You Should Know… Rae Antonoff

Thinking small: Rae Antonoff makes art from Hebrew calligraphy
Thinking small: Rae Antonoff makes art from Hebrew calligraphy

For Rae Antonoff, a thousand words are worth a single picture. Micrography, also known as “microcalligraphy,” is the creation of Hebrew text that, at a distance, is perceived as an image: It is tedious, it is intricate, and it is also Antonoff’s specialty. The artist behind these illusionary designs is also a University of Maryland alumna with a degree in Jewish Studies and certificate in LGBT Studies.

Antonoff’s passion for Jewish studies and the arts surfaces in her collection, currently featuring 43 designs including Kiddush cups, mezuzot, candlesticks and wall art. Besides showcasing and selling her original pieces in galleries and online, the Los Angeles-based artist works with various Jewish schools, organizations and synagogues around L.A. to “deepen Jewish learning” through the arts as a guest instructor at schools, retreats and youth group day camps. Antonoff was the solo featured artist at an art gallery last year hosted by National Council of Jewish Women.

What led to your decision to major in Jewish studies at U.Md. and why did you go for a second degree in LGBT studies?

I wasn’t entirely certain what I wanted to do with a Jewish studies degree at the time, but I knew I wanted that to be my primary major from the moment I heard that such programs existed. I was local and regional religious and cultural vice president in NFTY [the Reform movement’s youth group] during high school and knew I wanted Judaism to play a large role in my future career, even if I wasn’t quite certain what that career would be yet.

I’ve been an advocate for LGBT rights since I was in high school, when I started going to rallies and YouthPride advocacy and peer-support events. I had an incredibly supportive social network when I came out as bi, mostly thanks to NFTY, but I knew many other teens didn’t have that advantage and I volunteered as much as I could with LGBT organizations. I discovered the certificate in LGBT studies when I took a class in the department to fulfill a credit requirement, thinking it might be interesting. The class surpassed my expectations so much I kept signing up for more in the department. The certificate gave me tools for working with the LGBT families at Beth Chayim Chadashim, the LGBT synagogue in L.A. where I teach in the Shabbat family program.

How have you synthesized your love of art and involvement in Jewish education?

My greatest passions are art, Judaism and education, and I jump at any excuse I get to combine the three. Fortunately, the Los Angeles area has a wide variety of Jewish organizational life, so there are plenty of opportunities here. I usually lead the group through an art project through which they can explore a Jewish value or concept. For instance, we’ll make mezuzot and a scroll to go inside while learning about the commandments within the Shema/V’ahavta, or make micrography representations of the prayers for a class siddur that exemplifies hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the commandment). I also have a few bar/bat mitzvah tutoring students, most of whose parents specifically sought me out to provide a more creative, art-based approach to b’nai mitzvah preparation.

How long have you been doing this kind of art?

I began doing micrography in the fall of 2011, when I was asked to substitute teach a unit on the city of Safed, Israel, and since micrography was invented there in the ninth century, I experimented with a simple micrography piece and taught the sixth-graders how to create their own. Soon after that, I got hit with a string of medical issues and had a few months of forced couch time, which I decided to fill by working on more micrography. I found it became increasingly meditative as I became more practiced at copying text in microscript. I slowly bought more pens to add to my collection, and even as my health issues calmed down a little, I set aside at least an hour a day to work on a piece.

How long does the entire process take you and what’s the most elaborate piece you’ve ever done?
Studying the text to decide on the imagery in the piece usually takes me a few days, and sketching the outlines takes two-to-three hours to complete. Filling in the text will take as little as five hours for simple designs with no background or as much as 55 hours) spent on “B’reishit,” a 14-by-17-inch piece filled with 32 chapters of Genesis in a detailed portrayal of the Garden of Eden, featuring 13 animals, five plants, and two people, Adam and Eve, each of which are mentioned by name in the Torah. I just bought bigger paper so I can attempt a piece that will fit all 50 chapters, but that may be a while before it’s ready to debut.

Antonoff's portrayal of the Garden of Eden
Antonoff’s portrayal of the Garden of Eden

Have you ever tried to micrograph in any language other than Hebrew?

I’ve completed one piece in English, a commission for a Shakespeare troupe in L.A. to auction off at their first fundraiser after achieving nonprofit status, which includes sections of Macbeth. I have plans for several more English pieces, including other Shakespeare plays and TV/film scripts, but most of my current portfolio is in Hebrew.

What’s the hardest part of micrography?

Color planning is probably the most frustrating: not only am I often wishing the Staedtler Aqua were half a shade darker or the micro sepia a little easier to blend with the other browns in a gradient, but the colors don’t always reproduce exactly as they are in the original, so I have to plan based on how my print shop can reproduce various shades. Light blues are the biggest thorn in my side, but at least reds are easy-breezy. Someday, I’ll find a lithographer that can reproduce my hues more exactly, but for now, my digital prints are limited to the tones a CMYK printer can mix.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Set aside a time every day for your art and stick to it. It doesn’t matter how busy you are, even just 10-15 minutes on the craziest days, but have a project going at all times and put some work into it every day. The only way you’ll improve your craft is to practice, and yes, 10 minutes a day counts as practice. Make it a priority along the lines of feeding a pet or brushing your teeth. Create something daily, even on the days that you feel totally uninspired, and before you know it, you’ll have a portfolio you can truly be proud of.

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