Deborah Sokolove

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bread of life
bread of life
Jesus dies on the cross
shepherds
nones
radiant being
votive
life and death

Get an inside look at SARTS board member Deborah Sokolove's work.

 

 

Deborah Sokolove is the Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, where she also teaches courses in art and worship.

She received her B.A. and M.F.A. from California State University at Los Angeles; a Master of Theological Studies degree from Wesley Theological Seminary; and the Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from Drew University. Before coming to Wesley as Artist-in-Residence in 1994, she taught art, design, and computer imaging at the university level. In recent years, she has been a regular contributor to journals such as ARTS, Lectionary Homiletics, and Call to Worship, and her essays have appeared in several books on religion and the arts. Her work has been shown locally and nationally, and is represented in numerous collections.


Bread of Life, 2012, acrylic and copper on panel, 16” x 16”.

This painting is from a group of four that I did in response to a request from curator Cecilia Rossey to explore the sensory stimulation of food as the primary source of human health and well being as well as  the emotional and physical impact of food in contemporary society for an invitational exhibition called Food and Form (http://www.wesleyseminary.edu/LCAR/Exhibitions/Past/FoodandForm.aspx). The titles of the other three pieces are Grain from the Earth, Fruit of the Vine, and Work of Human Hands. These phrases come from a prayer said during the offering of the gifts in one of the Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgies. Images of the other paintings in the series may be seen at http://www.dsokolove.com/pages/2010foodandform/index.htm.  


Station 12: Jesus Dies on the Cross, 2007, acrylic and copper on panel, 12” x 12”. One of 14. The others may be seen at http://www.dsokolove.com/pages/2007stations/index.htm

For an artist, it is a somewhat daunting task to create a set of Stations of the Cross. It takes a certain kind of sustained attention to create any set of fourteen panels, linked stylistically and thematically. When these panels must recount a story that has been rendered by countless artists both famous and unknown, it becomes an even more formidable task. For a long time I wondered if I was up to it. Did I have the skill? Did I have the vision? What could I add to a pictorial tradition that already stretched back hundreds of years?

I began to work on this series in mid-February, right around Ash Wednesday, when the Church begins its collective journey towards the cross and resurrection. As I worked on the basic designs, I had to ask myself what each moment meant to me, what gesture could best convey that meaning to someone who was coming to pray with these images. Later, as I began to fill in the details, I came to understand that I, too, was walking towards the cross; that I, too, had to give up more and more of myself to God.

I am not generally a narrative painter, so it was difficult to figure out how to tell the story yet remain true to my inner vision. The hands and feet that carry the narrative draw on my study of icons, and my long-standing fascination with the truths that hands can reveal. In these paintings, as in much of my recent work, I have tried to suggest the sense of eternity and the divine presence that I find in many traditional art forms – Islamic calligraphy and decorative motifs, illuminated manuscripts from Europe and North Africa, Greek and Russian icons, Moorish tile patterns, Gothic tracery, Celtic knot work, Chinese embroidery, and more – as well as in the gleam of flickering candles, or in a night sky filled with stars. Borrowing techniques and images from a variety of sources, I employ a limited palette of mineral pigments that might have been available to pre-industrial artists. Instead of the traditional egg tempera, however, I use a modern, acrylic medium that is somewhat more forgiving. The resulting clear, brilliant colors suggest to me a mystical world that is lit from within, defying the physical laws of gravity and optics.

As the Stations began to take shape under my hands, many thoughts swirled in my mind. In the long-standing tradition of prayers and self-examination at each Station, I considered my own commitments and failings, my own hopes and fears. Knowing that my understanding is only provisional, that the questions I ask today may not be the ones I ask this time next year, I offer them as one way to understand these fourteen moments


Considering Incarnation: Shepherds, 2010, acrylic and copper on panel, 12” x 12”. One of 9. The others may be seen at http://www.dsokolove.com/pages/2010incarnation/index.htm.

The Considering Incarnation series is based on nine moments in the Gospel accounts surrounding the birth of Jesus. The narrative is reduced to simple relationships of hands and wings, telling the story as a series of conversations that humans have with one another and with angels. In the first moment, Zechariah spreads his hands helplessly as the angel tells him that he will remain mute until the birth of his son. Next, Mary and the angel hold their hands in gestures of mutual submission, each recognizing the importance of the task to which they are called. Then, Mary visits her relative, Elizabeth, and each greets the other with gesture of prayer. Meanwhile, Joseph hears that his betrothed is carrying the divine Child, accepting the angel’s message with hands clasped tightly together. Soon, the gestures of Zechariah and Elizabeth are repeated as they celebrate the birth of their son, John. In the sixth panel, Mary opens her hands to receive the gift of Jesus, who appears in the likeness of a lamb, while Joseph stands prayerfully by. In the seventh panel, the air is filled with beating wings as the hands of the Shepherds open in joyful astonishment. This is followed by the arrival of three praying Magi, following the star. Finally, Joseph meets the angel again, taking Mary and Jesus to find safety in Egypt, and bringing them back again when the danger is passed.


