Sunday, January 21, 2018

Q&A with Rachel Braun

Rachel Braun, photo by Rabbi Gilah Langner
Rachel Braun is the author of Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework. A high school math and statistics teacher, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you first get involved in embroidery and needlework, and why did you decide to focus on Jewish texts?

A: I think I need to answer that question in reverse order! I have engaged with Jewish texts (Bible, liturgy) since I was a little girl. Enhancing sacred texts via the arts is common to so many cultures. 

In Jewish culture (and others!), visual expositions such as micrography, illumination, and embroidery, literally bring the texts to light.  Art provides one of many ways to immerse ourselves and reveal truths in text.

I turned to so-called “blackwork” embroidery because it is a very mathematical type of art, and I love math. (I had a first career as a statistician and now teach high school calculus and statistics.) 

Counted thread embroidery is executed on Aida cloth, an even-weave fabric that essentially looks like an x-y grid. My embroidery designs are first created on graph paper. That medium is very intuitive and meaningful to me. 

(Fun fact: I am the Guinness Book of World Records holder for largest graph paper collection in the world. I have 1000+ pieces of distinct graph paper!) 

Blackwork embroidery uses pattern and symmetry extensively, and it struck me that some of the interpretations of text that I wanted to convey reflected those attributes. Much of Jewish practice involves patterns, repetition, symmetries, and beauty -- elements easily translatable from blackwork embroidery.

Q: How did this book come about?

A: Three years ago, my friend and fellow fabric artist Christine Spangler visited me one afternoon after I had finished an embroidery piece, and announced, “You are ready for a book.” She ultimately became the book’s designer and editor. 

Her suggestion was a real gift -- it gave me motivation to spend an intense period of many months thinking about what the discipline of embroidery meant to me and verbalizing what the designs elucidated about illustrated Biblical and liturgical texts.

Q: Some of the art you include in the book was inspired by events in your family's life. What are some of your favorite pieces?

A: In 2000, I created a piece, “LeDorotam: Throughout their Generations,” to celebrate our son Hannan's bar mitzvah. The text is from the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 15:38, “and they shall make themselves tzitzit (fringes) on the corner of their garments, throughout their generations.”

This commandment is the source of the fringed prayer shawls, called tallit or tallis, that many of your blog's readers may be familiar with. Many Jewish children start wearing the tallit for prayer at the age or bar or bat mitzvah.

Hannan is named for my husband's grandmother of blessed memory, Hannah, and remarkably, I was able to use some of her own needlework in the piece.

She had crocheted a medallion doily, and I carefully separated the individual medallions and used four for the “corners” of a mini-tallit (16” x 6”) that I stitched and framed in a shadow box. 

(Some of your readers may, in their mental image of a tallit, recall that the corners of the rectangular shawl, throughout which the fringes are threaded, are often reinforced with patches.) 

Her medallions became the patched corners of the embroidery work.

In designing and stitching this piece, I felt that the Biblical words had sprung to life in the embroidery piece. The original Biblical text, the sharing of Jewish practice, and even the cloth materials had indeed prevailed “throughout their generations.”

I have the same sense about “God Counts the Stars” (2015), on the cover of the book. The text comes from Psalm 17:4-5: “God counts the stars, giving each a name....” The verse is interpreted in the embroidery as each star has its own set of blackwork patterns, its own embroidery name.

“Bamidbar: In the Wilderness” (2011) is a favorite, too, because it is one of the most mathematical in design, with strong symmetry elements. This piece was in a juried art exhibit of the American Mathematical Society in 2014.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which to place the art in the book?

A: It was a mixture of chronology -- critical, because my designs have increased in complexity over time -- and simply, making the work fit! 

Most sections, consisting of a photo of the piece plus commentary, took two pages, with a natural layout of photo on left, interpretation on the right. Longer sections, with a photo on the left followed by two pages of text, were paired with one-pagers (a small illustration matched with a paragraph of text).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am sketching a design based on a Mishnaic text from late antiquity, that enumerates the 48 ways that Torah is “acquired” -- that is, a list of methods by which Biblical wisdom and knowledge can grow. 

As an educator, I find this acknowledgement of many paths/intelligences for embracing Torah knowledge to be wonderfully timeless. As a blackwork embroiderer, the graph paper has become a elaborate playing field -- I am writing out the text in an ornate Hebrew alphabet I developed, and surrounding each of the 48 ways with a distinct blackwork embroidery pattern. 

That is how I am using the medium of embroidery to honor the ancient text and to illuminate the concept of 48 distinct methods of absorbing Torah knowledge. The art medium is becoming one with the text – fascinating to experience as I work the designs.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writing the book allowed me to immerse in gratitude in so many ways -- to my husband Steven Braun for planning with me to take a year off from school to collect my thoughts; to Christine Spangler for her stewardship and wise counsel; to Philip Brookman of the Smithsonian Institution for scanning my art over many, many years; and to family members and friends who cheered me on, shared ideas for improving the book, gave me leads for book talks and shows, and celebrated its success with me.

Writing a book is a fabulous experience. It at the same time expands your experience of your subject AND sharpens the acuity with which you understand its core ideas.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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