simchat Torah became the clear choice. Those words, the prayers that surrounded us and inspired us as we fell in love had to be the ones to tell our story.

Illustrating our story with this resonant text allowed me to convey the images as I remember them, with the deeper spiritual tone of our experience.

Giving visual expression to the scenes that have played countless times in my head has become a tremendously personal gift to my husband, myself, our families, our children, and beyond.  

Thank you, Peninnah, for inviting me to create these and in so doing creating a family treasure.

If I can do for you, what Peninnah did for me, that is, be the spark to ignite you to tell your story, I will be serving a purpose larger than myself.  Whether through micrography or another art form- prose, poetry, song… I think that you and the people who share that memory will find tremendous value in having it recorded. 

Especially now, during this time of great isolation and uncertainty. This time can be used for reflection, for choosing what stories have shaped your life that you now want to share with people you miss and can’t spend time with in person. 

Stories you want to pass down to your children…

Stories you want to record with friends and cousins…

Or maybe it’s someone else’s story that you can record for them. Honor your parents and grandparents, by recording their story, showing them that you’ve listened to their stories, heard them, cherish them and want to see them on your wall.  

If you’re reading this and thinking of a scene- or more than one- that is dear to you that you would love to see visually expressed, in mircrography or another visual art form, and you’d like to explore what I could create for you, let me know! 

Reach out and tell me about your stories, share any photographs or videos you may have, and we’ll explore what a visual representation of your story could look like…

I deeply enjoyed telling my story and I would be honored to create your story. I’m always up for an old fashioned phone call. If you prefer email/text that’s fine too. Or you can contact me in my Etsy shop.