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JewishJournal.com

December 20, 2007

Life, liberty and the pursuit of beautiful language

http://www.jewishjournal.com/lifecycles/article/life_liberty_and_the_pursuit_of_beautiful_language_20071221

Sam Fink with his illustrated version of the U.S. Constitution

Sam Fink with his illustrated version of the U.S. Constitution

For most of his 92 years, artist Sam Fink has been obsessed with the pursuit of freedom and the beauty of language. Even though he is a painter, he calls language "the highest form of art, higher even than painting and music."

But even Fink could not have predicted that these passions would culminate in the creation of his exquisite versions of "The Book of Exodus" and "The Gettysburg Address," both recently published by Welcome Books.

Although it has the appearance and dimensions of a coffee-table book, his "Exodus" is a complete and genuine illustrated version of the second book of the Torah, every word, both in Hebrew and English, was hand-lettered by Fink (a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that he doesn't know Hebrew). The words of each of the 40 chapters of Exodus are incorporated in 40 different watercolor paintings of the sky.

His other work, "The Gettysburg Address," contain Lincoln's 270 words inscribed and illustrated by Fink, as well as a chronology of events leading up to the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

A commercial art director throughout most of his professional life, Fink's recently published work is a far more personal approach afforded to him through retirement. Ruminating on his American and Jewish experience -- as a child of immigrants and as a soldier during World War II -- both books serve as an opportunity for the artist to delve deeper into the meaning of the word "freedom."

Fink was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1916 and grew up in a typical middle-class Jewish family, conscious of their heritage, but with minimal religious observance. Reflecting on his childhood, he recalled "Even when I was a little boy, I would look at the clouds and see all kinds of magic. I had the gift of imagination."

He was a good student and was admitted to the then-academically demanding City College of New York. Being creative and a free spirit, he says he "rebelled" against the restrictions and requirements of a formal education and announced to his parents that he wanted to quit school in order to hitchhike to California and back.

It was the depth of the Depression and, he recalls, he had all of $50. Nonetheless, with his parents' rather reluctant blessings, he set off. As he traveled from coast to coast, he fell in love with America and its people and "absorbed the beauty of our country." Once again, he cited "the expanse of the sky which reflects that there is freedom all around us."

On his return home, Fink joined his father in the commercial art field. With time out for World War II when he served as a master sergeant with the 88th Infantry Division in Italy, he eventually joined Young and Rubicam (Y&R), then, as now, one of America's foremost advertising agencies. There he became an art director and headed their art department in Chicago. After leaving Y&R in 1970, he continued to work as a freelance art director for 20 more years, most notably on the Land's End catalog.

After he retired in Great Neck, N.Y., Fink began to reflect more deeply on the source of his good fortune.

"I remember both my sets of grandparents," he said. "They were illiterate, and I spoke Yiddish with them. They had children, and we prospered in this land ... it's so amazing what freedom has meant to us!"

As is his custom, Fink "spoke" to himself saying, "Hey, Sam, you owe this country."

By way of repayment, his first "installment" was to copy the Constitution of the United States on a single sheet of paper. "In copying word by word I realized how difficult it is to achieve freedom," he said.

He then thought of copying the Bible but his late wife, Adelle, said: "Don't just copy it, illustrate it!" That was the genesis of his "Exodus." As he writes in his introduction to the book, "Exodus is a cry for freedom, and that's what it is all about."

The source of the Hebrew text in Fink's "Exodus" is the Torah, and the English translation is the 1917 Jewish Publication Society version. Fink's watercolors reflect the tenor of the chapter they illustrate.

While he does not claim to be influenced by any particular artist, some of his "skyscapes" are reminiscent of Rothko and others of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. The bottom line, however, is that they are Fink originals. He hopes they "will entice people to read about the price of freedom."

In "The Gettysburg Address," Fink's portrayal of Lincoln varies from page to page and is somewhat reminiscent of the style identified with the Jewish Italian artist Modigliani.

Fink had originally intended his work to be a gift to his children and grandchildren. However, on one of his many trips to Israel to visit his son, David, and his seven grandchildren, he stopped in an airport bookshop and picked up a book published by Welcome Books. Figuring that they might be interested in his books, he sent a proposal to Welcome founder and CEO Lena Tabori. Even though she rejected his proposal, she invited Sam to lunch. As a result she eventually agreed to publish, not one, but each of his works.

Looking back, Fink said, "I can't believe I did it; something happened which made me bigger than I am."

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