Artist, writer, woman

An interview with Batnadiv HaKarmi about her in-depth artistic study on each one of the Hebrew Bible’s chapters

Morning Painting 4. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Morning Painting 4.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over two years ago, artist and writer Batnadiv HaKarmi began her longest-running project to date. She calls it Bibliodraw, an in-depth study of each of the Hebrew Bible’s 929 chapters, one per day.
Responding to each chapter with original drawings and poetry, HaKarmi posts her unrevised work on the Bibliodraw blog. There it stands as a testament to the power of creative commitment and the beauty of learning for learning’s sake.
Raised in Jerusalem, HaKarmi earned her master’s in comparative literature from the Hebrew University before moving to the US to study art at the New York Studio School. Since returning to the holy city in 2010, she has headed the art program at Emunah V’Omanot and recently joined the arts faculty at Brandeis Institute for Music and Art. She is currently studying poetry at Bar-Ilan University and is a member of A Studio of Her Own, a nonprofit that supports religious female artists.
Nearing the end of the Torah’s fifth book, HaKarmi invited me to her home in Jerusalem. Over tea, we discussed art, literature, religion, technology and the myriad ways they intersect.
What inspired Bibliodraw? Bibliodraw is my longest-term project, and I think part of the reason is that there were so many elements that came together.
The first was my grandfather, who was a huge influence on me. He wrote in his will that he wanted each of his grandchildren to learn Jewish texts for an hour a day. After he passed away, I tried to do it, but it was hard to keep up. I thought that if I could combine the learning with something that meant a lot to me, it would be easier. So Bibliodraw was a way of making this personal commitment.
I have a friend, Jacqueline Nicholls, who is doing an incredible project called Draw Yomi. She follows the Daf Yomi cycle and responds each day with a drawing.
After a traffic accident left me unable to paint for several months, she told me, ‘If you can’t paint, you at least need to draw. Every day.’ I couldn’t work large because it hurt, but it was something I could do sitting. It’s small and more controlled.
So I started learning a chapter of Tanach every day, and I started drawing.
Lastly, I have a degree in literature, and my thesis focused on Tanach. I grew up on Tanach bedtime stories. That was what defined my childhood. These were my archetypes. So Bibliodraw ended up bringing together all these elements that I had kept separate: my art, my literary analysis and my religious life.
You’ve completed more than 170 chapters of Tanach. Is it still difficult to keep up the commitment? Yes, especially if you’re tired and not feeling well. At the beginning, I was super careful about doing it every day, even if it meant staying up until two in the morning.
Now I’m a little less strict. It slowed down specifically for Deuteronomy, partially for personal reasons. That’s when I got engaged and got married, and there was just so much going on. But now I realize there is also a difference in the text that I’m having a hard time handling. It requires more processing time.
What about Deuteronomy is so challenging? It’s interesting because I thought Leviticus was hard. It’s all laws, and it’s very arcane. But it has very clear themes. It’s easy to put into visual form because it’s all about spaces: the sacred spaces and the spaces outside. With Deuteronomy, I keep finding all these different themes, and it’s hard to find an image that brings it together. I can choose one little thing and draw it, but that’s not satisfying.
It’s very important to me that Bibliodraw has a holistic element.
On the other hand, I don’t want to force a narrative that I’m not seeing.
You consider yourself a colorist, but Bibliodraw is black, white and gray.
Why? What happened was I chose a material for each book. For Genesis, I wanted something primal and easy to change. I felt like that’s what the book is about – things at the beginning. Usually, the first material people work with is pencil, so I chose pencil.
When I went into Exodus, I still wanted that primal feeling from Genesis because it is a continuation.
But the story was getting more complex, so I added in white. Also, because you’re dealing with slavery, I chose a very simple notebook. It had brown paper, the sort you use for sketches that don’t mean much because it’s the cheapest.
Once I got to the part about building the Tabernacle, I realized that I was using white very often for elements of holiness.
