Sam Fink loves the letters of the alphabet. He’s drawn to their forms as well as the words and sentences they create, the ideas they bring into being. A true man of letters, his talent is in using the symbols of the alphabet to make art that is grounded in words and goes beyond words.
The most exquisite of new books for the new year, Sam Fink’s oversize volume, “The Book of Exodus” (Welcome Books) includes 40 painted skyscapes, each hand-lettered with a chapter of Exodus, in Hebrew and English. Fink’s work is elegant, luminous and thoughtful: The letters illuminate the text, as the text lifts the letters, floating in the movement of the clouds. To read Fink’s book is to experience the text anew. The volume is timely, as the public reading of Exodus began in synagogues last week.
“Exodus is a cry for freedom, and that’s what it is all about. As Abraham Lincoln said: ‘This nation shall have a new birth of freedom,’ which to me means freedom needs to be born anew in each generation, and I guess each generation has to earn it,” he writes.
Fink, 91, who learned hand lettering from his father, spent more than 20 years as an art director at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, working on major national accounts. For the last two decades, he has been inscribing and illustrating great texts of American history, including “The Declaration of Independence” and “The Gettysburg Address,” which have also been published as books. All are inspired by the theme of freedom, something Fink thinks about a lot.
Last month, I spoke with Fink about the chapters of his life and work, at his Great Neck, L.I., home. That he loves ideas is evident, as is his love for this country. A great storyteller, he’s full of optimism, humility and passion, and he speaks with heart, whether in conversation or with a drawing pencil in hand.
On a winter afternoon, his living room is flooded with light. Above his fireplace is a large piece of fabric with the opening blessing of the Shema written in Hebrew and English, painted in deep colors. A tall sculpture of Abraham Lincoln stands on the mantel. The juxtaposition is very much Sam Fink.
“I never stop,” he says, about working. In his basement studio, his wooden desk is ink-splotched, topped with a large dictionary and containers of paintbrushes, markers and pencils. Cabinet drawers are filled with his work, and he pulls out pieces to show, including some new illustrations he’s working on, or “playing with” as he says, based on an Annie Dillard essay about writing and the urgency of sharing one’s thoughts. Nearby, he has an Olivetti typewriter — he still has a place to buy ribbons — but no computer or answering machine. He enjoys writing letters by hand. At a friend’s insistence, he owns a new cell phone that he takes with him while driving, but he prefers keeping life simple.
Fink was inspired to begin this project after hearing his rabbi, the late Mordecai Waxman, mention an injunction that each person copy by hand his own Bible before the end of his days. Fink started with Genesis.
Working on this, he “caught on fire. I worked like a demon. There are times for me, and for all human beings, if we allow ourselves to get so involved, we become bigger than ourselves for that moment.” He recalls that he was thinking of the project continuously and sometimes would go down to his studio in the middle of the night with a new idea. For four years, he worked on Exodus, having a great time of it, and completed the project about 17 years ago. But finding a publisher took time, and the process reflected something of the wandering and persistence of the Exodus story.
He links the “never-ending magic of the sky” with the “infinite wisdom of the words” and a wide range of interpretations of the text from scholars and others. Fink doesn’t write the letters the way a calligrapher does, but builds them, drawing outlines and filling them in; he channels meaning into their slant, their position and the designs he embellishes them with — he describes his method as embroidering each chapter onto a sky.
“I honor words,” says Fink, an admirer of the work of artists Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg and William Steig. When he mentions that his hand is not so facile these days, it’s a rare reminder of his age. He’s energetic, running down the steps to bring up additional samples of his work, and he enjoys swimming 30 laps several times a week and walking a few miles around his neighborhood.
A widower whose wife died 23 years ago, Fink has a son and daughter-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Israel, and he visits them twice a year. Another son died while in college, and Fink shows some of his artwork. For his family, Fink illuminates birth documents, including information about the delivery, the weather and the child’s name, and is hoping that he can make one for a new baby who is due in February.
When he speaks of his own early life, Fink recalls that he was an athletic kid with dreams of competing in the Olympics as a long-distance runner. He did well in school and would copy photographs of athletes, sketching baseball and football stars he admired. Then, he thought about becoming a sports writer. But after beginning studies at City College, he quit, aware that something was missing.
“I was 18 and as naive as you could ever hope to be. I took off.” In 1934, he set out to see the country with a duffel bag and five $10 traveler’s checks. From his West Bronx home, he walked over the George Washington Bridge and hitched rides to Philadelphia and then Washington, D.C., California and Arizona, with many stops in between over six weeks. He slept in Y’s or wherever he could find a cheap bed, and repeatedly experienced the great kindness of strangers, many of whom were poor people struggling through the Depression. He joined up with a family that lost their farm, and sold steel wool pads door-to-door with them to raise money for gas on their way to Iowa.
When he returned, he chose not to return to college but instead began apprenticing with his father, a commercial artist who worked in photoengraving. He worked half a day at his father’ side and served as a messenger for the rest of the day. Always wide-eyed and taking in everything around him, he became enchanted with an advertising agency where he was bringing packages, and grew determined to work at Young & Rubicam. He then studied drawing at the National Academy of Design, and that — together with his travel and apprenticeship — was his “college education.” His subsequent advertising career was distinguished, but he ultimately decided to leave the industry over the issue of working on tobacco accounts, something he preferred not to do.
“You can communicate with a painting or a drawing, or beautiful music can send thrills. Everyone has a different interpretation,” Fink says. “When you have words down, you can argue, but there they are, made with letters.”
For Fink the Hebrew letters are “made of fire, flames and tears.”
Over the last few years, he has been very gratified by his new publishing connections, responses to his work, and “all this good luck that has fallen on me.”
“I don’t want to say that God is looking after me. I don’t know about God. It’s all a mystery. Things that go on in my life leave only questions. The questions are my holiness. I don’t need an answer.”
“We’ve all had tragedies, disappointments, upsets,” he says. “All in all, I’ve had a great ride.”