The Book of Sarah
Not every autobiographical comics artist is driven to create their own private book from the Bible. Sarah Lightman’s motivation came from her brother and sister having the Book of Daniel and the Scroll of Esther named after them, but there was no Book of Sarah, until now. A winner of the Slade Life Drawing Prize, Lightman began her diary drawings in 1995 at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, which she displayed as projections and accompanied with her spoken texts. Looking back, she thinks, “I am not sure if I could have survived my life without also drawing it. Often I make art about questions and situations in my life before I have even discussed them with friends and family”.
Unlike most first-person graphic novelists, Lightman tends to avoid representing herself, preferring potent symbols like a glass of water or a table surrounded by empty chairs, sensitively recorded in pencil. “I see my object drawings as a cross between visual haiku and vanitas still life painting, where our mortality and humanity become evident. I see a chair the same way - almost unnoticeable in a person’s presence, but a constant reminder of their absence.” She conveys this poignancy in her short animation film Family Table by personalising the original wording of Psalm 133 – “How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together” – to also encompass sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas. This was how she experienced the psalm itself and the dinner table on Friday nights (see animation video below).
Brought up within an extended Jewish family, Lightman sees her artwork bridging two forms of knowledge - learnt and experienced, or as she puts it, “History/herstory and my story. In Jewish textual tradition, midrash fills the gaps in Biblical texts. My artwork lives in these spaces, as a visual midrash”. Lightman has found many parallels with her Old Testament namesake, voiceless and barren, who nevertheless bore Abraham’s son, Isaac, late in life. Recently married, Lightman reflects on her uncertainty about parenthood through such spare, evocative imagery as an egg carton and baking tins in her new strip for the May 2013 issue of ArtReview magazine entitled And God remembered Sarah (see below).
Lightman has signed with Myriad Editions to publish The Book of Sarah in 2015. “It will be formed of two chapters: Genesis, my beginnings, and Exodus, about leaving home and to some degree, leaving religious life as well. Though I am still very excited by Jewish culture and intellectual heritage, I don’t always feel I belong. So I feel a little exiled right now.”
One community she does feel at home in is one she has actively helped to nurture, namely the blossoming scene of women’s autobiographical comics. Central to this has been her codirection with Nicola Streeten of Laydeez Do Comics, a monthly creative and supportive forum, run by women but welcoming to everyone, which started in London and has spread across the UK and to San Francisco and Chicago. Equally vital has been her cocuration with Michael Kaminer of Graphic Details, the first exhibition of confessional comics by Jewish women, which after touring North America reaches London next year. Her latest pieces, in an exhibit supported by a grant from the European Association for Jewish Culture at Occupy My Time Gallery, Enclave 9 Resolution Way, Deptford, London, SE8 4NT from May 10th till June 1st, form another part of her life story and of her life. Both of them works in progress.
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Here’s the interview which Sarah kindly answered in the preparation of the above article.
You make public some very personal emotions, things that often go unspoken [detail from The Reluctant Bride above]. Do you see your work as helping, perhaps healing, for you and for the reader/viewer?
I am not sure if I could have survived my life without also drawing it. I have an urge to take my thoughts and experiences and make them into art. These feelings pester me until I put them down in words and images and then they feel acknowledged. Often I make art about questions and situations in my life before I have even discussed them with friends and family. The wonder of autobiographical art is the constant surprise of recognition in the communication of intimate feelings and experiences. Even the most intimate experiences are not unique, but universal. [Detail below from Dumped Before Valentine’s]
How do envisage your project, The Book of Sarah, coming to completion as a missing book of The Bible? Or will it be ongoing all your life long? Will you revisit more from your past, or focus on the current and immediate?
I’m excited that I will be publishing The Book of Sarah with Myriad Editions in 2015. It will be formed of two chapters: Genesis, my beginnings, and Exodus, about leaving home and to some degree, leaving religious life as well. Though I am still very excited by Jewish culture and intellectual heritage, I don’t always feel I belong. So I feel a little exiled right now.
Your new Strip deals with your feelings about starting a family. I wondered if there is an extra level here, because, I believe, the original Sarah or Sarai, as Abraham’s wife, was portrayed as barren, though later in life she becomes the mother of Isaac?
Yes, my life has many parallels with my namesake. The whole aspect of uncertainty in relation to parenthood is one of them. My title for strip published in ArtReview is And God remembered Sarah, from Genesis 21:1, where Sarah finds herself pregnant as God promised, even though she was old. There are more parallels between my Biblical namesake and myself. Earlier in Genesis, God commands Abram and Sarai to move from their home environment. I feel we all do this in our worlds, leave our parent’s home and to enter the world, build our own world and family. There is the trauma of departure, the space of the great unknown and also the power to create new worlds, which we can choose to belong to. With anxiety and loss, comes amazing opportunity and potential. I wrote about this in one of my sketchbooks. I was spending a lot of time in NYC and finding it hard to settle without the security of home and familiarity. I drew myself and my parents outside my parent’s house and wrote the following text:
Now the Lord said to Abram:
“Go forth from your native land,
and from your father’s house to the land I will show you”.
So I did.
Though it’s nearly killed me.
(Book of Sarah 2001)
Why do you often choose not to draw yourself but to draw potent symbols - here, eggs for example, or a table surrounded by empty chairs, or a glass of water? Do they help to make your highly subjective, first-person text less specific and more universal?