So when I was dealing with Leviticus, which is all the Tabernacle, I only drew in white. And then I chose black paper. By then, I already had three books that were tonal, and I felt better keeping it consistent language.
But it wasn’t planned.
What about Numbers and Deuteronomy? Genesis is world formation.
Exodus is becoming a nation.
Numbers is something more permanent. Now you’re a nation. So Numbers was ink.
What was interesting about the ink was that it started out very controlled. Then it spilled and went in a whole different direction, which is exactly what happens in the book. So it actually worked out really well. Deuteronomy is Mishne Torah. It’s going over everything, a review.
So I used any material that I had already used: graphite, conté and ink.
How do you make the leap from studying the text to drawing it? I start by learning. And when I learn, I’m really using my literary brain. It’s a complete, classical, close reading. What are the patterns? What are the sounds? And then, how does that relate to visuality? To make that leap, I scribble down a few words, waiting for an image to form in my mind. Then I draw.
It’s very important to me that these are not illustrations of Tanach. It’s a mode of learning Tanach. For example, in Genesis, I realized that I was always drawing hands. I’ve read Genesis a million times, and images of hands are so ubiquitous.
You don’t think about them very much, but visually I was picking up on them. It became really important to be discovering something through the drawing that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve actually given several classes now about the hand imagery in Genesis because it’s so powerful once you see it.
Your Bibliodraw posts are accompanied by poetry and chapter summaries.
Why? When I finish the drawing, I sum up what I discovered in a poem or prose-poem.
It’s a way of going back and understanding the drawing, a meditation on a certain part of the chapter that spoke to me. As people started following the blog, they started asking for explanations. At the beginning, I was hesitant. But now I see it more as summarizing the learning, so it doesn’t bother me. I really do spend a lot of time on studying, so it became a way of recording what I saw. Then I can go back and remember the process.
How does the creative process differ when writing versus creating visual art? This is something I’m still exploring.
They used to be completely separate.
Now it’s something very different. I do think that in art, when I’m in the zone, there’s a complete flow. When painting still lifes, which are observation based, I feel like an eye and a hand. My head doesn’t have to be there, which is why they are so therapeutic. You’re present in the moment and noticing all these little things that you usually don’t see. Everything is super intense. I do find that when I’m in the free-flow of writing, I feel the same. But not when I’m editing the poem or putting it into form. Bibliodraw is not that. It doesn’t allow me to get into that state because it’s more cerebral.
Do you have plans to publish or exhibit Bibliodraw? I’m trying to figure out where to go with it. Several people suggested publishing an art book. I met an art historian who really liked the project and said he’d be happy to write an introduction. But it’s a major expense to publish an art book. It costs a fortune, and you need a publisher who’s going to do it with the right quality. I’m also thinking of doing an exhibition. Once I’m scanning the images on a professional level, I would like to print them out full size, so you can actually see them as a series. Because they are a series, and they build on each other.
Then there’s the insecurity. In Bibliodraw, there was a very clear rule for me of no redoing a drawing. I knew that if I allowed myself to redo, it was going to become about my usual perfectionism and not the learning. So if I publish, do I say, ‘This is the project as is’? or do I say, ‘Okay, now is the time for revisions’? It’s a whole different approach.
You post Bibliodraw on your blog and share iPad sketches on Facebook.
In your opinion, how does technology affect creativity? It’s a tool like any other. It can be used in a really helpful way. And if you don’t use it in the proper way, it can go in the other direction. In my studio, I try not to have Internet, and I turn off my phone because it’s distracting. If kids are not taught to use the iPad to draw and they only watch TV, it’s going to lower their creativity. But I think it’s more about being passive versus active rather than about using technology per se.
Does the multitude of readily available images create unrealistic expectations or lower the opportunity for original ideas? I’ve been teaching art for years, and I do think that younger artists are going to have much more complex images because they’re juggling so many. It’s a matter of learning how to process. I grew up in a household where there wasn’t that much art. So for me, it was being starved for inspiration rather than having too much.
