Akedah: Conversation With the Artist

Bernard Greenwald was born in Newark, New Jersey, and studied art at the Philadelphia College of Art and at Yale University. He has been a professor of studio arts at Bard College for 32 years. In the latter part of his career, he has taught writing as well, most recently at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His prints can be seen at the Library of Congress, the National Collection of Fine Art, Yale University, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, the Portland Art Museum, and, through December 13, 2001, in the Chapel of Andover Hall. He is 60 years old and lives in Red Hook, New York. Wendy McDowell spoke with him recently by telephone.

What was it about the Akedah (binding of Isaac) story that intrigued you?

Of course, it's a story that's been an enigma to me, as it has been for many people. I think the most authentic art comes from unconscious sources—it does for me. So, I just blurted out this image one day and then I began thinking about my own experience as a divorcing father and the struggles I was engaged in at the time, over and for and behalf of my two sons. So these etchings are visual midrashim, to figure out what the story is, to get at what the meaning of the story is by making visible the dynamics between the actors in the story. After I'd made a couple of these images, I thought, "I'll try to explicate this as much as I can," so I continued. It wasn't very methodical. It took me a while to find out I had a series going. I've probably done 25 now.

What are some of the key moments you choose to capture? 

I show Abraham explaining to Sarah why he's taking the kid off on this outing. I found myself wondering what he would have said to her, what would she have said, how is she complicit. One of the first etchings shows Sarah poised protectively supine over Isaac. What did she do to try to protect the kid? This is a paradigm of child abuse we have today. The mother is often complicit, ignoring or trying to hold the family together while simultaneously sacrificing the life of the child who is being abused by the male partner. 

In another etching, I show Isaac helping his father Abraham up the steep slope of the mountain. Abraham was an old man by this time—he was in his 90s. If Isaac was at least an adolescent or physically fit enough to go off on the trip, he would be helping his father up the mountain. There is a Yiddish aphorism that applies here: "When a father stoops to help his child, both of them smile. When child has to stoop to help his father, both of them cry." So here, the father is taking the boy off to his death, but the boy is helping the father creep up the steep slope of the mountain. I also tried to depict the disillusionment of Isaac when he finds out what his father was trying to do. 

I've also tried to think about what might of happened to Isaac after this, because in the text, after the sacrifice of the ram, we don't hear from him again. So one print shows Isaac descending from the mountain and looking over his shoulder, saying, "What the hell was that?" I mean, how would they carry on a relationship after that? 

This text is one of the most difficult ones for religious leaders from Jewish and Christian traditions, and for laypeople. I've had minister friends tell me they tend to avoid this text altogether. How do you handle the intensity of it? 

The real issue for me is that I don't take the events literally. They are metaphors for human dilemmas and human activity. I see my task as trying to understand the greater ramifications of the stories and how they apply to our modern lives. 

Have you explored biblical texts beyond the Akedah

Now I've been using the same sort of lens to look at other Bible stories, both from the Apocrypha and from the Old Testament. For instance, I'm interested in the story of Joseph and Podefar's wife. When Joseph gets to Egypt as a young boy, after being sold into slavery, then he rises up in Podefar's household. He would have been a young adolescent, and the text says he was very attractive physically. This has same kinds of themes of child abuse that the first story does.

I just finished an etching about the judgment of Solomon, which is very similar, in that it is about divorce. In our society, it's a regular, everyday event. But then and now, couples erupt into fights over the children and a supposedly impartial judge has to make a decision about what's going to happen. I've also been working on Adam and Eve and the expulsion. 

How do you come at the Adam and Eve story? 

You really have to come to these things in your own direction. I had an interest in the landscape in the summer and late spring, which resulted in some landscape prints. I don't always want to make the stories literal or like illustrations. So I had these landscapes and then I tried to put in the sense of another presence, divine or human, which actually fits as part of the Hudson Valley tradition!

I did this with some of the Akedah prints, as well. They are landscape prints where I really just went out and drew and then added figures to them later, giving my landscape to the ancient story. After all, there were no catalpa trees on Mount Moriah! I also went to local farms to draw goats and sheep. Though the thing about drawing cows is that you sit down, and they immediately come to see what you're doing, so you can never draw them from a distance! I did draw some fainting goats. There's a kind of goat that if you startle it, it falls over. 

What about human models? 

My in-laws are very old: my father-in-law is in his middle 90s and my mother-in-law is in her middle 80s, and I found that they began to appear, he as Abraham, she as Sarah. My two sons, who are 13 and 16 now, are also there. They don't look literally like the figures in the print, but the figures have the affect of a young and an older adolescent. In one print, I'm Abraham, the chubby guy with the glasses. It's my own little visual joke. 

How and why did you get interested in writing? 

Late in my career at Bard, I became involved in the Institute for Writing and Thinking, which trains teachers from all over the country and the world, and also is responsible for a very wonderful program called "Language and Thinking." There is an intensive three weeks of writing. That's how I got interested in writing in a formal way. They taught me how to teach writing. That was probably 10 years ago. 

When I was in art school, it was a no-no to tell stories or to have texts or to be an illustrator; that was a much reviled category, since abstract art was in. So I searched for a long time to incorporate writing into my teaching and my own work. For me, discovering how these stories connect with me, my work, and my life has been very powerful and useful. 

Of course, the art world has changed, too. Do you find your work fits in now? 

People are making art now that's all text, no image at all. There's much more a sense that my art is really in a sort of tradition. Though actually, its paradigm is fifteenth-and sixteenth-century print-making. It's closer to Rembrandt and Dürer than its alignment to anything that goes on today. The processes I use are very evocative and very eloquent. I make prints the same way Rembrandt did; I use the same press. His was wooden while mine is metal, but everything's the same. 

You ran a writing workshop here at Harvard Divinity School, in regard to your etchings. What did you ask students to do?

I got them just to start writing to feel comfortable; we did that for about five minutes. Then I asked them an oblique question about the prints: "For whom was the story intended?" I asked them to pick a partner and gave each of them five slips of paper. They were to go to a print of their choice, and choose five personas or actors, personas, dynamics, or elements in the print. Since they were Harvard students, they were pretty bright and thoughtful. One person wrote that the character she saw was crisis. Which of course was so resonant with September 11 and other events of our world that are reflected in this story. Then, we put all those slips of paper in the box, and each person chose back a character. I asked them to retell the story from the point of view of that person. What would it have been like if you had been the ram? If you had been the angel? If you had been God? So they retold the story and read them to each other. They were very eloquent and wonderful. 

What are your plans for this exhibit? 

So far, I've shown them at Bard and at the Synagogue for the Arts in Manhattan. I did a workshop with them at the Northwest Writers Conference in Portland. I have a few nibbles, so I think they'll continue to move around. They've also been shown in Brazil, because I have a former colleague teaching in Brazil and I sent her a whole suite of prints and she's been showing them there, I'm not even exactly sure where. It's great when your work has a life of its own separate from you. 

What's next for you? 

The text that I'd like to tackle next is when Abraham goes into Egypt and says to his wife, "I think you're so beautiful that they'll kill me in order to get you, so I'll say that you're my sister." There's a lot there.