Celebrating the Jewish New Year of the Trees this week brings me back to the first painting I made when Miriam and I were married 58 years ago. I was a science teacher at Louis Pasteur Junior High School on Long Island studying painting at the Art Students League of New York. Looking at a cross-section of an oak leaf through a microscope, I painted the awesome beauty hidden in the cellular pattern within the leaf. (The photo above is a cross-section of a pine leaf that I painted with molten waxes on a shaped panel.)
I have returned to exploring scientific, artistic and spiritual interrelationship in this hidden beauty throughout my career as artist and educator in the United States and Israel. I wrote about this dynamic interface in my book on photographing Divine light in everyday life http://photographgod.com and my books The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness and Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology and Culture (both published by Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) http://future-of-art.com.
In the 1970’s, I created an interdisciplinary course “Morphodynamics: Design of Natural Systems” that I taught at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and at Columbia University in New York. As art professor at Columbia, my teaching explored the cellular growth patterns of plants that I studied in the laboratory of the New York Botanical Gardens and developed into artworks in my New Jersey studio. I found hidden within leaves a vital inner beauty that rivals the beauty of the outer forms of plants and their flowers. I sought to reveal this hidden beauty through encaustic paintings on photomicrographs of leaf cross-sections.
I prepared microscope slides of leaf cross-sections, photographed their cellular patterns through a microscope, enlarged them 600 times, mounted them on shaped panels, and painted on the photographs with vibrant pigments suspended in molten waxes. The shapes of the panels are the outer shapes of the leaves, shapes emerging from the dynamic interplay between the cells within. Nothing is more important to us than what happens inside leaves. Without the vital process of photosynthesis occurring within leaves, we would not exist and there would be no life on our planet. Leaf cells, using sunlight and chlorophyll, take water flowing up into leaves from roots in the earth and carbon dioxide blowing into leaves from the surrounding air and transform them into food and oxygen.
My focus on the inner beauty of the photosynthetic process and the cellular organization within leaves rather than the outer beauty of the plant is not only inspired by my background in biology and art, but by my Jewish consciousness. Unlike the Hellenistic art revived in the Renaissance that sees beauty in the imitation of external form, Judaism honors the inner dynamics of living systems. The growth process by which the outer form of a leaf is created by the organization of the cells within reveals an inner beauty known as tiferet in Judaism. Tiferet is the innermost node interconnected with nine others in the “Tree of Life” metaphor for the spiraling of divine light into our everyday world of space and time. This metaphorical way of seeing beauty as the dynamic harmony between multiple forces is called hokhmat hanistar (hidden wisdom), another name for kabbalah, Judaism’s down-to-earth spiritual tradition.
My aesthetic enthusiasm for revealing the elegant cellular growth patterns hidden within leaves became the central focus of my artwork during my years as professor at Columbia when I equipped a studio for encaustic painting. I installed ventilation hoods to remove the fumes generated when I made paints by suspending powdered pigments in a combination of molten beeswax, microcrystalline wax, and dammar resin. I designed and built special equipment combining soldering irons and funnels with touch values for painting on photomicrographs that I mounted on shaped panels. Light waves reflected from within the depths of the translucent encaustic paints rendered the cells vibrancy unattainable with oil or acrylic paints.
At the laboratory of the New York Botanical Gardens, I replaced the water in plant cells with alcohol and then xylol and liquid paraffin so that they would be firm enough when refrigerated to be cleanly cut with a microtome into cross-sections one-cell thick. I prepared microscope slides through which I photographed the cellular patterns creating the outer form of the leaf. In the darkroom at Columbia, I printed these photographs in black and white to mount on the shaped panels that I prepared in my Teaneck studio.
Three decades later, I mounted an exhibition at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens of these shaped encaustic paintings of cellular patterns within leaves alongside the actual living plants that invite visitors to the exhibition to embark on an aesthetic journey from the whole plant into the beautiful world hidden within it. Although the exhibition was scheduled for two months in the summer of 2007, it met with such an enthusiastic response that it remained for two years until the end of the summer of 2009. See photos of the exhibition at my website http://www.melalexenberg.com/artwork.php?id=51.