Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Settings


This is the funky new classroom where I'm lecturing on Job and the arts! It's in the new University Center, and, were all the registered students to show up (many are delayed returning because of the weekend's blizzard), would be nearly full. And full of a kind of student I hardly know - judging from the students in my discussion section, it's about 90% students from the Parsons School of Design: fashion design (6), communication design (3), product design (3), illustration (2), fine arts (2), architecture (1), integrated design (1), drama (1); one Langster! 
An especially good thing, then, that I started with Anna Ruth Henriques' exquisite memorial to her mother, The Book of Mechtilde. Henriques tells the story of her mother's life and death (to cancer) in rich colors and symbols from the many religious and cultural traditions which flowed through this Jewish Jamaican family, framed in a delirious skein of patterns from nature (mainly Taíno and African), all held together by the entire text of the Book of Job, meticulously written out in gold pen. (There are sections of prose and poetry written to accompany them - which my teaching assistants and I took turns reading aloud.) There are 40 of these panels in all, and I showed them all, one by one (and again in the intimacy of the discussion section). (I've put some together here in sets of 4 for convenience, but they should be encountered serially.)
I wanted students to get a sense of the Book of Job as something that's not just a story on a page, but something more and different, a story already in the culture, in the air (I've done this before). That it's Job that frames Mechtilde's story is never mentioned in Henriques' own text, and yet it's this story that, in a quite profound way, holds Mechtilde. The carefully written words are hard to read, but they're not there for reading: you already know the story. What you see in the micrographia is time, care, devotion. Mechtilde's story and Job's are different - most prominently at the end - but bound together in Mechtilde's mourning daughter's patient love.
To the students in my discussion section this seemed a beautiful and powerful thing to do with text - no sense that the biblical text was somehow being used, or even abused. This class of designers and artists won't need to be weaned from a too text-focused understanding of things! When I mentioned that Henriques now works as a jeweler, there were murmurs of assent: these images look like jewel settings, one said, the doodly lines look like metalwork of various kinds. (And indeed some of Henriques' jewelry is metalwork of this kind.) Another suggested that the inaccessibility of the text was key, evoking the power of text from times when most people were illiterate, knew texts held power but couldn't access it themselves. How very exciting to be exploring Job and the arts in such company!

PS Through the wonders of FaceBook, I'm now in touch with Henriques! A friend of a friend is a friend of hers... and Henriques now lives in New York, so we'll be getting together.

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