The Persian Queens
03/08/2007
Jewish Week Book Critic
Photo Galleria: 

Separated by a thousand years, Queen Esther and Scheherazade were both the second wives of betrayed and humiliated kings. Both were selected by these kings from a harem, after a thousand women came before them. And both women’s lives were hanging by a thread, yet they chose to stand up for themselves and others and save lives.

Book artist Lynne Avadenka brings together Esther, known from the story of Purim, and Scheherazade, the Muslim woman who told stories for 1,001 nights, in “By A Thread,” a work that fully integrates word and image, in a limited-edition artist’s book (Land Marks Press).

“Avadenka grapples with challenging texts and produces fascinating visual responses,” says Sharon Liberman Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which has 17 of Avadenka’s works in its collection.

“She is one of very few artists producing fine art Hebrew printed books today,” Mintz continues, describing the artist as “at the top of the field.” Mintz sees Avadenka’s work as in the tradition of beautifully printed books produced by the Bezalel School in Israel in the early part of the 20th century, and in Berlin in the 1920s, when artists “were taking Judaic texts and integrating them with images to create masterpieces of fine art Hebrew books.”

The story of “By A Thread,” all the more powerful for the spareness and simple beauty of Avadenka’s words, is a conversation over time between these women. Their lives unfold in brief chapters of a few sentences each, in which each word is necessary. Esther tells her story first, followed by Sheherazade, who begins, “Esther, sister of perilous circumstances, one thousand years later your stories have slipped by the jhin of history and found me.”

They each had trusted family members — Mordechai for Esther, a sister for Sheherazade — as confidantes. Both of their kings were insomniacs, who were read to through the night. As Avadenka tells The Jewish Week in an interview, they were “two women who had few resources at their disposal other than language and speaking out.”

“I gave them voices,” she says. Her Esther is front and center, as is Sheherazade, directly telling her story.

Each element of the book — from its words to its shape and binding to its typeface and graphic illustration — was conceived and executed by Avadenka. The book itself unfolds, much like the narrative it presents; the design, like the story that can be retold, is to be viewed again and again in endless variety. For the reader, there is “an element of mystery that invites participation,” she says.

Avadenka’s books are meant to be turned around, the flaps on the pages to be lifted, the images looked at from all angles. The physicality of the work is part of the process of reading the text and absorbing the information. The story begins on the wrapper that houses the book: “A tumble of letters and chance arrangement of images creates/what came before, what we preserve, retell and make new.”

The three-dimensional book guides the reader through it; the back leads right back to the front, and the story is never-ending. The sophisticated imagery in mixed media is not representational, but rather evokes the architecture, archways, decorative tiles and carpets of Persia, and the colors are the vivid tones of the Middle East.

“The gray shading is meant to evoke the veils that the women wore and the many shades of meaning in a story,” Avadenka explains.

“I am guided by the original concept of the book as repository of memory and loss, as a vehicle for transmitting transcendent information and as a singular object binding together a multiplicity of meanings and ideas,” she says.

Avadenka did the original drawing and printing in her own studio in suburban Detroit. Copies were then printed in Philadelphia, in an edition of 300. Each sells for $350.

The artist grew up in a small Michigan town as a “pretty involved Conservative Jew.” While studying for a master’s in fine arts, she did printmaking and also made ketubot. While she thought of the printmaking as her more serious artwork, she realized how much she enjoyed the idea of uniting word and image in a single visual statement, and she brought that concept back to her printmaking. Always a lover of books and the graphic qualities of letters, she then began working with Jewish subject matter, about which she feels passionate.

The idea for this latest book grew out of a 2001 book project, “Root Words,” in which she worked with an Islamic calligrapher, Mohamed Zakariya. Together, they studied Hebrew and Arabic words and their roots for commonalities shared by Judaism and Islam. In this project, she continued her search for unifying elements among the two cultures.

For Avadenka, the idea of finding commonalities between cultures is crucial. She believes that finding models in the past and presenting them in contemporary times “makes it easier to realize that coexistence is possible.”

This is Avadenka’s 15th limited-edition work. Among her other works are a series of limited editions featuring the work of Hebrew writers, in English and Hebrew, including the poem “I am Sitting Here Now” by Yehuda Amichai, the short story “Grandpa Isidore” by Amos Oz and an excerpt from the novel “A Journey to the End of the Millennium” by A.B. Yehoshua. She has also done the “Book of Ruth;” “Song of Songs;” “Compassion,” an investigation into the meaning of the Hebrew word “Rachamim;” and “Breathing Mud,” her retelling of the story of the Golem. As pages are turned, the architectural facade of a building — inspired by the architecture of Prague — begins to take shape, and, slowly, the monster emerges from the building.

“The book itself is an art object,” Avadenka says of her work, in which everything is designed and created by the artist. “It’s a total collaboration with yourself.”

Her work in the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary is also available for viewing in the Rare Book Room, Broadway at 122nd Street. Please call (212) 678-8077 for information about hours.

Information about purchasing copies of Avadenka’s work is available at www.landmarkpress.com.

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