Debra Band of Potomac is a scholarly artist of illuminated manuscripts of Jewish texts.
Descended from an eminent rabbinic family, her extensive studies of Jewish texts and research into medieval European and Middle Eastern painting and manuscripts inform her work. Her illustrations are celebrated for their intellectual and spiritual depth as well as visual beauty.
She considers herself “lefty” Modern Orthodox and belongs with her husband, Michael Diamond, a psychiatrist, to Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac.
What led to your interest in illuminated manuscripts?
The first thing I can remember as a small child was wanting to be a book illustrator. I read voraciously and painted from early, early, early. I did art classes through high school. I started college, it was the hippie days and everything was loosey goosey and you do what you feel. I wanted a formal, rigorous, classical training, which was not to be had at the school where I was at. So I dropped it all and studied medieval history, Jewish history and art history.
Then, when I was pregnant with my younger son, I started studying Hebrew calligraphy and discovered paper cutting, a Jewish art form dating back to the 13th century. Everything came together at once and I’ve never looked back. I’ve been doing this full time now for 33 years.
What inspires you about illuminated texts?
On a straight, visual level what’s illuminated about these manuscripts is most fundamentally the use of gold that brings light to the page. Then there’s a sensuous beauty to illuminated manuscripts. Beautiful calfskin vellum is what I use with wonderful gold and brilliant color. The way I go about it is on another more intellectual tack. I use the imagery in the artwork to convey many levels of subtle meaning and associations with whatever text I’m working on at the moment. One of my challenges since I’ve been doing this work has been to develop a new Jewish, visual, symbolic vocabulary.
How have illuminated manuscripts evolved in religious traditions?
Illuminated manuscripts are not unique to Judaism. The church has always had illuminated manuscripts since early medieval years. They had a very sophisticated visual vocabulary that was necessary because very few Christians until the modern era were literate. Jews were literate to a much higher degree so there wasn’t the same need for visual imagery. So in lot of illuminated manuscripts the imagery stayed at the level of either narrative or just sheer decoration.
What are you working on now?
For the past three years, I’ve been researching and illustrating Kohelet, which is the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s being done with an Israeli philosopher. We spend hours discussing the ideas in each chapter before I started to even think about painting it. It has 60 paintings. It’s not the standard typeset texts on one page and painting on the opposite page. They’re blended. The words are part of the artwork, which is commenting very intimately on the words in color.
I’m also finishing up a book of illuminations of a 16th century kabbalistic text with a famous scholar of Jewish mysticism and an astrophysicist at Harvard.
Tell us about your custom ketubot.
It’s always fun to work with different couples to find out about their lives and motivations and their real passions. I try to express those visually in the artwork. They come to me looking for something that’s extremely personal, much more about them that has some intellectual content. They really want someone who is going to work with them to pull out the ideas that impassion them.
What are your thoughts on contemporary Jewish art?
We’ve had, especially in Israel and America, this huge efflorescence of Jewish art, but I think, in large part, because relatively few of the artists have significant Jewish education, or have learned how to go into the text and encounter a lot of the very colorful rabbinic commentaries, the symbolism that I’ve seen stays at the level of candlesticks, challahs and Magen Davids.
Frankly, I don’t see any reason why most people who pick up my books should care about my own psychology. I think I’m interested in coming up with things that have a much more universal appeal and convey ideas that aren’t personal. ■
For more information about Band’s artwork, go to dbandart.com
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.