Art from the heart Trying their hand at ancient crafts

September 28, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

At his drafting board, Avraham Cohen addressed an envelope with a calligraphy pen. The phone rang. "Nah, we love late orders," he told a customer calling from Chicago. "Can you fax it in?"

Despite his nonchalant reply, Mr. Cohen had to hustle. He had to get out thousands of new year cards he had designed for customers across the country before the beginning of Rosh Hashana. The Jewish new year, which began last night at sundown, marks the arrival of a time of joy and solemn contemplation. It concludes Oct. 7 with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

With a computer and fax machine, Mr. Cohen's AVCO Graphics home office is a high-tech nerve center. But the stunning illuminated ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts), family trees, Jewish scrolls and other manuscripts Mr. Cohen hand letters and illustrates are the continuation of a tradition thousands of years old.

In the same community off of Park Heights Avenue, Daniel Howarth, a traditional Jewish paper cutter, was bent over his work table. With a sharp blade, he cut blank pieces of heavy, white paper into intricate, decorative masterpieces incorporating Biblical and Judaic themes, traditional symbols and motifs.

He, too, is applying his own innovative style to a medium said to be more than 1,000 years old.

Both Mr. Cohen and Mr. Howarth are self-taught artisans with a background in science. Both have gained national recognition and support their families through their work. And both are Orthodox Jews who hope to spread knowledge about their culture and religion through traditional crafts.

"I feel this is really a gift from God," said Mr. Cohen of his talents.

Ten years ago, he had nearly completed his Ph.D. in public health epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health when he quit to devote full time to his art.

"You have a responsibility to make the most of what God has given you. I really love doing this. I really didn't feel very creative in science," Mr. Cohen said.

There was another reason for his decision. "Besides the love of art, I also have a love for Judaism and I find this is a nice way to combine them," said Mr. Cohen, whose work was featured in a 1990 calligraphy exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington. "There is also a certain kind of teaching going on through my art."

He pulled out several ketubot he has been asked to do. The first, in progress, was commissioned by a couple "who wanted something that looks like a Chagall window," Mr. Cohen said.

The contract is exquisitely written in Aramaic (a Semitic language that resembles Hebrew) and in English. It is surrounded by a gorgeous, water-color border that features a menorah, candles, loafs of challah bread, a wine cup, the city of Jerusalem, a chuppah (wedding canopy) and other Jewish symbols that shimmer luminously in the unmistakable stained glass style of artist Marc Chagall. Gold leaf, raised by an undercoat of gesso, has been applied to key letters, giving the bright new ketubah an air of antiquity and permanence.

Most of the time, Mr. Cohen works from his own imagination, creating everything from a ketubah with a Chesapeake Bay theme to an elaborate family tree to a series of lithographs that illustrate Jewish concepts and contain Psalms, poetry and the ,, Hebrew alphabet.

As a devoutly religious man, Mr. Cohen reserves the right not to comply with all requests. He will not do a ketubah for a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. And, when a couple asked Mr.Cohen to produce a ketubah with Henri Rousseau's painting, "Sleeping Gypsy," as the central theme, he left out the familiar nude who reclines before a lion in the wild. "It's not appropriate for a religious document," Mr. Cohen said. I have my say also."

Like Mr. Cohen, Daniel Howarth came upon his livelihood in an unexpected way. As a student of Chinese at the University of Colorado, he could not find any new year cards he liked enough to send. He made his own, modeling them after several Chinese papercuts he had collected.

Only later, while poring through an art catalog, did Mr. Howarth realize that papercutting was also a Jewish folk art. "I fell through the floor," he said.

He continued to make papercuts, selling them to friends on a small scale. And when Mr. Howarth traveled to Israel as a student, he was able to extend his studies by two years through the sale of his papercuts. While there, his papercuts were exhibited in two museums and at the International Judaica Fair in Jerusalem.

For 13 years, Mr. Howarth has worked as a papercutter. His studio brimmed with artistic and literary projects that reveal the thinking of a low-key Renaissance man. (This year, for the first time, he also took a part-time job teaching science at Owings Mills High School as well.) In November, Mr. Howarth's work will be featured in an exhibition at the San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum.

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