Artist Laura Lasworth was transfixed by the Orthodox Jewish woman she saw ecstatically praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the summer of 1998.
"She intermittently pressed her face against the Wall and gave it affectionate little kisses," recalled Lasworth, a devout Catholic who had traveled to Israel to research a series of paintings on the "Song of Songs" -- the biblical poem that describes God's passion for the Jewish people as a bridegroom's love for his betrothed. "It makes me cry just thinking about it: the lovely sound of her voice and the way she caressed the stones as she prayed."
Directly above the woman, she saw two doves perched in the cleft of the rock. It was as if the sacred love poem had come to life, she recounted.
Back in her tiny South Pasadena studio, the petite, waiflike Lasworth, 47, began creating a suite of exquisite, otherworldly paintings, "Love's Lyric," inspired by the ancient text. The pieces will appear in an exhibition that opens this week at the Hunsaker/Schlesinger gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.
In "Tower of Lilies," an iridescent bouquet of five flowers representing the Pentateuch rises from a vase whose neck is as slender as the bride's in the "Song." In "Wild Doe" and "Trained Stag," Lasworth draws upon the poem's image of deer feeding among the lilies. In "Me in Mrs. Chagall's Dress," she references the Jewish artist Chagall, whose levitating figures remind her of the giddy feeling of being in love. In the piece, the figure of Lasworth floats above a resplendent bouquet of flowers, grasping the divine hand that emerges from the blossoms. "One interpretation of the 'Song of Songs' is that it is an invitation to the mystical marriage between the individual soul and God," Lasworth said. "For a single woman, that is a lovely invitation."
The artist's work has long drawn on Jewish and Christian themes. Her interest in both religions began during her childhood in a lapsed-Catholic family in Skokie, Ill., a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago. "I knew more about Jewish holidays than Christian ones," said Lasworth.
But it was a trip to a friend's Protestant Sunday school when she was 5 that planted the seeds of her spiritual journey. While Lasworth's home life was impoverished and sometimes chaotic, the peaceful setting of the school and the uplifting story of Jesus suggested that life could hold different possibilities.
Many years later, while searching for answers to basic questions about the human condition, Lasworth, a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, read everything from St. Thomas Aquinas to Saul Bellow to the Zohar. She began taking catechism classes to prepare to enter the Roman Catholic Church, fully aware that the religion "was a child of Judaism," she said.
Her 1990 painting, "Entry to the Garden," inspired by the Kabbalah, is dominated by a tree sprouting what Lasworth calls "natural and grafted branches." The "natural branches" refer to Judaism, while the grafted ones refer to Christianity and Islam. "They hover somewhat distantly, but they can't exist without the root," she said.
Behind the tree, a small door leads to a black garden, where a staircase rises to the nexus of heaven and earth, a reference to the sixth sefira described in kabbalistic literature. If you were to X-ray the painting, you would find a diagram of all 10 sefirot -- attributes of God -- that provides the hidden structure of the piece.
As Lasworth struggled to integrate her identities as a religious person and a contemporary artist, she discovered the work of the late Flannery O'Connor, a Catholic Southern writer who herself had integrated those identities. Lasworth was intrigued by O'Connor's extreme tales of redemption and the obsessed characters in her stories. By the late 1990s, the artist had completed a series of intense, enigmatic paintings inspired by the author. She was also exhausted.
"I took on Flannery O'Connor as my teacher," Lasworth said. "But her work is so severe, and her short life had such a darkness to it at times, that afterward I longed to do something lush and regenerative."
Her thoughts turned to the "Song of Songs" -- but with trepidation. "My friend's Orthodox rabbi heard of my idea and wondered, 'Why is a Catholic woman so interested in the 'Song of Songs?'" she said.
To show proper respect for the Jewish tradition, the artist first researched Jewish interpretations of the canticle, from Rashi to recent commentaries, before moving on to Catholic theologians like the medieval St. Bernard of Clairvaux. After studying an ancient map of Israel, she set off for the Jewish state to search for the places and images described in the "Song."
In Caesarea, she looked for the rose of Sharon (actually a lotus) mentioned in the poem. She saw deer grazing in the Galil and a breathtaking view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that reminded her of the belly of the "bride" in the "Song."
After the two-week trip, Lasworth continued her meticulous research and was especially riveted by an essay theorizing that the "Song of Songs" is a poetic rendering of a restored Garden of Eden.
The essay inspired several paintings, including "Billy and the Bather," Lasworth's own rendering of Eden restored. In the piece, Eve is an adolescent girl from George Tooker's painting "The Bathers," while Adam is Lasworth's first boyfriend, Billy, from whom she received her first kiss. Billy's sad, untimely death occurred several years ago, but he lives on in the painting, where he and the girl return the apple to the Tree of Life.
"For me, the piece was a lovely way to honor my friend," Lasworth said.
For information on the exhibit, call (310) 828-1133.