Shut your eyes. Go on. Now think of Eden. Chances are the image forming in your mind includes a full-frontal Adam and Eve, fig leaves, apple and coiled serpent. Staple icons of the culture? Not in the new interpretation of the "Six Days of Creation" by artist Margaret Handwerker. The tree and plenty of symbolism are there, but Handwerker's fresh take reminds us why this story survives the ages.
The medium itself is unusual. "The Six Days of Creation" is a tapestry, five feet wide and 16 feet long. The result of a commission to the artist by the Skirball Cultural Center, here is an ancient medium, an ancient story, but a distinctly contemporary sensibility.
"This is a modern interpretation of a story with universal significance," the artist says. The work moves scroll-like in a continuous stream rather than in six separate panels. It begins with a dark landscape into which comes the Aleph, the presence of God, introducing motion -- change -- from darkness toward the swirling colors of the rainbow and butterfly. Handwerker is conscious of each symbolic step, noting that the butterfly signifies eternity.
Interestingly, the butterfly depicted here is not a work of imagination, but a representation, as any schoolchild will recognize, of the Monarch butterfly that migrates our continent each year. Here is the tree, the fruits of the earth, but also a falling maple leaf. And underneath the rich canopy, a twisting shape is discernible, an evil that underlies -- undermines? -- Eden's bounty.
The first still moment, a quiet photograph-like winter landscape, is a reminder that nothing remains static. Change is the element of creation.
Indeed the entire composition can be read as a comment on the creative process with overt references to other media: watercolor rainbow, sketchy sky, solidly sculptural tree and shell, photographic stills.
Elements bring to mind the 18th century poet-engraver William Blake. Blake's beautiful and dangerous Tyger burns bright in this piece.
Yet it is the human figure that draws the viewer's eye. In a deliberate departure from tradition, you won't find Eve constructed from Adam's rib. This is a version that Handwerker finds unappealing. Her image is distinctly different, neither male nor female, a black-and-white photographic still of someone facing the horizon, toward an unknown future. He/she is a part of the whole and yet apart from it. Reflected in water, it is a yin and yang image. Is it one figure or two? Is one a reflection of the other? Here is a visual pun on "created in God's image." Are men and women images of God, mirrors of one another? The artist invites the viewer to speculate.
"I want viewers to think about the symbols, to meditate on the lone figure who has to add his/her own color to the world, solve the mystery of life," she says.
Food for thought is her avowed aim, intending to provoke intellectual debate over old interpretations and launch new ones. It is a fitting goal for a cultural center that is not simply a repository for art, but a place to interact with art. One can see groups of schoolchildren, scholars, students transported by this work.
Perhaps in recognition of the serendipitous harmony of her name with her vocation, humor is a signature element of Handwerker's art. Her monogram, a Marguerite daisy, is a visual pun. With such a familiar story, the challenge is to make it new. Handwerker skillfully plays with the clichés. The medium itself is a commentary on tapestry as a metaphor for life; the tangled threads of time, for eternity. The result is art that is fun, accessible on a variety of levels. Kudos to the Skirball for commissioning the work and to the artist for taking on the challenge.
Two years ago, Handwerker proved her skill with another commission for the Skirball, a tapestry inspired by the story of Noah. Here again Handwerker tackles a subject that has been treated time after time. Instead of the typical parade of cutesy animals entering the ark, she gives us a scene of turmoil as the ark finds a precarious landing and the animals return to a drenched and very different world. They are apprehensive, sniffing the air, huddling together, looking back toward the safety of the ark.
"The colors are telling the real story," Handwerker says of her palette of grays and blues. It's a beginning with a fractured rainbow forming, fragments shaped as Hebrew letters.
She sees "Noah's Ark" and the monumental "Six Days of Creation" as her best work to date. She credits sponsors Guilford and Diane Glazer for starting the process with a generous donation to the Skirball and bringing her work to the attention of curator Nancy Berman.
Handwerker says she was given complete freedom, and she felt ready for the challenge: "When you create a piece of art such as this ['Six Days of Creation'], it's a response to something deeply rooted," she says. "For years I had been returning to this story. I didn't want to repeat what other artists had done. I started working and it fell into place in a burst of creativity, incorporating symbolism I had thought out beforehand. I added color with crayons, like a child's first creative act. The act of creation is a synthesis of the intellectual and intuitive."
For many artists the process ends with a sketch, painting or drawing. For the tapestry artist this is just the beginning. One of the most time-consuming media (hand-dyed yarn, each thread placed by hand), a project may take months to complete. The "Six Days of Creation" took two years.
Born in Poland, Handwerker trained as a painter there and in France and Italy. She lives in West Los Angeles with her husband, Peter, a painter and documentary filmmaker who has worked for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation.
Other works by the artist hang at Kehillat Israel, Sinai Temple, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Steven S. Wise Temple and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Two pieces have been acquired by The Art Institute of Chicago.
With all the elements that drive the original, the "Six Days of Creation" is more than the sum of its parts; a visual poem expressing optimism and pessimism, hope and cynicism, imagination and realism. The artist leaves much for the viewer to interpret, again just like the original.
"Noah's Ark" and "The Six Days of Creation," will run at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles through Aug. 25. For more information call (310) 440-4500.