In Mark Podwal’s world, a city grows out of an open book, or the flowers of Jerusalem spring up from an unscrolled Torah. Hebrew letters tumble onto the page, and sometimes have wings.
Podwal’s hand is distinctive. But if it’s easy to identify the artist, the viewer is, nonetheless, repeatedly surprised — by Podwal’s imagery and wit and codes of meaning he layers into his work.
A sumptuous retrospective of his work has just been published, “Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art” (Glitterati), with more than 350 works and a foreword by Elie Wiesel and a preface by Cynthia Ozick. The images, including both ink-on-paper drawings and colorful interpretive paintings, unfold chronologically and highlight an original and prolific career.
Ozick names him “Baal Kav Emet, Master of the True Line; or the line that opens into truth.” Podwal’s firm lines intersect with language, history and humanity.
This season, Podwal has a show at the Museum on Eldridge Street and is featured in the Berlin Jewish Museum’s show on the Golem. Recently, he created “All this has come upon us…,” a limited edition portfolio of 42 archival prints that trace Jewish history through words of the psalms; it was first exhibited at the Terezin Ghetto Museum in the Czech Republic.
The author and illustrator of many books for children, he has also illustrated works by others including Elie Wiesel and Francine Prose, along with a Haggadah and a Reform prayer book for young people. Podwal has designed textiles for the Altneuschul in Prague and the Brno synagogue in the Czech Republic, and has made documentary films related to his projects. And more. He designs posters for the Metropolitan Opera every season. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Israel Museum, the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Bodleian Library and the Vatican. In an appendix to the new book, I learned that he designed the stage backdrop for a 1981 Simon and Garfunkel concert in Israel.
Podwal also practices dermatology, although after 40 years at NYU, he no longer does clinic work. We meet in the waiting room of his practice on the East Side, where several of his images hang, including “Talmud Typewriter,” in which the first tractate of the Talmud appears to be coming out of the typewriter.
“Reimagined” is dedicated to his longtime friend Elie Wiesel. Podwal accompanied Wiesel to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Their first project together was about the Golem, which resulted in Podwal traveling to Prague to do research and developing a strong bond with the community. He’s drawn to Prague — where he now travels several times a year — for its old architecture, its blend of styles, whether Gothic, Renaissance or the shtetl. “The Jewish quarter is a time capsule in history.”
As Elisheva Carlebach, professor of Jewish history, culture and society at Columbia University, writes in an essay in the book, “Prague has become in Podwal’s art a Jerusalem of the imagination, a city that contains all cities.”
Asked whether he sees the world from the point of view of a mystic, Podwal recalls speaking at the dedication of his textiles at the Altneuschul, when he described himself as “an artist who believes in legends. I went on to tell the story of how God shows Moses the ‘Book of Adam,’ which tells how everyone who would be born will perform a specific task. I’d like to believe that my task, listed in the ‘Book of Adam,’ was to design the textiles for this shul.”
He also emphasizes that as a physician, of course, he does believe in science.
He remembers drawing boats and ships when he was about 4, and then doing a series of drawings of Washington’s monuments in the 1950s after visiting when he was about 10. In class in Fresh Meadows, Queens, he was always drawing, and recalls making the requisite covers for his book reports and doing them for his classmates for 15 cents each.
At that time, he didn’t think about going to art school. His father, who owned a bar on the Bowery, wanted him to go to medical school and he obliged, eventually choosing dermatology since it’s a visual-based practice, and he wanted something that would give him time to pursue drawing.
In medical school he began drawing the political cartoons that would bring him much notice when they were published on the Op Ed page of The New York Times. His first was a drawing of the Munich massacre.
He traces his deep interest in Judaism to his family history (documented in the exhibition at the Museum at Eldridge Street). He grew up hearing a lot about Dabrowa Bialostocka, his mother Dorothy’s shtetl. She came to America in 1929 at the age of 8 with her family, leaving one brother, David, behind because he had trachoma, an eye disease. David later was killed in Treblinka, and when Podwal’s grandmother learned of this, she was admitted to Creedmoor, a psychiatric hospital in Queens. She never left, spending the last 18 years of her life there. Every week, Dorothy visited her mother there, and Mark remembers once seeing her through the fence, an image that has stayed with him.
“I’ve been told that my Uncle David drew very well. I’d like to believe that my talent in art is a gift to his memory,” he says.
As for his Jewish education, he learned Yiddish as a kid through the Workmen’s Circle, and then learned Hebrew language and liturgy during his first summer at Camp Cejwin at age 12; he came home wanting to learn more.
Now, he describes himself as a non-observant Orthodox Jew. “My drawing is my way of participating in Judaism. It’s a form of prayer.”
Podwal is soft-spoken and humble, often deflecting questions about himself to the work, or sharing an anecdote. And while much of his work may be said to be personal, reflecting his connection to Judaism and his family’s story, there is no self-imagery in it.
He does a lot of research and when he begins a drawing he usually has an image in mind, although the composition may change. Sometimes he’ll wake up in the night and start sketching, or he’ll pull out some paper at a stop light when he gets an idea while driving to the city from his home and studio in Westchester. Often he’ll free associate, which is how a Purim megillah might end up inside a wine bottle, or the city of Jerusalem atop an artichoke, or a Torah crown rather than an olive branch in the beak of a dove.
“Often when I know it’s the right image, I’ll chuckle. It’s like solving an equation. I’m not interested in illustration. I want to do something that makes you think more about what the words are saying,” he says. He likes to think of the work as visual midrash.
His color palate is usually soft and muted, sometimes deeper, depending on the subject matter, but always just short of bright. He plays with light, detail and perspective. Many of the works are melancholy, but his humor sparks joy.
The show at the Museum at Eldridge Street, “Kaddish for Dabrowa Bialostocka,” features 18 works inspired by his first visit to his mother’s shtetl last May. There are no Jews now in Dabrowa — once, about 75 percent of the town’s population was Jewish. In Podwal’s Dabrowa, a cow’s spots are Hebrew letters, the town’s windmill becomes a Havdalah box and Sabbath clouds in the shape of two challahs rise above the streetscape of the town. In another view, a round matzah shines in a purple sky on Passover.
When he recently showed Mel Brooks the Dabrowa series, Brooks was particularly taken with “Herring on a Bialy,” a drawing of a skinny fish sandwiched into a bialy on a mustard yellow background. Brooks said that the image should be his family crest, as his ancestors sold herring in Danzig.
Some curators have suggested that Podwal expand beyond Jewish themes, but he declines. “That’s where my passion is. Unless I’m involved in the subject matter, I’m not interested in doing anything about it.”