Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Art of Hidden Beauty in Photosynthesis Factories

pine-leaf_cross-sectionBiological and Biblical narratives meeting in green leaves invite my aesthetic response as a biologist turned artist.

The most important scientific narrative about life on Planet Earth is written in the formula for photosynthesis: 6H2O + 6CO2 + chlorophyll + sunlight yields C6H12O6 + 6O2.  Green chlorophyll in plant leaves illuminated by the sun transforms water and carbon dioxide into our food and oxygen.

The most widely read spiritual narrative is the Bible with its many passages about the importance of trees and of the spiral and branching arrangement of green leaves on them.

“A righteous person flourishes like a palm tree [with spiraling fronds] and grows tall like a cedar [with leaf filled branches].” (Psalm 92).

My explorations along the aesthetic interface between scientific and spiritual realms resulted in the creation of two sets of artworks on plant life. One set reveals beauty hidden within leaves through my paintings on photomicrographs mounted on shaped panels. The second set appears in the “Torah Tweets” blogart project that I created with my artist wife Miriam Benjamin to link our life story to the biblical story. Both are expressions of the essence of the ecological consciousness of the biblical portion read in synagogues worldwide on the September 10th Shabbat Shoftim/Judges (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9).

“You must not destroy trees by swinging an ax against them for from them you will eat. Do not cut them down because the tree of the field is man’s life.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)


I explored the organization of plant cells in the laboratory of New York Botanical Gardens transforming them into paintings in my New Jersey studio. My botanical studies and artistic creations paralleled my teaching the graduate course “Morphodynamics: Design of Natural Systems” as art professor at Columbia University. 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 elegant cellular patterns through a microscope, enlarged them 600 times, mounted them on shaped panels, and painted on the photographs with vibrant pigments that I 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 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. 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. I wrote a book on this subject published by Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness

This aesthetic enthusiasm for revealing the elegant cellular growth patterns hidden within leaves began with large oil paintings that I made when I was a newly-married 22 year old science teacher at Louis Pasteur Junior High School on Long Island. A few years later, I created tactile collages of arrays of plant cells as a student at the Art Students League of New York while I was also science supervisor for the Manhasset Public Schools.

This enthusiasm was renewed as the central focus of my artwork during my years teaching at Columbia when I equipped my 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 glue on shaped panels that I prepared in my studio.


Three decades later, I mounted an exhibition at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens when I was head of Emunah College School of the Arts in Israel. These shaped encaustic paintings of cellular patterns within leaves alongside the actual living plants invited 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, it met with such enthusiastic response that it remained for two years.


I collaborated with my wife Miriam in celebrating our 52nd year of marriage by creating our “Torah Tweets” blogart project. During each of the 52 weeks of our 52nd year, we posted photographs reflecting our life together with a digital poetry text that relates the weekly Torah reading to our lives. Our project linking smartphones, social media and spirituality grew into my book that teaches people of all faiths how to Bible blog their lives, Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life. Below is our blog post on how our everyday life became an expression of the fifth portion of the book of Deuteronomy.


Shoftim/Judges (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

“You must not destroy trees by swinging an ax against them for from them you will eat. Do not cut them down because the tree of the field is man’s life.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)


When we were first married, Mel was a biology teacher teaching about the crucial role of trees in maintaining the global ecosystem.

He taught how trees draw water up through their roots, take in carbon dioxide through their leaves and transform them into sugar and oxygen.

The most important narrative in the world: 6H2O + 6CO2 + chlorophyll + sunlight yields C6H12O6 + 6O2

Without it there’d be no life on our planet. Photosynthesis creates all the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe.

Judaism develops from this biblical passage the ecological laws of bal tashhit (don’t destroy) that even forbids destroying a mustard seed.

Judaism celebrates the New Year of the Trees on Tu B’shavat when we begin to see the blossoming of almond trees on our drive to Jerusalem.

The Torah is likened to a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). “A righteous person flourishes like a palm tree and grows tall like a cedar.” (Psalm 92).

We photographed the large leaves of the frangipani in front of our house, the bougainvillea on our porch and the ficus down the street.

Mel reveals beauty hidden within leaves by photographing them through a microscope on which he paints with pigments mixed into molten waxes.

His encaustic painting of the cellular organization within a pine leaf cross-section enlarged 600 times shows where photosynthesis happens.

We photographed new leaf growth sprouting from an old pine tree in the park near our house and date palms in Ein Gedi.

In the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, beauty (tiferet) is the innermost junction of 22 branches through which Divine light flows into our lives.

(See all the photographs here.)

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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