For thousands of years, from the days when the Torah was transmitted to Jewish communities through letters meticulously inscribed by hand on bulky parchment scrolls, to the present day, when you can swipe through and instantly hyperlink to passages on your smartphone at the touch of a finger, Jews have interacted with the stories of the Torah almost exclusively through the written word. Without the aid of illustrations, readers have relied on the power of their imaginations to visualize the dramas that unfold throughout the Torah.
Several years ago, Jewish-Chilean artist Mauricio Avayu set out to change this. After spending years devoted to honing his skills as a painter, and through an intensive program of personalized study under the supervision of a rabbi, Avayu focused his talent on bringing the stories and characters of the Torah to life through a series of color murals.
His work has been commissioned by former Latin American heads of state, and displayed at prominent art galleries throughout the Americas. Recently he has been putting the finishing touches on a set of three 2.0-meter-high murals featuring scenes from the Book of Genesis. The paintings have been commissioned by the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center and will be placed permanently in the Center, which is slated to open in downtown Taipei in the fall of 2021. The Center is the flagship initiative of the Jeffrey D. Schwartz & Na Tang Jewish Taiwan Cultural Association (JTCA), a recently established non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Jewish life, culture, and observance in Taiwan and globally.
Avayu recently spoke via Zoom with Glenn Leibowitz, Director of Global Communications for JTCA. From his studio in Aventura, Florida, Avayu explained how he brings the stories and symbols of the Torah to life through his paintings, the rigorous training he received from one of the great masters of painting, the rituals and routines he relies on to unleash his creativity, and why he believes his art can help tackle the rising tide of anti-Semitism. His remarks have been lightly edited for length and clarity:
What inspired you to paint the stories of the Torah?
I started painting stories from mythology because I loved magic. And then suddenly, one day, my mind went dry. My heart went dry. I felt I needed to go further. I needed to go deeper inside. As I was reading a book about Michelangelo, I took a closer look at the details in his mural in the Sistine Chapel. He painted Adam and Eve with the snake, but I could see he was telling us the wrong story.
The snake in the Sistine Chapel is around the tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But the punishment of the snake was to be on the ground, so that’s a mistake. When you change the story, you change the Bible, you change the Torah. But you can’t do that.
Everyone thinks that God gave life to Adam with his finger. It’s an image most people are familiar with because of his painting. But God gave life to Adam with his breath, not with his finger. Michelango also mixed some of the stories from Greek mythology with the stories from the new Testament.
Everyone thinks the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was an apple. But it was actually a fig. So I decided that I would paint the Torah. I assumed that I if I were to run a Google search I would find a lot of Torah murals. But to my surprise, I couldn’t find anyone who had done this before. And that’s because you need to know how to both paint and study the Torah. Some people focus on studying, while others focus on painting. But I needed to do both.
My wife asked me, ‘Why do you want to paint the Torah, you know nothing about the Torah.’ I told her that I had two possible solutions to this problem: either I don’t paint the murals, or I begin to study Torah. So I decided to study.
I went to Chabad and told the rabbi I didn’t know anything and needed his help to learn. He said, okay, every Tuesday morning, I’ll be here for an hour and you can ask me everything you need to know. So I started to go to the rabbi. I also started to read, and I got hold of a very good Spanish translation of the English version of the Torah published by Aryeh Kaplan. It had no commentary but it was a very accurate translation, and since I didn’t understand much Hebrew, it helped me gain a basic understanding of the Torah.
But then I realized I still didn’t really understand the Torah. Because when you just take the literal meaning of the Torah, you can’t really understand the underlying meaning. So I needed to read more books. I went to the stories of the Midrash, and Rashi’s commentaries on the Torah.
Besides teaching you Torah, did the rabbi offer any guidance for your painting?
While I was painting, an image came to mind, so I called the rabbi because I didn’t want to paint something that was forbidden. I was drawing Cain and Abel, and suddenly I wanted to paint the sheep of Abel. I wanted to put two horns on it, like a shofar.