Marginalia: Nones, 2009, acrylic and copper on panel, 12” x 24”. One of 8. The others in the series may be seen at http://www.dsokolove.com/pages/2009marginalia/index.htm.

The eight paintings in the Marginalia series refer to the rich manuscript tradition of the Book of Hours, in which elaborate images fill the margins and the empty spaces around the letters, often overpowering the text of the prayers which are nominally the point of the book. Each of these paintings is conceived as a pair of facing pages, the spacing laid out using the precise geometry of a medieval scribe planning a new volume. In these paintings, however, the text is completely absent, its place taken over by a square of copper foil covered with light markings that suggest the scribe has become somewhat distracted by the visions that fill the margins. Here, mysterious plants and animals float against luminous seas and stormy skies, as the sun and moon rise and set in an orderly fashion according to the time of day.


Radiant Being, 2007, acrylic and copper on panel, 16” x 16”.


Votive, 2007, acrylic and copper on panel, 16” x 16”.


Life and Death, 2007, acrylic and copper on panel, 16” x 16”.

These works began as an extended meditation on Scripture and on the sense of eternity and the divine presence that I find in many traditional art forms – Islamic calligraphy and decorative motifs, illuminated manuscripts from Europe and North Africa, Greek and Russian icons, Moorish tile patterns, Gothic tracery, Celtic knot work, Chinese embroidery, and more – as well as in the gleam of flickering candles, or in a night sky filled with stars. Borrowing techniques and images from a variety of sources, I generally employ a limited palette of mineral pigments that might have been available to pre-industrial artists. Instead of the traditional egg tempera, however, I use a modern, acrylic medium that is somewhat more forgiving. The resulting clear, brilliant colors suggest to me a mystical world that is lit from within, defying the physical laws of gravity and optics.

While I am reluctant to assign a single, specific meaning to any of the motifs in these paintings, certain ideas have informed my choices. For instance, the fish image that is seen in several works is adapted from an Ethiopian illumination of the story of Jonah, combined with Japanese stylized renditions of carp, which are considered lucky in that tradition. The “great fish” in Jonah is connected to the Leviathan found in Job and the Psalms, as well as to the great sea creatures found in Genesis 1:21, at least in some translations. But in Isaiah 27:1, Leviathan is not a fish, but a serpent, like those found in both Genesis and Revelation. In these paintings, however, the fish, like the green snake with red wings –another quotation from the same Ethiopian manuscript – are not so much agents of evil as of the chaos which is the necessary condition for creation. If the hands in these paintings may be thought of as representing that which creates an orderly universe, then the fish and snake are the trickster elements – like Coyote of Native American lore, or Loki, of Norse mythology – that make life interesting. Order and chaos, beginning and ending, continually give way to one another in the creative cycle of the cosmos.

The rhythm of beginnings and endings is hinted at by the trees or vegetal traceries that begin in the lower corners of each of the paintings, partially obscuring the layers beneath with their green and yellow leaves and reddish fruit. As the human story in Genesis begins in a garden, the last chapters of the last book of the Bible describe a beautiful, walled city, in the midst of which flows a river. “And on each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” [Rev 22:2] The tree of life, first mentioned at the beginning of the human story, is now at the center of the holy city, in which everyone shall live in peace at the end of time.

This layering of the tree of life over human and animal forms is but one of several strata in these paintings. I begin with a plywood panel, marked out in a geometric grid pattern, in which some squares are covered with copper leaf and others are painted a uniform color, such as ultramarine or yellow ocher or red oxide. These grids, often with alternating, cross-shaped patterns, remind me of the numerical game of magic squares, of the prescribed patterns for laying out playing cards for both amusement and fortune-telling, and of the many other grids and networks that humans devise to help them understand and control their lives. A final grid of dark and light dots overlays everything, and serves as the basis for a ragged, incomplete layer of Celtic knot work. As the various grids and layers interact with one another, sometimes a new meaning appears out of the accidental juxtaposition of otherwise unrelated elements, just as a moiré pattern emerges when two pieces of window screen are layered on top of one another.

There are other motifs in these paintings – seraphim and birds and feet and sun and moon and stars and all-seeing eyes and the mystical compass rose and more – that continue to inhabit my imagination, even as they change colors and relationships under my hands. They emerge, like dreams or visions, from a place that is ruled by a different kind of logic than that of everyday life. Like mandalas or Tibetan tanka paintings, they function as an ever-changing map, describing an inner landscape where I am constantly losing and finding my way. These and related works may be seen at http://www.dsokolove.com/pages/2007newwork/index.htm