I see my object drawings as a cross between visual haiku and vanitas. Like haiku my object drawings are seemingly simple, but are compact constructions and symbols. I am also referencing the grand tradition of still life, which include memento mori, decaying flowers and decomposing fruits. These paintings are life in action- reflecting time passing, where our humanity and mortality becomes evident. I see a chair the same way - almost unnoticeable in a person’s presence, but a constant reminder of their absence. I’ve just been introduced to Thing Theory and am excited to see how it applies to my work.
Your writing, noticeably when spoken by you in your films, sometimes has a prayer-like quality in structure and tone - where does this come from, what does it serve?
I love that you compared my work to prayer. It really fits in many ways. My work is made in silence on my own, at home, and brings with it a quietness and peace. I feel in many ways I am expressing a truth about life and living. And pencil is such a modest and straightforward medium. My artwork also bridges the transition between two forms of knowledge - learnt and experienced, between history/herstory and my story. Within Jewish textual tradition there is midrash, it fills in the gaps in the biblical text. My artwork lives in these spaces linking connecting what I learnt with what I have experienced. When I make art I am forming a creative exegesis, a visual midrash. For example in my film The Family Table [detail below] I extend the original text of Psalm 133 – “How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together” – to also include sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas, because that was my experience of the family Friday night dinner table and is how I experienced the psalm.
You put a lot of care and consideration into both your pictures and your words. Do you evolve them separately or do they spark off each other?
The concept for each artwork forms almost at once in my mind, but the drawing takes longer than writing. Drawing is wonderful and calming. There is this magic in making something appear from a blank page. It’s that prayer like quality you picked up on before.
Though both come from you and the same hand and mind, your drawings are much more meticulous than your hand-written script - what is your thinking behind this contrast?
My work balances between deliberate and organic. I want to intertwine my considered and intense feelings with an intimacy and freshness. So the writing may seem carelessly written but it’s distilled and tight. I want it to look like the text literally fell out of my fingers. I do find writing difficult to work with visually. I think that is one of the attractions of working in films. My voice can carry my words and their meanings - my voice and tone become the handwriting.
As a practitioner of and researcher into autobiographical comics, have you found that there is something about the medium that makes it particularly affecting for graphic memoirs?
I think we are constantly editing ourselves, and rewriting our livess to make sense of our choices. It’s an act of control to take individual incidents and make narratives. Making beginnings, middles and ends makes us mini-gods! Real life isn’t like that. In life, we are not in control, we face uncertainty and our expectations are often not met. Our wishes don’t come true. However a story we write of our lives can make all those false starts part of a purposeful journey. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Well, I think that’s what graphic memoir is all about, making closed doors into the most amazing personal odyssey. My most recent academic research is about “Metamorphosing Difficulties in the autobiographical graphic novels of Sarah Leavitt, Nicola Streeten, and Maureen Burdock.” For these artists making graphic novels about their traumatic life experiences has been transformational.
What do you still apply to your sequential narrative pieces from your background and studies at The Slade making individual drawings and paintings, I presume without text?
I made a lot of drawings with texts at The Slade. It was there I started The Book of Sarah, and drew about my family. I’d perform my artwork using a slide projector showing images and then speak the text. My undergraduate dissertation was on Visual Midrash and Contemporary Art. I loved pairing my artwork and my academic research. And it is the same now. As well as making my Book of Sarah I am researching a PhD in Autobiographical Comics at the University of Glasgow.
What have you learnt from developing the animated film versions of your work?
I’ve loved creating the space of the animation films. My words exist in the air with drawings on a screen. The drawings appear and disappear with a breath. Narrative, space and time are fascinating combinations and with this in mind, my artwork acknowledges both the oral and written Jewish traditions.
Sarah is missing her own book in The Bible, in much the same way that women’s lives and voices have been largely missing or marginalised from much of culture, including comics. How do you see this changing, through your own work, curation and collaborations, and through Laydeez Do Comics (LDC)?
Women around the world are making amazing comics right now, and it is wonderful to be part of this movement. I have been actively creating spaces and forums for women’s autobiographical comics to be read, seen and discussed. As a result I have also been building my own academic and creative family. I am a Director of LDC with Nicola Streeten and there are now LDC’s in London, Leeds, Bristol, Dublin, San Francisco and Chicago, and this summer we are holding our first event in Glasgow. Last month at LDC in London one speaker described how she had been inspired to create her graphic novel by attending LDC. She showed her work for the first time. I think that’s just wonderful.
I’ve also loved co-curating Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women with Michael Kaminer, as it has toured USA and Canada. It’s the first show to focus on the contribution Jewish women have made to the genre of autobiographical comics. I’m just completing editing the book on the show to be published by McFarland in 2014. I’ve also chaired and co-chaired three academic conferences: Women in Comics I, at the University of Cambridge (2009), Women in Comics II at Leeds Art Gallery (2010), and Talking about Jewish Women and Comics at Yeshiva University Museum, NYC (2012).
One of my favourite aspects of what I do is to bring comics to new audiences and confounding people’s expectations. I spoke at Limmud Conference at Warwick University to a packed audience who couldn’t believe there were Jewish Women making comics. And most recently I spoke at The Women of The World Festival about Jewish Women and Comics (see video below).
Any last words about your ArtReview Strip?
I am grateful Vik JF, an artist and graphic designer, who helped me design this page. This strip links my own journey towards having a family. I am currently manifesting a steady stream of sublimation that can be tracked throughout my domestic and creative life. The other day my husband came to the sitting room.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Drawing eggs” I said.
“Ah yes,” he said “As one does.”
Posted: May 4, 2013
This Article originally appeared in the May 2103 issue of ArtReview magazine.