‘I want to paint this correctly, is this forbidden?’ I asked. The rabbi told me, ‘You must have read that in a Midrash.’ But I didn’t read anything, I just felt this, I told him. ‘No, it’s impossible,’ he said, ‘This was written in a Midrash which says that Moshiah (the Messiah) will blow the shofar of the sheep of Abel.’
Examples of that are everywhere in the mural, everywhere in my painting. It’s like a second voice telling me to put this here, do this there, correct this. Sometimes when you paint you lose one week drawing something, and then you look and say, okay, this is bad, and you need to erase it. Sometimes you are on track and the week feels like it goes by in one day. People trained in the art academy try to repeat what they see in a picture. I follow another way. I stand in front of the canvas and I feel.
Obviously I need to read in advance, because I need to know the story. I don’t want to change the story, but the shapes, the proportions, the things that appear on the canvas, I don’t prepare them ahead of time. I call it a ‘divine accident.’ At the beginning, a mural is a mystery; you don’t really know what it will look like until it’s finished.
When I read something, I can see it in my mind like a movie. First I draw, and when I draw, I repeat the image that I saw in my mind when I was reading. I don’t use a lot of a sketches. I put the canvas on the wall and I start painting. I know what the image will look like even before I paint, even before I start drawing.
Give us a peek into your studio. What are some of the routines and rituals you follow as you paint?
I come to my studio early in the morning. I’ll light a cinnamon and apple incense, put on some soft music, maybe Baroque. And then I start looking at what I did the previous day. After you’ve been working all day, at the end of the day you have one view of reality. The next day, after you’ve slept and you’re fresh in the morning, you might see something else. So I decide what to do that day and begin again.
My studio is full of unfinished works. When I get tired of working on a painting, I start with another. When I want to draw, I draw, and when I need to paint, I paint.
You’ve displayed your work at major art galleries and you’ve been personally invited by two former Latin American Presidents to exhibit your work. How did your work first get discovered?
When I started this mural in my studio in Chile, I would often think, who would want to look at this? Who would want to buy this? Noone! Because it was a representation of my feelings. Suddenly one day, I received a call from the Jewish community president. “Mauricio, we need you to make a painting for former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. I’m bringing your mural to the palace.” What? You’re going to bring my mural to the presidential palace?
This is mine, it’s something personal that I’ve created, I told him. “No, please give it a try”, he urged me. At the exhibition, everyone was standing and clapping. As I displayed the Torah there, I was very scared because in Chile, there’s a lot of anti-Semitism. I showed the Torah in the presence of the President. This was not common at all; it was the first time that the Torah was displayed like this. That’s why I included the texts, because I don’t want to stray far from the scroll. I want the scroll there. But when you see a scroll, a sefer Torah, if you don’t know how to read it, if you don’t understand what it says, you lose a lot of information. But I’ll mix an image with text written in the traditional way like a sofer (Torah scribe). I don’t use a new kind of typography; I write it like it is written in the Torah.
For my exhibition in Chile, the New Bnei Israel Synagogue in Santiago asked me to paint the story of Abraham and the malachim (angels). So I painted two lions opening a big sefer Torah with Abraham and the malachim. I drew the first and last paragraphs of the Torah, 42 lines in all. It was a lot of work. When I was showing these to the Chabad rabbi, he told me he thought it was incredible and approved it. I just needed to make a small change to the ‘yud-hei-vav-hei’ letters so as not to write the name of G-d. Later, when I showed the mural in Mexico, the rabbi there asked me, ‘Who was the sofer (Torah scribe)?’ I told him it was me. ‘No. Who was the sofer?’ he asked again. Once again I told him it was me. And again, he insisted, ‘Don’t you understand what I said? Who wrote this?’ Me, I exclaimed!
I’m not a sofer, but I can see the shape of the letters. Even though I only understand 50 percent of the letters, I can feel the shapes.
