Once the initial excitement of being selected to participate in the Women of the Book project wears off, the panic sets in. What in the hell was I going to paint? How would I interpret this wacko chapter with a talking donkey. I had managed to wiggle my way into the project without fully realizing that these women were all highly accomplished, highly trained, widely exhibited contemporary artists. I had told the curatorial committee to trust my process. Like I have any kind of process at all! I finger paint! And the kicker is I have three weeks to get it done including a round of critique by the curatorial committee. I was leaving for August so it had to be done before then. Did I mention I had just broken my toe?
So I start to do research. I read whatever sources I could find on Balak. My mother in law brings over books and sends articles. I spend that whole first weekend reading Torah. And interpretation after interpretation. All the while I just keep having visions in my head of Bilam standing together with his donkey like in that American Gothic portrait by Grant Wood (see above). Except the woman is a donkey. I start doing some sketches. And there's one with Bilam riding the donkey and one with the donkey riding Bilam and one with Bilam and Donkey sitting at a dinner table together.
Then finally I meet Shoshana, the founder of the project, to get my piece of parchment. She drops off the tube with the parchment inside and gives me a bunch of scraps too for experimenting. She is lovely and encouraging. The parchment feels weird. Like a lamp shade. How am I going to paint on this stuff? I take it home and immediately start painting in acrylic on the scraps. I experiment with gesso, without gesso, I spray water on it. I glue some paper to it. It seems pretty sturdy. I can totally do this. No problem. It dries all curled up. Damnation. I lay books on it overnight and it flattens out. Salvation.
Without knowing exactly what I'm doing and without a full understanding of the material I'm working with (both the story and the parchment), I decide to start painting. I just need to put paint down because I'm running out of time and the blank parchment is giving me anxiety which is making my toe hurt. I spend an hour making marks and strokes, mainly finger painting. Every few minutes I read the text again. I start to pray. I'm not kidding. I tell God that I need a little vision on this thing. I ask God how it all ties together. The paranoid king, the blind prophet, the talking she-ass, the blessings, the curses, the rage, the beat-down, the orgies with Midionite women, the plague, that horrid impaling scene at the end. What. On earth. Does. It. Mean. God?
When God doesn't answer I call Sharone. She was a religious studies major and even considered the rabbinate at one point and we chat for a long time about what it all means. I tell her about my American Gothic vision and she can see it too. We talk about the master and servant relationship, about the powerful ruler archetype. We talk about disobedience and how it plays out over and over in the parasha. We talk about how Bilam disappoints Balak and the donkey disappoints Bilam and the Israelites disappoint God. Again. We talk about the context of this chapter. The Israelites have been traveling for nearly all of their forty years in the desert and God is still trying to get them to behave so they can enter the promised land. And they are still totally blowing it, And we talk about the divine feminine - that feral, creative, subversive spirit and makes our donkey heroine open her mouth and tell her master what's what.
And with all that in my head I go to work. And as I paint and pray and meditate, the parts of the story unfold onto the parchment. You can read about my interpretation here. I send Shoshana a preview and after presenting it to the committee she comes back with some critique. I make some changes, hand off the final piece and hope for the best.