An Artist’s Eye On Kohelet
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An Artist’s Eye On Kohelet

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Harriet Finck looks at Kohelet anew in a series of paintings inspired by the enigmatic biblical words that wrestle with the meaning of life.

Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, is read in synagogues this Shabbat, the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot. “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven,” wrote Kohelet, who is self-described as a king and a son of David. His poetry is echoed in the words of Pete Seeger in his classic composition “Turn, turn, turn,” and recorded by many artists.

Kohelet records observations on nature, the cyclical nature of time, age, death and the absurdities of life. The Book’s final chapter urges the enjoyment of this world and its plenty, before it’s too late. Finck’s meditative paintings touch on those themes, with her beautifully-colored, tiny, intricate patterns suggesting natural forms and images as well as a striking overall composition. She includes some of the text in Hebrew letters, as well as some English. The pieces invite close inspection.

“He’s looking at profound questions and not coming up with pat answers,” Finck says, describing her attraction to Kohelet’s sensibility. “He keeps searching.”

“I really like that indefiniteness. My work is always open-ended. I don’t have a narrative. What I relate to most is Kohelet’s circling back,” she says.

Similarly, her tiny marks loop around and back. As she explains, her swirls are molecular. In almost every piece, she uses repetitive marks, whether circles or short curved lines. It’s unplanned, and she’s always curious to see how they add up, as they inevitably form a larger structure.

“I’m always waiting to see how whatever is inside me is expressed through my hand,” she says.

Her repetition is transformative, bringing attention back to the text in ways playful and mystical.

The titles of the pieces are drawn from the text, including “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Generation Passes, A Generation Comes” and “For Every Season,” along with the 18-piece “Kohelet Mosaic.”

Trained as an architect, Finck worked in Boston and then in New York City for IM Pei. She used to draw facades of buildings. Now, she says, as a painter, she enjoys working freehand, without concern for linearity and measurement, although there’s still a precision to her work. She is more interested in “drawing what you see through a window. I see my pictures as being giant windows.” Her focus is on what’s below the surface. Her work has a joyous quality, growing out of her love of painting.

Finck began this work last year at a 2015 summer residency at Art Kibbutz on Governor’s Island, and the project grew in her New Jersey studio.

The exhibition is on view at W83 Gallery, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a gallery in the space of the W83 Ministry Center, a Presbyterian church.

Commenting on the space, Finck says: “I approach the text from my own, very Jewish background. I absolutely love that these works can be seen and appreciated by other groups who are reading these texts.”

“Kohelet: The Visual Meditations of Harriet Finck” is on view at W83 Gallery, 150 West 83rd Street, Manhattan through October 26th (open 8 am to 9 pm daily).

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