June 15, 2015, by Eleanor J. Bader
This Artist Teaches Woman Power
The first thing you notice when looking at Sara M. Novenson’s paintings are the colors: Rich and vibrant, the blues, pinks, purples, reds and yellows invite you to peer closely, and whether you’re perusing her Great Women of the Bible series or her landscapes, the limited-edition work is striking. What’s more, most of Novenson’s art is bordered by hand-painted Hebrew letters—excerpts from the Psalms as well as blessings—that remind us to appreciate the miracle of creation.
Collectors of Novenson’s work include actor Fran Drescher, the late musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and she has had exhibitions throughout much of the world. Novenson has also run her own gallery on Santa Fe, New Mexico’s famed Canyon Road since 1996.
A reviewer, writing in the Santa Fe Focus, describes her creations as “dazzling,” with “life-inspiring rays of sun and people shimmering with power and beauty.” But most notable, the reviewer wrote, is “the female energy and spirituality” each painting exudes.
This, Novenson told Lilith, is exactly what she intended. In fact, her Women of the Bible series aims to imbue viewers with a better understanding of female power, and whether they’re seeing images of Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Judith, Leah, Miriam, Naomi, Rachel, Rebecca, Ruth or Sarah, she hopes they’ll walk away feeling “empowered from both within and without.”
Take her painting of Judith. Dressed in gold, Judith is holding a menorah high above her head, a stance indicating her triumph over General Holofernes, the hated military henchman of Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar. “Judith was the widow of a judge,” Novenson begins. “Shortly after her husband’s death a spy came to the hills where the Jews lived and informed them that they were about to be attacked. Holofernes had already begun withholding water from the community so it was only a matter of time before everyone was going to die of dehydration.”
Judith, Novenson continues, prayed about the situation and then took off her mourner’s black, put on beautiful clothing and jewelry, and went to where Holofernes was staying. He was attracted to her and invited her to a banquet where he proceeded to get really drunk. “He later invited her back to his tent. She went, but when she got there she took a sword from the wall and cut his head off. Without Judith, the Maccabees would not have happened. She helped them see that it was possible to resist tyranny.”
As she tells Judith’s story, Novenson sounds both awestruck and proud. “Judith asked God to work through her and had the courage to take action. She used her mind to figure out what she needed to do. Maybe she was really afraid, but she did it anyway,” she gushes.
Other women in the series are similarly powerful, she says, a dramatic mix of ferocity, fortitude, strength and sass.
“Painting for me is a prayer of gratitude,” Novenson explains, and regardless of subject – whether she is depicting people or the world’s natural beauty – she says that her efforts bring her face-to-face with “the presence of God.” Particularly important, she says, is the light and color of New Mexico’s topography.
A transplant – Novenson grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey and graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City – she fell in love with the US west as a five-year-old, when her family took a cross-country car trip to California that included a stopover somewhere in New Mexico. “Even as a kid, I knew I did not belong in New York City,” she laughs.
She also knew that she had to make art. Her dad was an amateur photographer and before she was eight, she’d learned to develop film in his darkroom. By 12, she was taking the bus into Manhattan for summer classes at the Art Students’ League, but a desire to move west nagged at her. After college, she headed to Albuquerque. “I was painting a lot there,” she says, “and doing graphic design, making jewelry and waiting tables to get by, but I moved back to New York in 1980 because I felt that there were not enough art opportunities for me in New Mexico. Nonetheless, I promised myself that after a few years, I’d move back.”
In 1984, however, Novenson married a musician; when he got a job with the Radio and TV Orchestra of Cologne, Germany, the pair moved abroad. Although Novenson had been reared in a religiously observant family, it was only after she got to Germany that the need to make explicitly Jewish art became apparent to her. “It was weird,” she explains. “I’d walk into a restaurant for dinner and get these awful feelings. I’d later learn that the site had once been in the heart of the Jewish community.” She was also shocked, she says, to discover that many European Jews still kept silent about their heritage.
“Isaac Bashevis Singer became my favorite writer when I was living in Germany,” she says. “I Ioved his stories. They were visceral, as if the words formed paintings that I could actually see. One night, my husband was on the road and I was reading “Satan in Goray,” a story about one of the pogroms of the 1600s. It was very descriptive, very scary to me. I decided I had to stop reading and turned on the TV. And there he was: Isaac Bashevis Singer was being interviewed. I’d recently read his short story “There Are No Coincidences,” so I was absolutely stunned by the synchronicity. It inspired me to begin studying Jewish folk art and learn about all the work that had been wiped out by the Holocaust. At that point I also started visiting every Jewish museum I could get to in Europe.”
Novenson eventually left her spouse, returned to New York, and, in 1992, kept her promise to herself by moving to Santa Fe. She has since immersed herself in study of Torah, Midrash and Kabbalah, an effort that has been incorporated into her paintings, illustrations and drawings. Art, she says, is her way of honoring the struggles and triumphs of her fore-parents. But she does more than this. Her lectures about Jewish art, folk traditions and Biblical heroines have taken her to every corner of the US – including churches and other non-Jewish venues.
It’s clear that Novenson, now 61, loves juggling scholarship with creativity.
She is currently at work on a 13th portrait in the Women of the Bible series and frequently travels to the Chama River to paint the birds, flora and fauna that live and grow there. As she breathes in the landscape, she says that one particular Psalm resonates most loudly: “With You is the source of life. By the light may we see light.”
And we do.
October 19, 2011, by David Geffen
The Prayer of Hannah
“As depressed as she was over her infertility, Hannah refused to let her spirit die. Hannah chooses to live.”
“Sara Novenson, a Jewish artist from New Mexico, has a series of paintings on “Women of the Bible.” In her portrayal of Hannah, Novenson paints a woman whose “prayers were like ‘jewels going up into the crown of God” …
Each year, we read about Hannah in the haftara on the first day of Rosh Hashana.