Where else did you exhibit your work in those early days?
One day, while I was in my studio, I received a call from the director of the Diego Rivera museum in Mexico. The museum was named after one of the most important muralists in the world. I felt this must be a joke! A friend is pranking me and telling me he’s the director of the Diego Rivera Museum and he wants my mural in his museum. But as I listened to his voice, I could hear he was Mexican, and realized this was not a joke. It was true. He told me, ‘I want your mural here on September, tell me right now, yes or no.’ I said yes!
At the time, I was painting three very big commissions. I said, I don’t have the hours in the day to make this, this is impossible to me. I’ll do it because it was the first time the Torah was going to the Diego Rivera museum.
This was the first time that I went outside from Chile, so it was impossible to say no. So I began to work from 6:00 am to 12 midnight. I would only sleep just four to six hours. That was about seven or eight months. I took the mural to Mexico, then to the Mt. Sinai Sephardi community in Mexico City. Then I received another call from the former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox. He said, ‘I love your work.’
How have people reacted to your work?
To my surprise, the first time I showed my murals, I saw a lot of people crying. What happened? Maybe I made a mistake. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Why were people crying? During my first show, I saw a man crying in front of the archangel Gabriel. I thought I made a mistake. He was about 80 years, and he was sobbing. So I handed him a beverage and asked him what happened. He told me that he lost one of his grandsons in an accident and his grandson’s name was Gabriel.
And when he saw that painting, it was like a very big knot had been loosened in his throat. He began to cry profusely. It was his way to heal. He hugged me and then left. Later, the curator of the gallery came over to me and said, ‘Do you know who that man is? He’s one of the most important lawyers in the world. He manages legal cases for some of the biggest companies in the world.’ I understood then that it doesn’t matter who you are, whenever you find yourself in front of a canvas, you can break down like a child. That’s the power of painting with the heart.
One of the first times I showed this mural, not too long after I had begun painting it, I saw a woman looking at the image of Isaac and Jacob. It was the scene when Isaac was blind and he gave the blessing to Jacob, though he thought it was Esau. I saw she was crying and I asked her what had happened. ‘My father died blind. That’s my father,’ she said.
What does your signature mean?
My signature is ‘Mavayu.’ The ‘M’ stands for my name, Mauricio. And in the letter ‘y’ you can see the Hebrew letter ‘shin’, like the shin you would see on a mezuzah. ‘Shin’ represents ‘shaddai’, one of the names of G-d. The letters that make up ‘shaddai’–shin, dalet, yud–contain a coded message. The ‘shin’ stands for ‘shomer,’ which means ‘to protect.’ The ‘dalet’ represents the word ‘delet,’ which means ‘door.’ And the ‘yud’ is the first letter of ‘Israel.’ Thus, ‘shomer-delet-Israel’ means ‘the guardian of the door of Israel.’ Imagine how many more details are contained in the painting. Everything has a reason; nothing is here by accident.
I’m used to putting a very small signature on my paintings because I feel that I didn’t create this alone. I feel like I am only a part of this. Renaissance painters would say, ‘big signature, little painting; little signature, big painting.’ I take this literally. I put a small signature on a painting because we need to be humble. This is not only mine. A lot of people are involved in achieving this.
The important thing is what G-d says here, the message that the painting shares with people. I don’t paint to be famous. I don’t paint to be remembered as the most famous painter in the world. I paint for me, and for the world.
When did you decide to become a professional painter?
One day many years ago, I saw my master on television. I immediately got the feeling that someday he would tell me that I must be an artist, that I must paint every day. At that time it was impossible to connect with him. There was no internet. I didn’t know how to reach him.
It took me 20 years before I had my first encounter with him, and I was very scared. Here was the man I saw 20 years ago on television. I asked him if he offered classes. ‘Yes, come to my class,’ he told me. And in that very first class he told me, ‘You are an artist. You were an incredible painter in another life. I can’t teach you. I only need to help you remember what you already know, no more.’ So from that day, I understood that I was an artist. I was a painter my entire life. When I began to study with him, I didn’t want to paint as a hobby. I wanted to attain a level of skill that would allow me to present my art to the world.
