Learning the letters with Kalman Gavriel

“Letters of Light” is an exhibit designed to teach the importance of each Hebrew letter through art, and to highlight the deep and mystical tradition of the letters.

By EMMA MCAVOY
August 14, 2019 15:38
Learning the letters with Kalman Gavriel

‘LETTERS OF Light’ illustrates the significance of each Hebrew letter.. (photo credit: KALMAN GAVRIEL)

Walking along the ancient Jerusalem limestone walls of the Jewish Quarter, we often find a history in every crack and crevice, but how often do we find works of art?

Little do people know that in one of the four Sephardic Synagogues tucked away on Beit El Street, there is a place where art and individualism meet religion and history.

Local scribe artist Kalman Gavriel educates locals and tourists on the meaning and history of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet through various works of art at his first solo exhibit “Letters of Light” at one of the four Sephardic Synagogues in the Old City.
“Letters of Light” is an exhibit designed to teach the importance of each Hebrew letter through art, and to highlight the deep and mystical tradition of the letters. Gavriel says each letter carries a story and symbolism. His goal is to develop a visual language that can inspire a younger generation of religious and nonreligious people to use art as a medium for self-expression.
Gavriel came to Israel to study at a yeshiva after graduating high school. He claims he “fell in love with learning about Israel” and became more connected his Jewish identity as he continued his studies. In his third year, he was overwhelmingly inspired to become a scribe artist after observing a friend’s work with the practice.

“I saw his work and it was just unbelievable,” Gavriel said.

Gavriel started learning scribal art from a rabbi when he furthered his studies at a more “religious Zionist” yeshiva. The rabbi that Gabriel studied with had taken a course in being a scribe, but served more as Gavriel’s spiritual mentor.

“He really helped me nurture a love for the letters,” Gavirel said. “The Hebrew letters have a huge amount of information in our Jewish tradition. There are volumes written about each letter.”

According to the artist, calligraphy can be a powerful tool in writing, using one’s hands and examining content and context. In scribe art, he is able to combine his passions for the mechanics of writing and the esoteric language.

“I really excelled,” Gavriel said. “At a certain point my writing surpassed my teacher’s and I began to study at different places in order to improve.”

Gavriel’s overall goal (besides highlighting his work from the past few years) is to show people that the letters themselves can compete within the contemporary art world. He wants to mold it into a more mainstream art form.

“Often Jews don’t collect Judaic art,” Gavriel said. “Judaic art has become very kitschy and manufactured, more like trinkets.”
Gavriel stresses the importance of using art as a medium for self-expression because there is so much more that can be communicated through visual art than most people realize.

THE LOCATION in a synagogue in the Old City is fitting for this display of work. The intelligent arrangement of the works set against the backdrop of the synagogue’s ornate interior is not only appealing to the eye, but it also ties together art, history, religion, culture and identity.

The pieces presented in the exhibit are mainly connected with personal and Jewish identity. One crucial aspect of the work, according to Gavriel, is that it communicates this idea that a person can have a strong Jewish identity in a community and still be an individual.

Every aspect of the art serves its purpose, from the selection of parchment to the ink color and textures on each canvas. For example, one of the pieces, entitled Aleph Bet Checkerboard – Vessels and Light explores the combination of body and soul. Gavriel displays each letter twice, once in black ink surrounded by the white parchment and once with white relief in a black background.

“This piece is one I really cherish because it’s a piece for contemplation,” Gavriel said. “It’s simple and representative of the body and the soul of each letter.”

The intricate nature of the pieces shows beauty and thought. Gavriel’s innovativeness shines through when he forms shapes and symbols using text. One piece in particular that merges individualism and religion through this microcalligraphy is Identity, which presents a fingerprint sketched using only Hebrew text from Psalm 1, emphasizing “the micro within the macrocosm.”

Another piece in which Gavriel uses microcalligraphy is Rav Shlomo Carlbach,  a piece commemorating the joyous spirit of Rav Shlomo Carlbach through his songs. The piece itself depicts the rabbi’s face, which is completely outlined and detailed with verses of the first stanza of the Shabbat liturgy “Lecha Dodi” (“Come, My Beloved”). Gavriel’s special attention to detail is evident in the text intricately forming the rabbi’s beard, eye shape and features.

“Every Hebrew letter is meaningful and valuable,” Gavriel said. “I like more minimal things to highlight each letter.”

Gavriel described his process of creating the piece as “intuitive” because he doesn’t “measure things to the dot.”

“I’m not a perfectionist at all, but somehow the letters always end up where they’re supposed to,” Gavriel said.

THIS EXHIBIT additionally plays host to works that feature colors and illuminated scriptures, showcasing how the letters and text of the Torah visually tell a story. One unique colorful piece depicts the shape and physical location of Israel out of text from the Torah. Graviel uses the colors of the rainbow in specific sections to show the coexistence of people in our world.

Gavriel says that the whole purpose of using the Sephardic synagogue for this display was to give the site a sense of vibrancy that he feels many tourists overlook.

“I want tourists to feel alive here,” Gavriel said. “Most museums connote the past and show what was. I want to share something that is.”

Gavriel’s creative process can be time-consuming or simple depending on the medium in which he works. He mainly works with classical parchment, which he says is his niche.

“I collect rare parchments and match up ideas,” Gavriel said. “I often get custom orders and make pieces with these rare parchments. I’ll set them aside to make something special.”

The artist has also spent years working on a piece composed of golden three-dimensional Hebrew letters, which was designed to represent them as the building blocks of text and of the religion. He spray-painted letters gold, which he believes gives them value and symbolizes the esoteric aura.

Gavriel’s work is incredibly diverse in that it involves history and culture, but also unites past and present. His fascination with symbology and expressiveness are ever-present in his art.

“I would like to be an example for something larger, which is taking the tradition and creating a visual art form through my own personal expression,” Gavriel said. “The artwork itself is meant to inspire.”

For more information: thejerusalemscribe.com


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