A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 11: Potok the Painter

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It shouldn’t surprise me but it always does: An artistic genius in one field can also be an accomplished and excellent artist in another field. I know better; I know creative people are creative all over the place in their lives: Actors are musicians, painters are writers, musicians are photographers, dancers are singers, and on and on.  I would never claim genius status for myself but I am an artist in more ways than on paper or canvas; acting, writing, singing, playing guitar and drums; I even did a choreographed dance once! I wish I had a video of that one!

Artists are never satisfied with just one outlet, usually several are what they dabble in. Yet when I discovered that the author of one of my favorite books, “My Name is Asher Lev”, was also a painter and a great one at that, I was amazed.

As I was reading up online about Chaim Potok for my blog post yesterday, I found out that he was a visual artist as well as a writer. In fact, he painted the “Brooklyn Crucifixion”, a painting I had always assumed was fictional because it is the pivotal work that Asher Lev creates in the novel. The “Crucifixion” piece is the one that drives the final wedge between Lev and his parents, faithful Jews who were part of a Hassidic community. It represents his mother, suffering between her love for her husband and his traditional views and her love for her son, the gifted artist who goes completely against the grain of his upbringing.

I never knew that this conflict was very real in Potok’s own life. He, like his fictional antagonist Asher Lev, was caught between faith and art; between his Hassidic faith community and his drive to create and express himself. This tension was felt profoundly in his own family as he felt support from his mother but resistance from his father. It led him to paint the “Crucifixion”, using Christian imagery to illustrate the agony of his own mother.

Here’s is Chaim Potok’s painting:

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It was stunning to see this. I felt even closer to the author of the book that has meant so much to me. I realized that his novel is such a masterpiece because he drew from his own experiences and struggles. He knew deeply what it meant to exist in that unsettling yet necessary place where faith and creativity collide.

It was helpful for me as I continue my own search to understand what it means to be an artist and a man of faith at the same time. I felt like I re-discovered another guide to help me navigate these questions.

Here are a few more paintings from the author of “My Name is Asher Lev”…

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 10: Asher Lev

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“My name is Asher Lev… I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.”

It is difficult to describe the feeling I had when I first read “My Name is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok. Sometimes a work of art lays a claim on you, as if it knows you better than you know yourself. This wondrous work of fiction did that to me. I have returned to this book again and again. There are only a handful of books I’ve read repeatedly over the years:”To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Heart of Darkness”, “Godric”, “A Christmas Carol” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. I suppose the ones you return to are the ones that mean the most to you and have helped make you the person that you are. But “Asher Lev”, because it is a story of an artist existing in the tension between creativity and faith, has always seemed the most intimate for me.

For this post I am going to let Chaim Potok do the rest of the talking, through the quotes of the book. If you are a creative person who also happens to be a person of faith, and you have never read this book, please – for your own sake – pick up a copy and read. Artists inspire artists, art begets art.

Quotes from “My Name is Asher Lev”, by Chaim Potok 

“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.”

“Seeds must be sown everywhere. Only some will bear fruit. But there would not be the fruit from the few had the many not been sown”

“I do not have many things that are meaningful to me. Except my doubts and my fears. And my art.”

“A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven.”

“Asher Lev, an artist is a person first. He is an individual. If there is no person, there is no artist.”

“Art is a person’s private vision expressed in aesthetic forms.”

“I do not know what evil is when it comes to art. I only know what is good art and what is bad art.”

“You can do anything you want to do. What is rare is this actual wanting to do a specific thing: wanting it so much that you are practically blind to all other things, that nothing else will satisfy you,.”

“An artist has got to get acquainted with himself just as much as he can. It is no easy job, for it is not a present-day habit of humanity.”

“Millions of people can draw. Art is whether there is a scream in you wanting to get out in a special way.”

“Every artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere.”