How old were you at this point?
Close to 40. 40 is a very important number. It’s a year when we come alive a little bit more. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. The rain fell while Noah was in the Ark for 40 days. It took 40 days for Moses to receive the Torah.
The numerical value of the letter dalet is four. So in Kabbalah, if you take dalet or delet, it is the same because it’s the same number. When two words have the same numerical value it is the same. So dalet is the same as delet, which means ‘door.’ So that’s why my door was at 40 years. Change can come quickly at 40, because we understand that we don’t have too much time. I understood this was the time to do what I loved. At 40 years a lot of people change their lives; it’s a very important age.
My first show was in 2012, and in the eight years since then I’ve put on almost 30 shows. It’s a lot of exhibitions. It’s a lot of work.
What was it like studying with your master?
My master was Hernan Valdovinos, a painter who had studied in Florence. I studied with him every Tuesday from 10 am to 1 pm for close to nine years. On some days class began at 10:30. One day, I showed up 5 minutes early at 10:25. I knocked on the door, and when he opened it, he asked me what time it was. 10:25, I answered. And he shut the door in my face.
He was like a military officer. We used to draw straight lines with a pencil for three months. He was very strict. But I understood that in 2006, I didn’t have too much time. I needed the right master. I knew in the first minute I needed this if I wanted to reach a level of excellence. I understood that if I wanted to get to the top of the hill, I needed to learn to walk before I could learn to fly. And so when people say, ‘How do you do this?’ It’s because I was with that man for nine years.
He shook my hand and he told me two things that I will never forget. He told me when you paint, feel as if you’re a child, try to remember the feeling you had when you were a child. That feeling of happiness, when a child is on his knees on the floor, drawing with energy. But you also need to mix the energy of a child with excellence. You can’t ask a child for excellence.
So after a couple of years I understood that that’s the secret: every detail in the painting must be excellent, even if it’s not the most important detail. A painting with Abraham shows the city of Babel behind him. There may be about 100 windows, and each window shows the reflection of the light. Of course, the main figure in the scene is Abraham, not the windows. But every detail in the painting must have excellence. If it doesn’t, it’s not finished.
I’m focused on excellence. In my life, I’m very relaxed, but in my studio, I’m not relaxed. I’m very disciplined.
You’ve once said that your painting can help address the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the world. Why do you believe that?
Another thing that tells me that I need to paint this is because no Jewish people in the world have ever painted a mural of the Torah. Why is that? We have a lot of information to share; the tsaddikim (spiritual leaders) have been writing and speaking for many years. So why can’t we show these stories to people and say, ‘These are our people.’ We need to share this.
The root of anti-Semitism is fear. What will fight anti-Semitism is when other people understand that we are all very close to each other; we are not that far apart. Christians and Muslims share some of our stories, the stories of the Torah. We share the same root.
I once prepared a special exhibition for 14 evangelical priests. One of them was crying as he told me, ‘Thank you. I thought I understood, but I don’t. Now I know a lot more.’
Tell us a little about the set of murals you’re painting for the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center in Taiwan.
This mural for the Jewish community of Taipei is the same painting that has traveled from Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, and then to Mexican President Vicente Fox at the Mt. Sinai Sephardic Center in Mexico City, and then to the Diego Rivera Museum. It’s the same painting. After starting with a highly detailed drawing, I applied several layers of oil colors. So maybe when you see the painting one day, in another week it’s different. It’s the same painting, but with new layers. It’s now ready to show. I hope I can be there to explain it.
It’s incredible that this mural is going to Taipei; it’s like a dream. I’m very happy because when this mural will be displayed at the Jewish Community Center in Taipei, a lot of people will see it; it’s not just a mural for a private home. This is light that we must bring everywhere in the world.