“Faces of The Matriarchs” Addresses Genesis from A Female Point of View
Like this painting, "Leah: The Face of Motherhood," is one example of Lewis' quiet but strong voices and faces of the biblical matriarchs. Courtesy of Melanie Lewis.
By Cynthia Winer
As a child, Melanie Lewis enjoyed celebrating the Jewish holidays and attending synagogue services with her family. She loved art and anticipated a career as an artist, but when she earned a doctorate in science education, her professional career as a biology professor at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) took center stage for several decades. Her love of art and active participation in Judaism—her twin passions—would have to wait.
As a science educator, Lewis gained writing experience and co-authored an elementary science textbook, “Science Horizons.” As retirement neared, she began exploring her passion for Judaism and art as they started to become front and center in her life. In 1988 she participated in a b’nai mitzvah class at Congregation Agudas Achim and began taking art classes at The Art School at Laguna Gloria (now The Contemporary Austin Art School). By the time she retired, Lewis was renting studio space, and started participating in public art shows.
“Faces of the Matriarchs” began as an art project after Lewis attended an art exhibit by painter Natalie Frank at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art. Frank’s paintings featured selected Grimm’s fairy tales and were based on “feminist re-imaginings.” Lewis felt drawn to the paintings, for they told a woman’s perspective of the fairy tales. She knew that what she saw were not her stories, but she envisioned creating art from women’s stories in the Torah. While attending a Shabbat morning Torah and Rashi study group at CAA with Rabbi Neil Blumofe, focusing on Genesis, the matriarchs of the first families—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah—became her stories for the art project.
As she began to develop ideas for her art project, Lewis learned from her friend Ester Smith that the word for “face” in Hebrew is “panim” and is always plural, and she thought about the multiple “faces” or attributes of the matriarchs in Genesis. However, trying to find the physical characteristics for visual artwork for these women was a challenge. The women are not the main focus of the stories in Genesis—they are secondary to the men—and Lewis quickly learned that details of these women were sparse.
One example, Lewis pointed out, is all we know about the death of Sarah is her age and where she died.
“The voices and faces of the biblical matriarchs are quiet but strong. I decided to listen and look carefully at these women in the Torah and at what others had to say about them,” Lewis explained.
Lewis turned to the commentaries, countless additional stories that embellish the biblical text as each generation of scholars adds its own interpretations. From the commentaries she discovered intriguing ideas, and she began to visualize the roles of the matriarchs as spouses, homemakers, child bearers and caregivers.
As her ideas began to take shape, Lewis had to choose which stories to feature. She wanted to include stories about the matriarchs that revealed attributes that she could narrate in a painting and had a lesson to teach. As her artwork began to appear on paper, Lewis realized that she needed to write down what she was learning.
One morning at synagogue, friends of Lewis, author Lori Kline and publisher Deborah Weingarten (a”h), were talking about Kline’s recently published book, “Almost a Minyan.” Lewis decided to show Weingarten some of her artwork and get her opinion about writing up the stories to see if they might make an interesting book about paintings and stories from Genesis from a woman’s point of view. From that moment, Lewis knew that her art project now had two forms, the paintings and a book.
The painting on the book’s cover is “Sarah: The Face of a Visionary.” Lewis, describing her art for this painting, said, “The mystery of God’s covenant with Abraham, and the matriarch’s role in achieving that covenant, is the theme of this picture . . . . The various circles represent a time continuum, from the past in the background to the future in the foreground. A beach under a starry sky represents the covenant of numerous descendants. Finally, there is a picture of a child, followed by the far future of the Ten Commandments and Torah.”
Lewis characterizes her paintings as the creative element of “Faces of the Matriarchs.” The book’s text deals with ideas and situations that the women of Genesis faced. Some of the women’s stories were straightforward, as depicted in a painting such as “Rebekah: The Face of Kindness.”
Lewis describing this piece of art, said, “I pictured Rebekah with a sort of dreamy look on her face, as if she were imagining something in the future. She is emptying her pitcher as she gives water to the animals.”
One midrash that Lewis read described the water rising up to Rebekah to make her task easier.
“Inspired by the midrash, . . . I made the water in the picture playful. The water is done in pastels as well as paint; it is ‘happy’ to help out Rebekah in her task as she fulfills her part in God’s larger plan,” Lewis said.
The writing and painting came out concurrently throughout the art project. The paintings were trial-and-error, as Lewis tried to represent the story of each matriarch she had chosen. Those stories have always been in the Torah and the commentaries. The paintings grew out of the stories, commentary, and other artistic representations of biblical characters in art books, museums and the Internet.
The power of a work of art is that viewers see different aspects—some they like and some they dislike. Artists restrain explanations of their pieces so as not to limit the power of the art itself. In “Faces of the Matriarchs,” Lewis mainly comments on technical aspects of the art, allowing readers to discover their own feelings. Where she comments on her motivations and intentions, the hope is to enhance the reader’s understanding.
Lewis, describing what she learned from this process, said, “This project required me to grow, both as an artist, where I had to solve problems with my chosen media and materials, and in my understanding of the biblical text.”
Lewis believes that the stories and the teachings are sacred.
“It was my intention to be respectful, even when showing problematic aspects of the matriarchs,” she said.
Lewis enjoyed getting to know the Genesis matriarchs as they became friends as well as “relatives.” She thinks about these women and wonders what they would think about the current situations involving abuse of power and the changing roles of women in modern times throughout the world.
The 12 paintings that accompany "Faces of the Matriarchs" will be on display at CAA through the end of the year. Books can be purchased online at www.facesofthematriarchs.com and prints of the paintings can be purchased from Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org. ■