December 8, 2009
Jewish Imagery Drives Design for Artist Ruth Merritt
For Ruth Merritt, a lifelong relationship with art and Judaism began with a misunderstanding about a Hebrew school assignment: to copy the first paragraph of the Amidah. At 6 years old, Merritt took that directive literally, reproducing the exact shape of the Hebrew letters. Although she didn’t finish copying the paragraph — and worried that her teacher would punish her for not completing her homework — she discovered that she enjoyed drawing the letters. But instead of a reprimand, she received accolades and support.
“They grew up at the same time, and I grew up with both of them,” Merritt said, referring to her love of art and Judaism.
Much of her Merritt’s work focuses on and incorporates Hebrew letters. “The Hebrew alphabet is one of the most authentic and one of the oldest Jewish design elements,” Merritt said. “That really resonates with me.”
Although she studied both Judaism and art as a young adult, attending the College of Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Judaism’s School of Fine Arts, it wasn’t until Merritt’s own children were in school that she began to really develop an art business. At first, she designed Jewish New Year cards — something she had done since childhood — ketubot and bar mitzvah invitations. As her children grew, Merritt also grew as an artist, learning new techniques like calligraphy and papercutting, and taking on larger, more complex projects.
Those projects include the lettering on Aron Kodesh doors at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, designing a Torah mantle at Sinai Temple in Westwood, where she also designed the steel sculpture “Memorial to the Six Million,” and the faceted glass windows, “Creation: The First Seven Days,” in the Kamenir Chapel at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley.
The series of seven windows depicts each day of creation, represented with Hebrew letters, colors and background images. The colors of the letters, red through purple, reflect the spectrum of the rainbow, the symbol of hope in the biblical story of the flood.
“I used the symbolism of creation as a reaffirmation of life, even in view of the fact that people are in that chapel to lay someone to rest.”
It took Merritt almost a year to study and develop the theme for the Kamenir Chapel’s seven windows. Early on, she settled on the concept of the creation story with the largest window representing Shabbat. When she finally started sketching, it took only two weeks to get from the first rendering to the finished drawings.
Merritt said she had to walk a fine line when using imagery in the windows so as not to offend the Orthodox community while still conveying the narrative. She settled on using Hebrew letters as the primary imagery, although she believes that symbolic art is a part of Jewish tradition.
“The popular conception is that drawing images is contrary to Judaism, but I believe that has been misinterpreted,” Merritt said, adding that she believes the biblical instruction to create beautiful things in connection with the Temple is referring to art. “I think they meant not to make idol images, but there are ancient synagogues with drawings on their walls.”
The larger Shabbat window brings together all of the colors of the six smaller windows with the image of two flames.
“The reason for the two flames is to represent each way the Bible tells you to celebrate Shabbat,” Merritt said. “First, it tells us to observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, and later it tells us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
(Merritt’s “Memorial to the Six Million” at Sinai Temple uses similar imagery. The sculpture has six branches of letters using two shins, symbolic of shesh — Hebrew for six — to form tongues of flame.)
The faceted windows were Merritt’s first foray into glasswork, but she enjoys the challenge of working in new mediums, seeing it as a way to expand her creative horizons. Merritt and the project director chose faceted glass — a technique using chunks of glass hammered to create facets that reflect light or set in concrete in a mosaic pattern — as opposed to stained glass, to tie them stylistically to the faceted glass windows in the sanctuary at Sinai Temple, which was built in the late 1950s to early 1960s. As it turned out, the same Pasadena company that fashioned those original windows, Judson Studios, also brought Merritt’s sketches from paper to glass with the grandson of the man who worked on the original project helping to develop the creation windows, bringing the whole project full circle.
When asked if she would ever consider a commissioned piece that did not involve Jewish themes, Merritt barely pauses.
“I don’t know that I could,” she said, expressing her deep connection to Judaism by explaining that her parents were Zionists who met in Hebrew school and she and her husband met at a Jewish camp. “I have to feel something for what I’m doing.”