Will Deutsch: Swimming in the Deep End
Will Deutsch, Ahava (Love)
Don’t you just love it? We do too, and we decided to talk to Will more about this ketubah, his relationship to Jewish art, what American Jewry looks like, and why artists make art. Ketuv: Tell us about your Ketuv ketubah? Will Deutsch: This work was inspired by classic ketubot from around the world. The imagery of a Hamsa is a symbol of both protection and blessing. The pair of fish originated on ketubot in India as a symbol of fertility and a reference to Genesis 1:22 [“Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas”]. In Israel, a ketubah most commonly incorporates traditional Jewish imagery like the Star of David, which I’ve used to tie the composition at the bottom. The geometric patterns I’ve used are of Turkish origin from the time of the Ottoman empire. I’ve also incorporated fleurs and vine-like structures similar to the ones used in Persian and Italian ketubot. But the impetus of this document remained the same regardless of culture: Ahava, love.
K: What inspires you to make art? WD: I’ve been thinking a lot about why it is that I make art. In the beginning of the novel “High Fidelity” (also a major motion picture) the narrator asks, “Which came first, the misery or the music?” It is my belief that the misery comes first. This is not to say that all artists are miserable, but rather that the need to make work comes before the work itself. In order to explain the next part of my theory, I need to call upon another quote: “Life is a comedy to those who live it, and a tragedy to those who think about it.” In other words, if we were to think of life as a swimming pool, there are those on the shallower end, who look at things and don’t necessarily see their interconnections. They take things for exactly what they are and there is a peace to this, and swimming is easy. Then there are those on the deep end, who think about everything. Each thought connects to another thought, swimming on the deep end requires more effort, and existence becomes a heavy and at times burdensome thing. It is my belief that most artists/creative people of any sort begin with this ‘misery’ or rather, a way of seeing the world in which there is far more than what is in front of them. So the question becomes why do these individuals decide to create art? And I believe the answer is: Permission. There is a permission in art to express thoughts that might not otherwise be appreciated. For example, if I were depressed all the time and prattled on about it all day, people would get sick of hearing it. My feelings would not seem legitimate or be appreciated. But if I took these same feelings, and applied them to craft, and made a song, or a painting, or a performance, what once was trite now is profound and beautiful. By morphing these thoughts into crafted, aesthetic pieces of work they can be accepted, and validated. These thoughts, this work, life, essentially becomes meaningful. And thus creating is the only way to give an artist meaning. K: Who or what influences you? WD: In terms of aesthetics, I love Hebraic calligraphy, micrography, woodcuts and cartooning. As far as artists go I’d say Arthur Syzk, Al Hirschfeld, Dave Berg, Ken Garduno, Ralph Steadman, Koren Shadmi, Milt Gross, Humberto Ramos, Joe Madureira, Herbert Baglione and R. Crumb, to name a few. I also like sourdough dutch pretzels, banter and Jeff Goldblum.
Jewish American Princess
K: How does living in Los Angeles connect with your artwork? WD: I come from Orange County, which if you’re unfamiliar is a little shtetl about an hour south of Los Angeles where there are more strip malls than Jewish people [Ed note: that means there are a heck of a lot of both!]. Just living up here I feel completely awash in Jewish culture. When you make lots of illustrations about Jewish life, it is definitely influential in the images you choose to make.
K: Tell us about your vision for Judaica? WD: I grew up in the Orthodox community, and later, when my mother joined the Cantorate, the Conservative Jewish community. Regardless of denomination, nearly every Jewish house I went to had the same three defining aesthetics: 1) Chagall prints 2) Abstract 80’s metal wall sculpture and 3) Pictures of frum [observant] Jews dancing and/or playing some sort of Klezmer instrument (these were usually in or around the bathroom). In spite of its prevalence, none of this work spoke about the modern Jewish experience. In my family alone there is a Conservative Cantor, an observant Orthodox Jew, an atheist, and an agnostic; yet, all of us identify strongly as Jews. So I took it upon myself to make paintings that encapsulate the essence of what it is that ties us all together. The result is this ongoing collection of work I call “Notes from the Tribe.” The work ranges from traditional images of Klezmer musicians to Hebrew National Hot Dogs and male pattern baldness. I have no disdain for the aforementioned aesthetics. On the contrary I think they are defining part of our culture. My hope is to make a body of work that in the same way defines the intangible way that it feels to be Jewish.
Hebrew National Hot Dogs
K: We’re excited about your series “Notes From the Tribe.” How is the project progressing? Where and when does it end? WD: It’s going well. I’ve made right around 75 pieces so far. The work is meant to be looked at both individually and as a whole. While one person might tap into a certain image, it’s still meant to be seen as part of a larger body. I think this is analogous to the Jewish experience. We identify our own cultural experience in relation to others. I see my own experiences as part of a greater tapestry. As far as when it ends, I’m right now planning on making 124 total images on parchment, the length of two torahs.
K: On that note, Mazel Tov on your amazing Six Points Fellowship! The Fellowship seeks to encourage American Jewish art. What does being an American Jew mean to you? WD: Thank you so much! Well firstly, I’d say that my work is meant to function as a lens and not a pulpit. That is to say that the representations I create are not how I think all Jews should be or even how they are, but rather how I see it. I remember being asked in Hebrew school what it meant to be a Jew. Was it following Halakhah [Jewish law]? Was it simply being born to a Jewish mother? Was it having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? It seemed the only thing we could agree on was that would couldn’t agree upon a single definition. The idea was nebulous. This relates to the work I’m making today in that I can’t seem to ‘capture’ this concept. Rather, I can illustrate the things around this central idea that point to it. For example, if I make a work about blowing the shofar I could say that blowing the shofar is Jewish, but the inverse is not true: blowing the shofar does not encapsulate all of what being Jewish means to every person. So the more work I make, the stronger this central concept of Jewish Identity becomes. For some people it’s blowing a shofar, for some people it’s Matzo Ball soup, or summer camp or any number of things from feeling un-athletic to the first time they stood in front of the Western Wall.
The Deception of Isaac
K: Any words of wisdom for the artist who is applying for a grant, given your great success? WD: Be honest with yourself about what you are interested in making and exploring if you are given the resources, but also be ambitious in your vision. The most amazing thing about the Fellowship has really been the dialogue. The people I meet and the other artists I work with are so inspiring. You can find out more about Will Deutsch on his artist page, where you can also commission him for a custom ketubah, or buy his Ahava (Love) ketubah.