Again this year we did the same – however, as we did so we realized that the joy of Hannah in her prayer to God is also the joy we feel as we celebrate Simhat Torah. Let us try to understand the joy of Hannah which influences us year in and year out.
A hassidic rebbe once said, “Let me not die while I am still alive. As depressed as she is, Hannah refuses to let her spirit die. Hannah chooses to live. In spite of her misery, she takes a small bold step.” What caused her to take that “small bold step?” Prof. Harvey Goldberg, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University, discussed Hannah in his book Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life.
In the First Book of Samuel, he explains that “one year Hannah ‘boldly’ came to the entrance of the sanctuary at Shiloh and prayed for a male child. Her behavior in which ‘only her lips moved’ must have been somewhat unusual,” Goldberg writes, “because Eli, the priest at the sanctuary, first thought she was drunk.” He continues, “when Eli realized ‘the purity of her purpose, he too, prayed that God grant her request.’” How alive and touching Hannah becomes in this description. Her desire to face life renewed is what also characterizes our beginning the Torah anew each year.
One of the questions which can be asked is how Hannah decided to present a new face to life. She could have been happy in spite of personal misfortune; but as Rabbi Herman Kieval puts it: “She chose instead the misery of self-pity for 19 long years.”
Her real tragedy lay in allowing the misfortune to blind her to all her other blessings. “By doing this, she denied herself any chance of making her life creative and meaningful in other directions.”
>Kieval emphasizes that she would not laugh but wept constantly until she was “a woman hardened in spirit” and “bitter in soul.” After her silent prayer, she becomes a woman whose “countenance was not the same.”
Hannah transformed her whole attitude toward life.
“It was not,” according to Kieval, “the fulfillment of her prayer but the very act of prayer that created a new Hannah by revolutionizing her whole approach to happiness – her countenance was sad no more.” She was uplifted in heart and soul.
Penina Adelman, a Judaic and feminist scholar in Boston, wrote in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, a collection of essays edited by Ellen Umansky and Diane Ashton almost two decades ago, about how the spirit of Hannah helped her through a miscarriage.
In Praise Her Works: Conversations with Biblical Women, which she edited, Adelman wrote a chapter on Hannah.
“Hannah’s tale is one of victory. She is fighting for her fertility with all her heart, all her soul and all her might. Her co-wife and rival, Peninah, tries to wear her down with critical words and taunts. She seems to be losing the battle.”
What are Hannah’s weapons? Adelman asks. “They are prayer and deep faith. How Hannah forges these out of her despair and depression is the crux of the story here, demonstrating why she is a woman of valor.”
Sara Novenson, a Jewish artist from New Mexico, has a series of paintings on “Women of the Bible.” In her portrayal of Hannah, Novenson paints a woman whose “prayers were like ‘jewels going up into the crown of God,’” the artist says.
“In my painting of Hannah,” Novenson says, “I have positioned the ‘yud’ and the ‘heh’ so that these letters, emanating from Hannah, float up into the ‘crown of God.’ The spirit body of Samuel is hovering above Hannah, ‘waiting to come into his earthly mother.’” The noted Lubavitcher Rebbe also offered insight into the character of Hannah.
“Her prayer for a child was not an expression of ‘intoxication’ and self-obsession. It was an outpouring of the innermost part of her soul – she knew that she was ‘standing before God’… Hannah was crying out from the innermost depths of her being, and her desire did not stem from desire for self-gain; but her entire existence was characterized by the yearning to be bound and united with God.”
On Simhat Torah, as the holidays conclude, the “deep love of Hannah for the Lord” can become a part of all of us and make us dance with the Torah in the most joyful fashion.
Mother Earth and Biblical Matriarchs,
Transcendent feminine energy illuminates the work of Sara Novenson
In Sara Novenson’s work, there are dazzling colors, life-infusing rays of sun, people shimmering with power and beauty, but most of all, there is female energy and spirituality.
Novenson moves fluidly between Biblical Matriarchs and the world of Mother Nature. “They all share Mother energy.,” says Novenson. “Nature and Women of the Bible are all about beauty, contrast, light and the sinuous curves of sensuality that are bestowed by the Creator.
Her landscape paintings are often framed by Hebrew psalms. The pieces are luminous and textural, an effect she creates using layers of pastel, gold leaf, and paint. Much of Novenson’s work is editioned in hand painted giclee prints and mixed media embossed etchings.
Several years ago, the award-winning and nationally acclaimed artist became inspired by the matriarchs of the Old Testament and she was able to capture their transcendence, and also their earthly reality. To date, she has completed a dozen paintings, and the series is ongoing.
Miriam, who is always associated with water, is aligned with Spirit as she leads her people through the sea to freedom. Rachel meets Jacob at the well, and love flows out to all the world. Sarah, the prophetess, is under the protective wing of the Shekhina (the feminine aspect of the Divine), and she is illuminated by a swirl of radiance. Deborah sits on the throne of justice, holding the scales that balance light and darkness.
In Novenson’s latest creation, Ruth sets out alone at night, to meet with Boaz. “I think she knows she is going to her destiny, out of which came the royal lineage of King David,” says Novenson. Ruth’s face is suffused with wonder and anticipation, awe and determination.
Novenson’s pieces have been exhibited extensively in museums, galleries, synagogues, and churches for over 20 years.
She is a vibrant and exuberant lecturer and teaches extensively for museums, religious venues, and was a keynote speaker for Hadassah. Her paintings adorn the covers of many magazines, including American Psychologist, and appear on UNICEF cards, and in books and calendars. In Robert Wuthnow’s recently published book, Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist, Novenson’s life and work are featured prominently.