You spent a lot of time before launching your art career teaching aspects of Judaism throughout the country. Where did you travel to? What were you teaching? Did you teach the same thing in every city you went to or was there a variation?
Thank you for asking about my previous life! The truth is, as you know, I just celebrated my 70th birthday so my bio is quite long. I think the best way to explain my ‘previous life’ is to connect it to what I do now. I would say that the connecting link in all that I have ever done is my ‘search for meaning’ and my interest in human development. Ideas and people, through a ‘spiritual lens.’ Even in college, I graduated with a double major in Philosophy and in Child Study from Tufts ’71.
What you are referring to is my last full time job as Director of Early Childhood Education for the Jewish community Centers of North America. So yes, I did travel all over the continent. My position enabled me to create curricula and programs for young children, their parents, and primarily professional development for their teachers. My forte was to take ‘big ideas’ and ‘translate’ them into language young children could grasp, and so adults could feel competent understanding and transmitting through their own creativity. I tackle concepts like the sanctity of time and ethical behavior - always based on classical Jewish texts and timeless Jewish values.
How did that job come about?
Immediately prior to my Director position, I was part of an enormously generous and prestigious Grant called The Jerusalem Fellows Program which was designed to take outstanding Jewish educators from around the world and invest in them - by bringing them to live in Jerusalem and engaging them with the most outstanding teachers in the world!
The goal was to invest in educators with different fields of expertise, expose them to major themes of Western and Jewish civilization, and educate them how to turn their visions into practice. As a leader in the field of Jewish Early Childhood Education my goal was to redefine that field.
When I finished the program, I had the opportunity to implement a new vision for the North American early childhood community. In my case, and here is the link throughout out all of my work, that vision is to explore deep ideas and translate them into multiple languages - music, art, drama, metaphor, etc.
For me it is always about translation and interpretation. As a Jewish educator, my starting point has always been the Bible, the Jewish Prayer Book, classical Jewish wisdom and philosophy. As I learn and try to understand, to then find ways to express these subjects and teach them to young children - and to ourselves. It is what I do now as a painter.
I’d like to ask a few questions about your Green Bubbie book which you wrote after your position at the JCC Association. You’ve said that your art is very visually imaginative and that you get many ideas from both classical Jewish biblical text and mysticism. Can you explore those concepts – particularly the relationship between Jewish thought and mysticism?
First, to be clear, I’m not a scholar of Jewish thought. I think metaphorically and creatively. The book I wrote was an example. I continued to be interested in conveying Jewish wisdom and engaging children, and building community and relationships, So, the question was - how to do it?
The “Green Bubbie” was created during the financial crisis, around 2010. I basically created something that everyone needed - and it had nothing to do with money. Essentially, I created a name for a relationship. “Bubbie” is a Yiddish word for Grandmother but a ‘green bubbie’ is not a biological relative. It is a special relative that you meet on the way to finding yourself! — A “Green Bubbie” is spiritual not biological. The ‘green ‘refers to growth - even growth of the elderly. If you continue to learn, you continue to grow. The relationship between nature and God; I believe the physical world is a manifestation of the spiritual world. For me, the Torah (Bible) and the world as created reinforce each other. The Green Bubbie book is all about that relationship. It is not about how to grow a garden, but, rather about how we can grow- from what we learn from the garden!
Mysticism is about the Mystery, what we don’t know. I am more interested spirituality - the universal search for connection with God, communicating with God, recognizing God’s involvement with the universe and trying to live up to our potential as human beings created in the image of God.
In the Green Bubbie, you talk about gardening from a few different perspectives. For example, you point out that there are different types of peas - edible peas and sweet peas. The edible peas are functional. They provide dietary sustenance for the physical body. The sweet peas provide spiritual sustenance – a way of looking beyond the self to the Creator. So, I'm wondering, Is there a correlation between the edible functional peas and representational landscape art versus the sweet peas in your abstract art?
That is a really great insight. Thanks. Yes, That's beautiful.
If I had to make an analogy, I would say the edible peas are more related to realism - but the landscape part of my work is not realistic. I’m not actually trying to replicate nature. I’m trying to interpret nature. I’m trying to use the landscape as a reference for ideas of our place in the universe and our ongoing efforts to understand our place in Creation. Some of my work actually looks like a landscape - even an abstract version of a landscape. When I paint something that the viewer thinks or ‘reads’ as ‘tree’ it is a function of the viewer’s brain, built from the viewers experience with the natural world - more than of my effort to draw an actual tree.
The reference to the sweet peas sparks a spiritual conversation in me. The fragrance, the colors - attract all the senses. It's beautiful to see, to smell. The sweet peas spark the idea that all of the senses are part of nature and art. It's like the honey which draws us in. Viewers should bring the senses of smell, hearing, touch, and taste – not just vision. So, the abstract for me is Beauty and almost like you can't describe the smell of a sweet pea, it can, in turn, be intoxicating. Not like liquor but there's intoxication of some sort. It’s something you can’t name, but you feel it in a very deep way.
For me, inhaling the incredible fragrance of the garden, my lungs fill up and my mind drifts to the early passages in the Biblical Creation account where God breathes life into the nostrils of Adam. That is what I mean. For me, nature is spiritual - the ideas and the sensations and it is those sensations that fuel my imagination and create my abstract paintings.
I think that my abstract paintings pull you in, like nectar to the bee - they are arresting, they are awe inspiring. I’m not looking to have you say there’s a tree. I’m looking to have you say, “Wow! I can’t even put it into words.” That's what I'm looking for.
My mother, of blessed memory, was a dental hygienist and created a program to train dental assistants. She had a student who was a very talented artist. Apparently, my mother once lovingly said to her, “Sara, you’re no dental assistant, Believe in yourself and believe in your art,” That student, Sara Steele, is now one of the most outstanding watercolorists and a widely recognized American painter.