I go to a museum, and I don’t feel like it stymies me. Art students are meant to copy from a master. I do think it’s a problem if you’re dealing too much with your contemporaries. You’re getting involved in someone else’s process. When you look at a painting, you know what the artist did and what his or her questions were. It’s a lot safer. I think that having interactions with living artists is really important, but it should be a one-on-one interaction. I have artists who I’ll invite to my studio or artists whose studios I go to, and it’s really inspiring. For me, Facebook is an art fest because most of my friends are artists, and they’re uploading.
How does your personal life affect your work and vice versa? I think that’s the perpetual question for artists. It’s probably something I struggle with more than most because I went to school that was very observation-based.
It was all about realism. If your style became too personal, the work was blasted.
What moved me away from that approach was that I had a friend who was killed in a terrorist attack. I was in the vstudio painting when I found out. And I was never able to finish that painting. It really put me through a crisis. That was when I realized this is not an ideal.
At the end of the day, you’re a human being, you’re not a camera. And whatever you’re going through is going to be there.
But to use it consciously is something I struggle with. Usually I need something else to allow the personal in. Now I can say how many personal elements Bibliodraw allowed in, but it wasn’t conscious.
I needed that framework of answering to something else.
What are morning paintings? What’s interesting is that the morning paintings grew out of Bibliodraw. There’s a chapter about the offerings, and there’s the offering of the tamid, which has to be done every day. In the same chapter, you have the musafim, which is what’s added on special occasions.
I’m someone who is drawn to special occasions.
Prayer is very hard for me, this idea that you do it every morning.
But it was powerful that any time we brought musafim, it was in addition to the daily offering.
You couldn’t talk about the musaf, the extra, if you didn’t first have the tamid. It really got me thinking about daily ritual.
You do it no matter what. It’s about the commitment to yourself.
And that was the morning paintings. They’re small and they’re quick – half an hour to an hour.
What are the benefits and drawbacks to creating as part of routine? It’s about being committed to a process rather than results, and this is both their strength and their drawback. I took the morning paintings to an artist I respect for critique, and she told me, ‘You’re not pushing yourself enough. These aren’t pieces of art. These are just sketches.’ That critique really threw me off. I thought, ‘Should I keep doing these? Are they just self-indulgent?’ I stopped doing them for a week, but I realized it wasn’t good for me. There is something in doing this first thing in the morning that is very important.
When I start my day with painting, I see the world as a painter.
How did you become involved with A Studio of Her Own? One of the hardest things about coming back from New York is that there I felt like an artist. Here, I felt like I was being judged by the fact that I was wearing a skirt. I was not taken seriously. I felt like a nonentity.
Living in Jerusalem is also a problem because the stereotypical artist is meant to live in Tel Aviv. But I kept meeting these artists that I really liked, and all of them were in A Studio of Her Own. They were accepting applications, so I applied and was accepted. Right now they are providing a meeting point for young, religious, female artists.
We end up working in very different mediums, but a lot of the things we went through are the same. You begin to realize you’re not alone.
What are some of the common difficulties facing religious female artists? Women who come from traditional societies tend to get married early. Sometimes there is not a real appreciation for art.
The most important thing is to have children, to be with your children. You’re not meant to make room for this kind of stuff.
We just curated a show at A Studio of Her Own called “Amphibian.”
It was about living in two worlds at once. And the suspicion that comes against people living in two worlds at once.
I looked up the etymology of “amphibian,” and it meant “of a dubious nature.” I became very interested in this idea. Why is something that has two aspects dubious? I found a certain mythological string. On the one hand, these are monsters. On the other hand, it’s the centaur or the mermaid. It’s this dream of being able to live in two worlds, that you don’t have to give up. •
Batnadiv HaKarmi’s work is currently being exhibited at Art Refuge Gallery and A Studio of Her Own. To follow the Bibliodraw project, visit For information about her other work, visit