Women of the Book

Timing is Everything. Part III. Or How I Battle Imposter Syndrome and Prevail! by Susie Lubell

After I submit my final painting, I leave for the rest of the summer and that is that. I don't talk about the project much. I don't check in to see if the curatorial committee has accepted my final work. I just put it out of my mind. It's like when you don't talk about your pregnancy until 12 weeks. You just tell your mom. That's the model I went with and I think it's because I didn't want to jinx it and I didn't want to get my hopes up too high. So I just lived with my anxiety. 

As the opening gets closer and I receive emails from the organizers asking for photos of my work in process, a short video, to sign up to speak during the opening week, it starts to become real. And I do as I am told. But still, even up to the week before the event, when I see pictures on Facebook of the art being hung and my piece not among them, a part of me worries that the committee has decided not to include it at the last moment. My fears are completely baseless and yet they worm their way into my thoughts like a little biblical plague. It is the same old imposter syndrome rearing its ugly face. By now the website is revamped and all of the works are available to preview. They are all stunning. Mine still is not on the website.

A few days before the opening, my mom flies in. She wasn't planning to come but decided to use up her airline miles at the last minute. She comes to the opening event along with my family, in-laws and closest friends. I show up early and a wave of relief washes over me as I see my girlie donkey hanging between Chukat and Pinchas. Before the actual opening I speak to a group of 20-30 people about my interpretation of Balak. A few minutes into it I finally relax. We go out for dinner nearby and return an hour later for the actual opening. By then the gallery is packed. The Director of the Israel Museum spoke about the project along with the Founder of the Jerusalem Biennale and of course, Shoshana, who started Women of the Book so many years ago. I feel incredibly relieved and proud. I can only imagine how Shoshana is feeling. She is beaming.

In the next few days my mom and I return to the gallery and I give my talk twice more. At one of the talks an older British man comes up to me with a younger woman, his daughter, and asks if my painting is for sale. I explain that only the entire collection, as a whole, is for sale, but not the individual paintings. But that he was welcome to buy a limited edition print. He wants original work and asks if I had other paintings for sale. I give him my card. It seems that they have just bought a house in a beautiful old neighborhood of Jerusalem, just outside of the Old City, and need to decorate the great white bare walls! I tell him I am happy to bring over a selection of paintings for him to choose. A few days later he sends an email with a list of the ones he wants to see and we set a date. 

I spend the whole morning at their house moving paintings around, drinking coffee, chatting about this and that. They are so lovely. The daughter, who is about my age, is enamored by one of my goats. And her parents purchase two other original paintings. And they want to see more when they return from London in December. 

I literally haven't stopped painting since that day. I feel inspired and supported. Validated enough to feel confident but still vulnerable enough to create work that is accessible and authentic. My older styles, which I'd all but abandoned, have found their way into my new pieces, like old friends. Reminders that nothing is wasted. No experience nor experiment. No phase nor fear. It's all coming out in the work as a true reflection of who I am today. 

For you art collectors: limited edition prints of Balak are available now on my ETSY site. I'm offering them at about 30% less than what the Jerusalem Publishing Atelier is charging. That's because I love you. 

Timing is Everything. Part II. Or How I Came to Paint a Donkey in a Pink Housecoat. by Susie Lubell

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. 

Timing is Everything. Part I by Susie Lubell

And God said, "I can see your undies, Donkey."

And God said, "I can see your undies, Donkey."

Three and a half years ago my father-in-law calls to tell me about an article he has read in the Jerusalem Report about an American woman in Israel who has initiated a community art project called Women of the Book. She has gathered dozens of Jewish women artists from around the world to each create a visual interpretation of the 54 weekly chapters of the Torah. There's an urgency in his voice which is rare. He thinks the project might interest me and he's right. I do some research on the woman and it turns out that she is about my age and we have some friends in common. And she lives about 20 minutes from me. It also turns out that according to the project website, they are still accepting new artists. So I send her an email. 

She replies. Turns out the selection committee is meeting in a few days and she invites me to submit an application. So I spend some time looking at the available chapters and am not inspired. It is a lot of tedious laws and not the good kind, like don't kill anyone. They are regarding genital discharge and marrying your brother's wife if he dies in battle. In short, the nasty laws and laws about doing the nasty. I know. I'm very mature. The only thing half way interesting to me is the bit about stoning of the wayward son but that hits a little too close to home. I tell her I'll take a pass.

A week later, after further research, I settle on parashat Terumah. It talks about instructions on how to build the alter for God while traveling in the desert and I feel like there might be some good imagery there to work with. Also my mom is coming for her first visit since we have made Aliya so I'm in the process of setting up the spare room for her to feel comfortable and I'm seeing some parallels there. It's kind of a stretch. I write a short essay about my ideas and send in a sketch and images of my latest paintings. 

She sends an email that she has just had a baby and so the process has been put on hold in the interim. That is fine with me. I am in no rush. I never hear from her again. I never followed up either. Something isn't right and I know it. I forget about the project.

Fast forward three years and I get an email from the same woman. She's cleaning out her inbox and is very sorry for never having responded after my submission. She wants to know if I am still interested in the project. There are still chapters available and they are listed on the website. I can't decide if I am disgusted or delighted that she would get in touch after all this time. I decide to go with delight and reply to her that the website is not up to date and I can't figure out which chapters are still available. Weeks pass and she doesn't reply. I am not surprised. This was March 2015.

In June 2015 I get a call from her. She's seen my latest work and thinks I am a good fit for the project. Where have you been cha cha?  She goes on to explain that while my previous work, the watercolor landscapes, are lovely, the medium doesn't work with the project. The paintings are meant to be done on parchment, like a real Torah scroll, and eventually stitched together for display. She tells me that the project is going to be featured in the 2015 Jerusalem Biennale at the gallery at the the old train station in Jerusalem. It's all finally coming together but she's still missing a few chapters. I tell her that frankly I am not interested in any of the available chapters and she mentions that a new one has just become available since another artist decided to leave the project. She thinks it's perfect for me. The chapter is Balak. 

Now I am not a Torah scholar. I can count on one hand the chapters that I know by name. But I know Balak because it's the one with the talking donkey. THE TALKING FEMALE DONKEY. It's the one where Bilam the prophet goes to curse the Israelites at the request of the Moab ruler Balak and instead God fills his mouth with words of praise: How goodly are your tents, Oh Jacob, your dwelling places, Oh Israel. I have won the Torah lottery. 

So I submit another application with some ideas and a collection of my recent works. I come to understand from the updated website that it's a longshot since the artists involved in the project are leading contemporary Jewish artists who have exhibited in all the big museums around the world. To make a baseball reference, this is the Show. I set my expectations low. And anyway chances are good that I'll never hear from her again. A week later I get an email that the curatorial committee has met and they want to invite me to participate in the project and when can she drop off the parchment...That was a Thursday. The next evening is Shabbat and the portion of the week is Balak. Timing is everything.