Wednesday, August 7, 2013

An Interview with Martin Mendelsberg

    I discovered that the Hebrew letters are not merely a convenience of language, but are the essence that sustains the structure of the world.”
    Martin Mendelsberg

         Martin Mendelsberg is a graphic artist, typographer and educator. He has exhibited in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, China, Russia and in the United States. His work can be found in the permanent collections at Yale University, The New Zealand National Gallery, Victoria University School of Architecture and The Center for the Study of Political Graphics. It was a privilege to ask Mr. Mendelsberg a few questions recently.

         Over twenty years ago I became attracted to the Hebrew letterform; and after twenty years I feel I am merely beginning to experience the surface of their beauty. Your work reminds me of the transcendent nature of Hebrew by the way you integrate the ancient text with a style that is both contemporary and relevant to our time. Will you tell me about you first experience with the ancient text?

         As a ten year old boy growing up with old and new world Jewish rituals, practice and culture I became attracted to the Hebrew letters. My father was establishing a smaller neighborhood group of fellow Jews who wished to practice their religion outside of the larger synagogues in Denver. Services for the Sabbath rotated from home to home. When it was time to pray in our home I spent many hours examining the Torah scrolls held inside our portable ark. The absolute aesthetics and clarity of purpose embedded in these letters left a timeless impression on me. As my interest in the letters has grown so too has the neighborhood synagogue, which is now one of the most important orthodox synagogues in the region.
         Your font, "Torah", is truly elegant. How long did you work on the lettering by hand before you began the digital version?

         More than twenty-five years ago I partnered with Rabbi Menachem Goldberger who was also trained as a Sofer (scribe) on designs for Ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts). The Rabbi asked me to complete the decorative aspects of these documents and he would draw the letters. As a result of this partnership "Rav" Goldberger taught me the art and craft of forming the traditional Torah letters. I also amassed a large collection of references including travels to the Houghton Research Library at Harvard to study ancient documents. After drawing the letters for more than two years I decided to scan the most accurate examples and build the digital typeface using a variety of software. The entire process took almost nine years and the "Torah" font is now marketed in Israel by Masterfont Ltd. The completion of this typeface now set me free to compose a myriad of designs and compositions. These letters also became the foundations for my "Holocaust Portfolio."
         How did "Holocaust Portfolio" develop?

         "Holocaust Portfolio" was born as the result of the discovery of a tiny picture inside of an old family album. Two very young girls, one with cane, are pictured. According to my mother they were the daughters of my great aunt Bluma—nothing more was known. I became absolutely fascinated with these vanished souls. "Lost Girls" is the touchstone for the work produced over the last 15 years. The Holocaust casts a dark timeless shadow; ever since I was a young child I've experienced continuing terror, insecurity, and bewilderment. As I answer your question terror and ethnic cleansing continues in Africa.
         Your work is varied, from 2D to 3D. Of the pieces you have produced, do you have a personal favorite, something you are particularly pleased with, and if so, why?

    Lost Girls
         The usual answer we hear is, "I don't have a single work to isolate." My answer is "Lost Girls" from the "Holocaust Portfolio." This work combined my imaginings of two innocent girls with the seminal prayer in Judaism the "Shemah" which explicitly states the oneness of God. This prayer was recited by the myriad of Jews marched into the gas chambers. This single work contains the DNA for all of the future work contained in the portfolio.
         As a Jewish designer/artist, what are your thoughts regarding the Second Commandment- Do not make a graven image ?

         Your question is very interesting. There are differences between the Judaic, Catholic and Protestant commandments. The second commandment in Judaism clearly states the oneness of God. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” In Judaic art depictions of God are not permitted but we do celebrate and depict all that God has created. The omnipresence and infinite dimensions of God nourishes the work I design. Islamic tradition also has aligned commandments that lead us to some of the most compelling calligraphy and ornamentation ever created.
     Who have been the major influences in your life?

This is the difficult question—the list is simply too long. I have always been interested in the arts and more recently the sciences. In short; John Coltrane, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Stephen Hawkings, Pablo Neruda, Kurt Vonnegut, Ravel, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Marcel Marceau, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Hil Tempelhof (my grandfather) and Jean Hashman (my high school art teacher).


     What inspires you?

     A well-known Talmudic affirmation: “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
     Who are your favorite designers? Typefaces?

     As far as typefaces there are no favorites. The overarching goal of the well-educated designer is to respect the content provided and then make targeted choices that enhance comprehension, memory and enriched experiences. A few favored designers are Paul Rand, Sister Mary Corita Kent, Milton Glaser and R. Buckminster Fuller.
      What are your thoughts on the current state of higher education, in regard to the arts?

     With stressed economies and poor employment prospects there has been a profusion of “for-profit” high-speed diploma mills. There has been undo attention given to technology. We must never forget that visionary individuals who came from diverse backgrounds fuel and lead technological advances. Artists and designers in the 21st century must learn to be masterful communicators in all forms including writing and speaking, they must become liberal artists as well. Schools K-12 must also recognize value and importance of the arts. Sir Ken Robinson delivered one of the most compelling TED talks ever given. This is a must-see experience: Why Schools Kill Creativity.
      I understand that your study of the Hebrew letterform has strengthened your spiritual connection to Judaism. What suggestions do you offer students who express a desire to integrate their faith with their art?

     Religious understandings and practices are lifelong pursuits, I think it’s possible to engage in much deeper spiritual experiences as the result of creating analogies and metaphors imagined and created in all of the expressive arts. 

Inspired by

To see more of Martin Mendelberg's work click here.

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